Jeanette Zacarias Zapata: Tragedy Hits Home

Jeanette Zacarias Zapata’s name hits close to home because she died in my hometown due to injuries sustained in her fourth-round knockout loss to Marie-Pier Houle on August 28 at IGA Stadium in Montreal. Zapata was only 18 with her whole life ahead of her, which only adds to the sting. 

Boxing is and always has been a filthy business, replete with avaricious managers and promoters whose objective is to maximize their profit off fighters’ backs. And unfortunately, there is no reason to think that will ever change. But in Zapata’s case, I can’t put all the blame on Groupe Yvon Michel, the promoter of the August 28th show. Still, there were warning signs. 

Zapata was 2-3 going into the bout with Houle, with two of those losses by stoppage. And after four fights in 2018, her first year as a pro, she was out of the ring for two and a half years. In her return, she was knocked out by undefeated Cynthia Lozano in Mexico. As per boxing’s concussion protocol, fighters need to wait 90 days after suffering a knockout before being cleared to fight again. Given that Zapata had been knocked out by Lozano on May 14, she made the cut with two weeks to spare. However, even if her medical documents were authentic and indicated that she was fit to compete, one has to ask: is three months enough time for the brain to heal? 

Dr. Dave Ellemberg, a neuropsychologist at the Université de Montréal, believes that the standard pre-fight medical tests may not be robust enough to rule out all conditions. “Typical clinical exams – scans, MRIs, EEGs – usually aim to detect damage associated with a life-threatening diagnosis, such as brain hemorrhage, swelling, or a large lesion,” explains Ellemberg. “CT scans do not detect lesions caused by concussions. Some types of EEGs can detect damage, but EEGs that are done in the clinic are usually not sensitive enough.”  Even though Zapata passed the pre-fight medical tests, those tests may not have been sensitive enough to detect underlying damage. 

If the athletic commissions increased mandatory wait time between bouts and required more sensitive imaging tests, fighters would conceivably be stepping into the ring with a lower risk of suffering a severe brain injury. If making those changes decreased the risk of injury by even 1%, they are worth implementing. But even if boxing involved stricter regulation, wherein fighter safety was paramount, there is no way to eliminate the inherent risks involved. The nature of the sport requires you to get punched in the head, and that fact will never change. Even if fighters enter the ring in as healthy a state as possible, once the opening bell rings, their brains and lives are subject to those risks. 

Fighters are aware of that when they choose to compete. Zapata said before her bout with Houle that, “I chose this career, and if I die this way, boxing in this bout, then I’ll die.” She decided to step into the ring to make an honest living for herself and her family; No one forced her to do so. She made the same choice that all fighters do,  believing that the potential reward will outweigh the risk. And ultimately, that is their choice to make. 

What happened to Jeanette Zacarias Zapata is awful, and as much as we hope it never happens again, it will. That’s the inevitability when brain damage is not merely the by-product of the sport but its primary goal. That doesn’t mean that boxing should be banned or that there isn’t beautiful artistry on display when it is at its best. It also means that we can’t take any fighters for granted, and we need to show them the respect they deserve. They step into the ring and put their lives on the line for our entertainment. To do so requires immeasurable courage that most of us could only dream of possessing. That’s something we can never forget. 

May Jeanette Zapata rest in peace. 

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