Using the platform available to him in 1963 as the folk generation’s preeminent protest anthem balladeer, Bob Dylan—who, it’s worth pointing out, was then and is now a boxing enthusiast—penned and began performing “Who Killed Davey Moore?” in which he pointed a justifiable finger in the face of those he held responsible for that year’s infamous ring fatality.
In not dissimilar fashion, the tragic fate of Jeanette Zacarias Zapata inspired critics, pundits, reporters, family, friends, and fight fans to immediately and understandably want to assign blame for the awful events of Montreal over the last two weeks.
The way promoter Yvon Michel and matchmaker Vincent Morin tell it, the story goes like this. An event organizer had been searching high and low and to no avail across the Canadian provinces as well as throughout the U.S. and Europe to find an opponent for their undefeated welterweight fighter, Marie-Pier Houle, to square off against on August 28 in Montreal. Not until they had exhausted all options on those fronts, and come up empty due to scheduling conflicts or Covid-related travel restrictions, did they send out feelers in Mexico where one lone individual, eighteen-year-old Jeanette Zacarias Zapata, readily agreed to accept their offer of $1,430 to come to Quebec and be their opponent.
Before we go any further, let’s stop for a moment and examine the word “opponent,” which is not so obviously defined as you might imagine. The casual observer would be excused for assuming that it is meant to categorize an evenly-matched adversary who will capably test the skills of a fistic peer. There are, as serious students of the fight game know all too well, typically two alternate interpretations of the term “opponent” in boxing parlance.
One would be a battle-tested veteran with a sturdy chin but a career record reflecting more loses than wins or glory days well behind them in the rearview mirror who will help a young up-and-comer get in some much-needed rounds with minimal risk of scoring an upset victory and doing damage to their public profile. The other description would allude uncharitably to a living, breathing punching bag all but guaranteed for a hot prospect to batter around in front of a hometown crowd, thus exponentially increasing his or her marquee value in the process.
Boxing is often referred to as the hurt business. Two words could not be more appropriately conjoined when discussing a combat sport wherein, all too frequently, avarice leaves little to no room for compassion. This is just one of boxing’s merciless truths, of which this story sadly contains too many.
The fact that Zapata was being mismatched against a foe thirteen years her senior in Canada—employed as human cannon fodder, if we’re being completely honest about it—is as regrettable as it was predictable when you contrast her suspect track record against Marie-Pier Houle’s upward trajectory. Scenarios of this kind are more than just common in boxing. They are not simply shrugged off, but accepted as part and parcel of an almost ritualistic trial by fire which provides more inexperienced combatants with the ultimate and most necessary test of fight or flight instincts.
If recent accounts are to be taken at face value, Jeanette not only acknowledged the risks involved before departing to Montreal for this fight, she did so in an eager and ebullient manner, totally committed to the sport she loved. Even when the evidence cruelly suggested that in no meaningful way did it reciprocate her affection.
So that his adolescent daughter might stand a fighting chance of defending herself while living in a country so shockingly rampant with violence against women, Jeanette’s father Esteban signed her up for boxing classes when she was twelve. Jeanette quickly became enamored with all aspects of the sport and, though it made her mother Irene understandably uneasy, she decided to pursue boxing as a vocation.
Bypassing the amateur ranks altogether, where she would unquestionably have benefitted from the opportunity to hone her mechanics over an extended period of time by engaging with girls of the same approximate age and skillset, Zapata had her first professional fight at the age of fifteen. Competing opposite a fellow novice by the name of Fernanda Camarillo, Jeanette won three of the four rounds, emerging victorious courtesy of a unanimous decision.
The outcome of her next two bouts, both occurring within seven months of her debut, would likewise be decided by the scorekeepers. A narrow loss to 2-3 Heidy Martinez—like Jeanette a resident of Aguascalientes—was followed by Zapata’s second win, this one a shutout over another fellow town folk by the name of Veronica Diaz Marin, who was 0-1 at the time and would coincidentally travel to Montreal, Canada ten months later where she would fall victim to a technical knockout at the hands of Marie-Pier Houle.
Jeanette’s final bout of 2018 was her first six-rounder, as well as the co-main event on a card held at the arena in Monterrey named for deceased WBC president, Jose Sulaiman. With five years of amateur experience behind her, Alma ‘The Conqueror’ Ibarra was a perfect 4-0 as a pro at that time and, at thirty years old, was fully twice Jeanette’s age. Having improved to 8-1 since then, Ibarra just recently defeated Kandi Wyatt in a WBA world welterweight title eliminator to become Jessica McCaskill’s mandatory challenger— one week prior to Jeanette Zapata’s fatal fight against Houle, in fact. To put it mildly, Ibarra and Zapata were operating on two different levels and Jeanette was stopped in the third round. Rumors circulated afterward with regard to the fight being allowed to proceed despite Ibarra weighing in over thirty pounds more than Zapata according to some claims. These could not be substantiated.
Not until two and a half years later did Zapata reenter the ring, to square off opposite Cynthia Lozano, a super-welterweight who boasted an unblemished record of 8-0 with 6 of those wins coming by way of knockout. Scheduled for six 3-minute rounds, the fight was less than half a minute from lasting the distance with Jeanette not only holding her own but leading on one judge’s scorecard and within one point of pulling even on another which would have earned her a stalemate. Instead, Lozano pummeled a clearly exhausted Zapata to the mat with twelve seconds left on the clock and celebrated her Hail Mary win while Jeanette lay stretched out for several minutes, clutching her head in obvious agony. Zapata was subsequently hospitalized where she was apparently made aware by doctors that surgery might be necessary to repair cerebral damage, the precise nature and severity of which have yet to be revealed.
Her mother had seen enough, expressing that she “didn’t like it anymore and asked her to stop.” Determined to forge ahead with the understanding that she was unfit to fight, Jeanette’s response before heading to Canada supposedly was, “I chose this career and if I die in this attempt boxing like that, I will die.”
Per boxing’s concussion protocol, any fighter who suffers a knockout must serve a mandatory 90-day suspension from ring activity. Whether or not this waiting period is sufficient—and it warrants debate now more than ever—it fails to take training and sparring sessions under consideration as there is no realistic method of monitoring such activities. The requisite time frame had elapsed—just barely, with a mere two weeks to spare—between Jeanette being rendered unconscious by Cynthia Lozano and her scheduled bout with Marie-Pier Houle.
The Quebec Alcohol, Lottery, and Gambling Commission is also tasked with overseeing combat sports staged in the province and administered the standard medical examinations, all of which Zapata passed. How thorough or rigorous such tests may be is one of the matters being looked into, and it goes without saying that her doctor’s findings were not divulged to the commission according to the current narrative.
Always protective of his little girl, Jeanette’s father Esteban had attended all of her previous fights but was unable to accompany her to Canada due to having insufficient time to renew his expired visa. Her husband Jovanni Martinez, who was also Jeanette’s trainer and would once more be working her corner, was the only loved one to make the trip. Having to settle for a long-distance call from Jeanette shortly after the weigh-in, which she assured them went just fine, Esteban and his wife Irene would have to watch helplessly from home on a laptop as their teenaged daughter faced off against a thirty-one-year-old undefeated fighter with two years spent in amateur ranks where she had scrapped her way to the 2017 Canadian Amateur Championship finals.
Marie-Pier Houle has a promising future in the welterweight division, her star rapidly ascending thanks in part to the navigation of promoter Yvon Michel who also guides the careers of Marie-Eve Dicaire, who tussled with Claressa Shields in a PPV super-welterweight unification bout this past March, and undefeated light-flyweight Kim Clavel, who fought on ESPN last summer and headlined the ill-fated August 28 show at Montreal’s IGA tennis stadium by outpointing Maria Soledad Vargas in a contest to decide the claimant of a vacant secondary WBC belt. As she continues her climb up the welterweight rungs, Houle has thus far been hand-fed a steady diet of predictably subpar challengers by Michel which is far from uncommon for a boxer whose professional career is still in its nurturing stage.
Curiously though, three of her four previous opponents had also been selected to come to Canada from Mexico bringing, among them, a combined record of 7-8-1 with stoppages accounting for five of those defeats. Coincidental or not, this may perhaps suggest a matchmaking pattern of sorts which one would hope, except in the most condemnatory cases of hindsight, is not somehow predatory in intent. It has since been open to debate whether tracking down Jeanette Zacarias Zapata, an unseasoned young woman three months removed from a vicious knockout, was truly the result of a desperate yet earnest last-ditch effort or a deliberate seek and destroy mission. Another, even more uncomfortable question must also be grappled with. Given Zapata’s prior knowledge, and apparent disregard, of the imminent risk to her well-being, how complicit is she in her own death?
In a scene eerily reminiscent of the conclusion to her fight against Cynthia Lozano fifteen weeks prior, Jeanette was backed into a corner near the end of round four by Marie Pier-Houle who, once she had her adversary trapped against the ropes, let rip with a barrage of unanswered punches which sent Zapata into convulsions before she had sunk to the canvas. Her horrified mother and father watched this terrible tragedy unfold in real time from their living room 3,000 miles away. They were later contacted by Montreal’s Sacre-Coeur Hospital to obtain their permission to perform emergency surgery which would drain the blood applying life-threatening pressure on their daughter’s swollen brain.
The doctors were allegedly asked by her family to wait, and the operation seemed as if it might not be necessary, as Jeanette’s condition stabilized on its own for a time while in a medically-induced coma. However, her blood pressure began fluctuating dangerously throughout the course of five days spent in the intensive care unit, which were sleepless ones for Esteban and Irene, needless to say. Zapata took a dramatic turn for the worse and passed away in the late afternoon hours of September 2, her husband Jovanni by her side.
Marie-Pier Houle, very rattled by the tragic turn of events, expressed her remorse and condolences, as well as a desire for privacy while she undoubtedly wrestles with her emotions, in a brief statement via social media. A coroner’s inquest, with which the Alcohol, Lottery, and Gambling Commission and promoter Yvon Michel have both pledged to cooperate to the fullest extent, has been initiated by Quebec’s Minister of Public Safety, Geneviève Guilbeault.
Bob Dylan’s song was never intended to find fault with any one individual or produce an easy answer to who killed Davey Moore. It was a blanket indictment of everyone involved in an often corrupt sport that asks its participants to risk everything for the potential to obtain varying levels of reward and sometimes collects that toll in the most awfully non-refundable sense imaginable.
The purpose of the Canadian investigation, of course, is to hold all parties under suspicion accountable for the senseless, avoidable death of Jeanette Zacarias Zapata. More than others, some are without question to be considered blameworthy. But the honest truth is that we’re all a little guilty, aren’t we? No one should look at their reflection in the mirror and pretend to be above reproach. Every one of us failed this poor young woman in one way or another. May she rest in peace and her death be our shared burden, a call to conscience.
If hers is to be a cautionary tale, let Jeanette’s life story at least bring about some measure of resolution in the form of stricter regulations, more intensive medical examinations, and an all-pervasive empathy that allows those who comprise the boxing community at large to look upon one another as fellow human beings rather than faceless opponents.
Jaime Porras Ferrayra. Dead for $1,430: The Fate of Mexican Boxer Jeanette Zacarias (El Pais, September 7, 2021)
Beatriz Pereyra. The Short and Reckless Career of Jeanette Zacarias: “And If I Die Boxing, That’s How I’m Going to Die” (Proceso, September 5, 2021)
Random Hits. Alma Ibarra Ready for Her Big Break in World Title Eliminator (Boxing Scene, August 20, 2021)