Backed into a corner of the ring, Jeanette Zacarias took a jab to the chin, then a hook to the temple. She held up her pink gloves to deflect a storm of punches until a feeble attempt at a counterattack left her open to a devastating blow that snapped her head back like a rubber band.
Seconds later, Zacarias began to convulse, her right arm shaking between the ropes as her opponent curtsied for the crowd in victory. As a medic tended to her, she fell to the floor unconscious. Five days later, she died.
The death of Zacarias, an 18-year-old Mexican boxer who’d traveled to Montreal for the fight on August 28, has raised questions about whether she should have been medically cleared to fight. “There’s always a lot of indignation when there’s a fatal accident or terrible situation in boxing,” said Salvador Rodríguez, a sports journalist in Mexico City and host of the ESPN Mexico show “KnockOut.”
“People think she shouldn’t have fought after having been knocked out about 100 days before the fight she had in August,” added Rodríguez.
In May, Zacarias, who was known as “Chiquitaboom,” or “Little Boom,” was knocked out in the sixth and final round of a fight in northern Mexico. Video of the bout shows her growing increasingly disoriented as her opponent delivered the final blows before she fell to the mat. She was later transferred to a hospital to be examined, but she was released that same night.
Nevertheless, she was suspended by the local boxing commission from competition for 90 days. This is 60 days more than the mandatory minimum medical leave ordered after suffering a knockout, Christian Garduño, president of the boxing commission in Zacarias’s home state of Aguascalientes, told VICE World News.
For many, however, it wasn’t enough. “In one way or another, there was a precedent that told us that it was dangerous for her to continue in boxing,” said Rodríguez, echoing the sentiment that has been at the center of widespread news coverage and commentary since her death. Furthermore, boxers aren’t supposed to train during a medical suspension, but it’s likely she violated that prohibition because she competed so soon after the suspension ended.
Zacarias’s longtime trainer and manager, Luis Cruz, sees things differently. A former professional boxer, Cruz first met Zacarias when she was 11 and her father signed her and her brother up for boxing classes at the gym he owns. “Their father enrolled them not with the intention that they would become professional boxers but so that they would learn self-defense,” said Cruz.
Over the next few years, Zacarias, a welterweight, demonstrated what Cruz called “an innate talent for boxing,” eventually turning pro with her father’s permission due to the lack of development opportunities for amateurs in Mexico. In 2018, she won her first fight as a professional by unanimous decision. She lost twice before winning another victory that year. She didn’t fight again professionally until this May, when she was knocked out for the first time.
Cruz told VICE World News that medical exams following the fight in May didn’t reveal any cause for concern, nor did a brain scan or MRI that she underwent in order to be permitted to return to the ring. Furthermore, he said, she was aware of the risk. “Everyone who gets into the ring knows that there is a risk of an accident,” he said.
“They say that football is violent, or that hockey is violent, but the end game of those sports is to put the puck in the net or carry the ball into the end zone. In boxing, the end game is to cause the most damage possible to your opponent,” added Cruz.
As soon as she recovered from the May bout, she reportedly told her father and her trainer that she wanted to fight again. “I chose this career, and if I die in this attempt to box, then that’s how I die.”
Her mother told El País that she had wanted her daughter to quit boxing after that injury but “she wanted to continue. It was her decision, and as parents we must respect her decision and give her our blessing,” said Irene Zapata Silva.
In the end, the allure of a chance to fight abroad, earning as much as ten times what she would back home, and the opportunities that would have come her way had she won seem to have outweighed the risks. “If Jeanette had won, imagine what that would have done for her career,” said Cruz. She would have risen in the global rankings and had opportunities for a higher profile and more lucrative fights.
For Zacarias, it was likely less about the money than the prestige. Boxing is a very popular sport in Mexico, in part because it is one of the few in which Mexicans have risen to become world champions, etching their names into history. “It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor,” said Cruz.
“You box to achieve goals that even being rich you might not reach, such as fame or global celebrity.”