Having to miss his last scheduled fight was tough for the undefeated Puerto Rican junior middleweight Alex Zayas.
In June, Zayas was scheduled to face Ravshan Hudaynazarov at the Hulu Theater in Madison Square Garden in a card he would co-headline with Edgar Berlanga as part of the Puerto Rican Day parade celebrations in New York City.
Instead, he had to sit out due to a non-COVID respiratory illness, and now he’s gearing up to face Elias Espadas (22-4, 15 KOs) as the co-main event on the Teofimo Lopez card. -Pedro Campa which takes place this Saturday, August 13 and will stream live on ESPN, ESPN Deportes and ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT from Resort World Las Vegas.
“It was something that didn’t let me swallow or breathe,” Zayas (13-0, 9 KO) said in a phone interview, describing the mysterious condition that sidelined him in June. “My body was really tired and I couldn’t function at all. My team decided it wouldn’t be healthy for me to get in the ring, and I accepted that. At first it was very difficult to accept that, but I also know that it is part of the job, part of my growth, and that you have to grow slowly, step by step in order to move forward.
Missing out on all the momentum the fight would have created for Zayas was a blow, but more so for the many fans who want to see him become the next big thing in the long tradition of this boxing-mad island.
“This fight meant a lot, not just to me but to everyone. boricuas. Everyone on the island expected this fight. But it was not in my power to do so. And I know people will look forward to my fight on August 13 with the same expectation, to see me win and get another win for my people.
Making a list of the next possible big Puerto Rican boxing hero certainly evokes a lot of heartbreak for those enthusiastic fans. One by one, people like Thomas Dulorme or Felix Verdejo ended up missing that train, and the emergence of any new young talent with a venomous punch and a smile of gold always brings back memories of the great Tito Trinidad, with the question of who will be the next in this line.
Zayas would love to step on these shoes someday, but he’s not confusing a dream with a post-dated check at this point. He’s taking his own road one step at a time, always focused on what got him here.
“What makes me different is that my hunger is still there,” Zayas said. “It’s the same hunger I had since day one. My goals have been the same since day one, and my family and team have kept me on track towards that goal ever since. This will not change in my career. For some reason these fighters couldn’t get to the next level or where people thought they would be, but I’m still focused on my same goals and my hunger still drives me.
“Knowing where I’m from is what keeps me focused. Knowing all the sacrifices my family has made to get me to this point. Keeping all of that in mind and knowing that I’m not even half “Way where I want to be is what keeps me hungry and motivated. It’s what will open doors for me to greater things in boxing.”
Getting his people behind him in this effort will force him to fight in front of his audience more often. So far, he’s only had one fight as a pro in Puerto Rico, but he’s aiming for more in the near future as he gets closer to his dream title fight.
“Of course, I feel the need to do it. I have to go back and fight. I only did it once, in my third or fourth fight, and the energy I felt in that moment was great, it was huge. And I imagine it now, I imagine coming back and putting on a show for my island of Puerto Rico. We want to do it, it is in our plans for the future, but I am convinced that it can be done and it will be done.
When (and if) that happens, his local fans will likely see a brand new Zayas in action. The island’s superb boxing school relies on a more technical approach, the same that produced the likes of Wilfred Benitez and so many others. But upon moving to the United States, Zayas had to incorporate other elements that only added greater dimension to his style.
“In Puerto Rico you have to box more. Using ring, angles, sides. Here you have to be more aggressive,” said Zayas, who moved to Florida shortly after signing with Top Rank to pursue his career. “When I came to the United States I needed to learn that, and it helped me decide when to box or when to be more aggressive, when to apply my speed or my power. I think it’s a great combination I have now, it makes me a better fighter and it continues to add levels to my game.”
Being the youngest prospect to embark on a professional career with the Las Vegas-based promotional team also had its downsides. The lack of a solid and long amateur career could have been a factor, but Zayas felt he had already cleaned up the competition in a place where the level of opposition is consistently high.
“Amateur experience is important, but I managed to fight the best fighters on the island in that time. There were no easy opponents there. That’s what took me to the next level. And even then, I was fighting with the best professional fighters, guys who always put pressure on me. People who teach me how to get to where they are. And I think that’s one of the most important parts of my career, being focused and learning that there’s no limit to what I can do in this sport.
Limits or not, there are roadblocks in Zayas’ career, and the most immediate is on him. With all the worries and issues of his cancellation already in the past, Zayas thinks he’s more than up to the challenge.
“We are ready for August 13. We made all the adjustments we needed. We know our adversary. We know he comes motivated and ready to fight. He’s going to get the best out of us. Really, the fact that my last fight was canceled was an opportunity for me to keep improving, and I’m going to show that on August 13th.
“(Espadas) is a Mexican warrior, a veteran of 26 fights. He’s fought many times in 8 or 10 rounds, so he’s been there before. I know him and he’s a great guy outside the ring, but there are no friends in this business. August 13 is me and my family against his, and I will do everything in my power to keep my family afloat. He comes to fight very motivated, it’s a great opportunity for him and for me. But I know when to seize my opportunities, and this will be no exception.
With a co-main event against a seasoned foe coming up, a world title fight seems like a distant dream at this point, but Zayas has already hatched a plan to make it happen and thinks he’s on the right track.
“I I’m all about my August 13 fight, but I’m sure by mid to late 2023 I should be in the conversation for that world title fight. This is what we anticipate and look forward to. We are working hard to make this a reality.
“I’m not going into this fight with any pressure to try to learn something. If I can knock him out in the first round, I will. I am here to follow the advice of my corner and achieve victory, however it comes. The only thing I can tell you is that I will emerge victorious. I will tell you after the fight if my expectations have been met.
Diego M. Morilla has been writing for The Ring since 2013. He has also written for HBO.com, ESPN.com and numerous other magazines, websites, newspapers and other media since 1993. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has won two first place awards at the BWAA’s annual writing competition and is the moderator of The Ring’s Women’s Evaluation Panel. He was copy editor for the second era of The Ring en Español (2018-2020) and is currently a writer and editor for RingTV.com. Follow him on Twitter @MorillaBoxing