Tuesday, May 28, 2024  |


Best I Faced: Hilario Zapata

Hilario Zapata (foreground left) and Roberto Duran
Fighters Network


Hilario Zapata was a slick defensive master whose style was a nightmare for all who faced him. During his 16-year career, he won world titles in two weight classes, regularly defending them all over the world, despite battling personal demons.

Life for Zapata began in the notorious El Chorrillo district of Panama City, the same neighborhood that spawned Roberto Duran. Zapata was from a large family; he had six brothers and two sisters. When he was around six years old, his family moved to a new part of town called San Miguelito.

It was there, as a 12-year-old, the diminutive youngster entered a boxing gym for the first time. However, it was anything but love at first sight.

“I was fighting so ugly, that after the sparring session, the trainer took the gloves off me and said, ‘Go home; you’re no good for this.'” Zapata told RingTV.com through Hector Villarreal.

Unperturbed, Zapata visited another gym, this time by the coast, where a cache of fighters including Duran and Eusebio Pedroza were learning their trades. Zapata credits this gym with kick-starting his career.

After just one amateur bout, Zapata entered the ultra-competitive Panamanian Golden Gloves. Early in the competition, he met Hector Carrasquilla, who was very well-regarded at the time. Despite losing, Zapata made an impression on noted manager Luis Espada – who worked with several prominent Panamanian fighters.

All told, Zapata won five National titles before exiting the amateur scene with an impressive record of 172-3, only losing once in Panama. Interestingly, he didn’t give fighting at the 1976 Olympics much thought. He simply fought and left the rest to Espada, who, by now, was guiding his career.

In the fall of 1977, “Bujia” (or “Spark Plug”) made his pro debut. He moved quickly and, within two-and-a-half years, he challenged and beat Shigeo Nakajima for the WBC junior flyweight title in Japan, by hard fought 15-round decision.

The tricky southpaw was extremely active and made eight successful defenses against Nakajima in a rematch (TKO 11), Joey Olivo (TKO 13) and German Torres (UD 15) before his championship tenure was abruptly curtailed two years later when he opted to engage heavy-handed Mexican slugger Amado Ursua in a firefight and was quickly knocked out in two rounds.

In light of the disappointment, Zapata first turned to drugs to help pick his spirits up. Due to shrewd management, he was able to procure a second title opportunity just five months later.

“At that time, Ursua wasn’t my mandatory challenger,” he explained. “My manager was very smart. He made options in the contract. If I lost, I had to get a rematch within one or two fights. Ursua lost the title (two months later to Tadashi Tomori) but then I had to fight the winner (Tomori). I was lucky to get that type of management and not have to wait years.”

Again, Zapata traveled overseas and was victorious, besting the game Japanese champion by split decision to begin his second reign.

Just a couple of months later, Zapata dusted off his passport and headed to South Korea to defend his title against Jung-Koo Chang. The Panamanian handed his fellow future Hall-of-Famer his first pro defeat by close split decision. Zapata then stopped Tomori in a rematch before facing Chang a second time. On this occasion, Zapata was weight drained and lost his belt by third round stoppage.

“The first time I faced Chang, I couldn’t tell how good he was against the other fighters but against me,” he explained. “I felt I dominated the first fight very easy. I knew I was winning on points, despite fighting in South Korea.

“The second time I went to the fight, I had weight problems. I took the fight because my manager told me, “We have to fight,” and, at the weigh-in, I was overweight. My manager Luis Espada told the Koreans, “What else do you want? I am giving you a dead fighter. He’s going to lose anyway, so accept the fight.” And then they accepted the fight.

“In good condition, I knew I’d win easily the second time. I can’t measure the Korean fighter because of his record or being a Hall-of-Famer because he was fighting at home every time. It’s not like me; I went to Korea, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, United States, Colombia, Venezuela.”

He returned later that year in an ill-advised fight at bantamweight and was stopped by the respected Harold Petty.

While some may have thought that would be the last we’d see of Zapata, he knew he had another title run in him and dropped to a much more sensible 112 pounds. After four wins, his influential manager was able to get his fighter a title shot.

“I was ranked number one by both the WBA and WBC. My manager, who was from Argentina but lived in Panama, got me the chance to face Santos Laciar, who was Argentinean,” he said openly. “I told him, ‘Please it is too soon,’ but, at that time, I was starting my drug problem and I went to Argentina and lost. I wanted longer to prepare and I was using drugs. I lost by decision in Argentina.”

Three wins followed before Laciar abdicated his throne, paving the way for Zapata to meet Alonzo Gonzalez in October of 1985 – in a bizarre turn of events, Zapata had outpointed Gonzalez seven months previous. He repeated the win, this time over the 15-round route.

“I won the fight with one hand. I got in trouble with the police,” he explained. “I got hit on the hand with a truncheon (billy club) and fought with a broken right hand. I wasn’t totally recovered when I faced Gonzalez. He had only a punch, no style. I won the fight easily and became champion at 112 pounds.”

Over the next 15 months, once again, Zapata took to the road and made five defenses before losing the title to Fidel Bassa, amid spurious scenes in Colombia.

“It wasn’t a fair fight,” said Villarreal, a renowned Panamanian journalist, who attended the fight working a local radio station. “When Zapata was on the ropes, people from outside the ring held his legs. A welterweight Tomas Molinares (later famed for knocking Marlon Starling out, only for the fight to be declared a no-contest because the punch landed after the bell) hit, cut and knocked Zapata out.

“They had to wait for Zapata to recover to continue the fight. If that happens, the local fighter has to be disqualified but the referee (Ernesto Magana) was scared. He said, ‘If you don’t continue the fight, I will say you quit and you will lose.’ Espada proved that Molinares hit him and some people were holding his boots, so Zapata got a rematch in Panama.”

That took place six months later. Despite dropping Bassa and the Colombian having a point taken, the fight was declared a draw. Locals didn’t take too kindly to the result and threw glass bottles of beer at the ring. When Villarreal sought sanctuary under the ring, he found an estimated 25 people already there, including Bassa and his manager Billy Chams. They remained there for an hour and the two fights scheduled after the championship fight had to be canceled.

By then, Zapata was starting to really struggle with drugs and his prime was behind him. He didn’t fight for 16 months and, when he returned, he lost twice.

He won several fights to earn a shot at WBC junior bantamweight titlist Sung Kil Moon in February 1993, though was easily stopped in one round. Zapata decided to retire from boxing with a record of 43-10-1 (14 knockouts) and a highly impressive ledger of 18-5-1, (4 KOs) in world title bouts, more than any other Panamanian in history. Of the 24 world title bouts, only seven took place in Panama, illustrating his impressive ability to win time and time again on the road and on points.

However, in retirement, drugs took hold of his life. Zapata became addicted to cocaine, marijuana and crack. His life was falling apart.

“I lost my wife and family. I had a house but I was selling everything for drugs,” he said solemnly. “I lost the house and the authorities took me out of there. I had to sleep on the streets for many years.”

The Panamanian government unsuccessfully sent Zapata twice to Cuba to rehabilitation. Finally after 18 years of substance abuse – during his career and life afterward – Zapata beat his demons.

“I decided to change and it was the only way it would happen,” he said. “I needed the strongest force to get out of that situation and I found that in Jesus Christ and, since my conversion to religion, I have been 16 years out of drugs, alcohol and smoking.”

His old rival Carrasquilla was making a name for himself in politics and didn’t forget Zapata.

“He rescued me,” said a grateful Zapata. “He gave me what I need to restart my life.”

Unsurprisingly, Zapata says his greatest victory wasn’t inside a boxing ring: “When I think about a big victory, I don’t think of boxing. Beating drugs was my best victory.”

In June 2016, Zapata became the fifth Panamanian boxer to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

“When I started my career, I always wanted to be as great as Roberto Duran. He is the greatest fighter from this country and maybe of Latin America. And now I am joining him as one of the immortals in Panamanian sport.” he said proudly.

Zapata, now 58, is remarried and has five children from both marriages. He has remained clean since 2000. Thankfully, he is enjoying life again and works a day job for the local government as a driver for the General Manager. He also intends to run for Presidency of the National Olympic Boxing Federation ahead of the next Olympic Games.

He graciously took time to speak to RingTV.com about the best he fought in 10 key categories.






Joey Olivo: Joey Olivo had an advantage in reach over me and he gave me trouble in the early rounds because it’s not only the reach; he knew how to use his jab. It took me a couple of rounds to solve the situation and counter-punch the jab of Joey Olivo.





Rudy Crawford: The Nicaraguan guy who fought me in San Francisco. I was used to being the guy with the good defense, not to have an opponent with a good defense, so it represented an interesting match for me. After I found a way to get through that defense, things became easier for me in the late rounds.


Alberto Castro: I felt like I always had the speed advantage in all my fights. (Of my opponents) Alberto Castro, a Colombian guy, who was training here (was the fastest). I always knew Alberto Castro was a hard puncher but hard punchers are not often fast guys and he was very fast and strong in the first round and cut my eyebrow and that’s why I remember him. It represented a problem for me in that fight.




Jung-Koo Chang: A Korean guy, who I fought twice in my career. The first time I faced him I noticed his movement was very good and I had to start using a strategy of how I would fight myself. It was like fighting in a mirror in the first fight in Korea. The second time was different.





Shigeo Nakajima: I took the title from Nakajima but I proved Nakajima had a very good chin. I feel like I punched his chin very often and strongly but (achieved) nothing. He didn’t move.





Fidel Bassa: He’s so smart. He became a successful businessman and he’s a rich guy in Colombia now. He owns libraries and sells books. Every time I was ready to attack Bassa and start my combinations, he used to take one step back and it took me some rounds to try to adjust to that movement and step forward to try to start using my usual strategy.


Castro: All around very strong. At that time, we weren’t fighting 12 rounds, we were fighting 15 rounds and, during the 15 rounds the Colombian was attacking, I knew I was winning the fight because I was punching the guy more often but I never hurt the guy. I won on points. Through the 15 rounds, his punch was strong.


Castro: That guy Alberto Castro! (laughs) Not even “Panterita” Ursua, who knocked me out. I went to a crazy fight. I didn’t even see the punch and the punch you don’t see, that’s the one that’s going to knock you out but Alberto Castro, I could see the punches. I was prepared. I really felt the punches. For sure, If I had fought Castro like I fought Ursua, I would have got knocked out. I knew I wasn’t a puncher. I knew I was going 15 rounds. We had a war every round.


It’s difficult to tell one skilled fighter because I was always the skilled fighter. I faced fighters from different countries, Philippines, Japan, Thailand. I had to face different styles. I cannot measure everyone the same. I made different strategies, being the technical fighter. Depending on the opposition I fought, I changed the plan every time.


Castro: The best fighter I faced was Alberto Castro. He was such a good fighter and I faced him twice. After the first fight, he said, “I want a rematch,” and I said, “You deserve the rematch and I will give it to you.”


Hector Villarreal helped co-ordinate and translate this feature. RingTV.com appreciated his assistance.




Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected] and you can follow him on Twitter @AnsonWainwright.





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