Inductee Hilario Zapata – Panama’s Hilario Zapata is remembered as one of the fighters with the most championship rounds ever fought, and his accomplishments in the rings may exceed that already extraordinary achievement. But he has always kept his true goal close to his heart.
“The thing I wanted to do the most, the first thing I told to every writer who ever interviewed me was: ‘I have to become greater than Roberto Duran, because he was always winning, and I was winning my fights too, and (Eusebio) Pedroza was winning and we all had a competition going,” said Zapata, a former two-division champion who will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY, this coming Sunday. “That was my motivation in boxing. And now that I have entered the Hall of Fame, I finally matched his accomplishment. Roberto is there, I am there now, and for me it is a source of pride to be next to him.”
Not only will the legendary Duran, arguably the most popular and best Latin American fighter ever, be next to Zapata in the growing list of legends inducted into the Hall of Fame, but Duran will also be literally at his side on Sunday to be the first one to congratulate him. Their healthy neighborhood rivalry for street bragging rights and title belts is long behind them now, and they have found a common ground as compatriots, as former fighters, and now as legends.
Zapata, who was named “The Sparkplug” in his heyday due to his lightning speed and jerky, sudden movements in the ring, was born in El Chorrillo, the same Panamanian slum in which Duran woke up every day determined to leave the place behind. And they both did. But first, the mean streets of the old barrio taught them lessons that they never forgot, and made them who they are today.
“I was a street brawler,” reminisces Zapata, talking about his rough childhood. “I was always fighting in school and in the streets. Not a day went by at school in which I didn’t fight. I used to defend other people, and find any excuse to fight. Until it came to a point where I said ‘I am not defending anyone else, if they want me to fight for them I have to get paid’,” said Zapata who rapidly figured out how to set up a reasonable fee structure that every one of his friends in distress could afford when it came to request a whooping to one of their foes.
“If someone wanted me to beat a guy who wasn’t much bigger than me, that was 25 cents. That’s what I charged. If the guy was bigger, it was 50 cents. That was a lot of money back then. And then I started as an amateur and had a great run”, he said, claiming about 175 amateur fights to his credit with only three losses. “And when I became a professional I had one goal in mind, which was to become a world champion, and I got it.”
And he did it with a victory in Japan against Shigeo Nakajima in what was only his 12th professional bout, and his third one abroad. An accomplishment worthy of consideration, indeed, if only because it became merely the start of a legendary run in which he held the light flyweight title twice and the flyweight title as well, becoming second on the list of the most championship rounds ever fought with 304, right behind Emile Griffith’s 310. And he did it with a highly technical boxing style that allowed him to jump in and out of danger while connecting continuously with both hands from his awkward southpaw stance, always staying unpredictable and dangerous.
None of those goals, however, were there at the beginning of his career, when his one obsession had a name that he still mentions with a mix of reverence and veiled envy.
“When Duran lost his first fight and it became a competition between Pedroza and me, I thought ‘I have to keep up anyway, because Cholo will come back and he’ll be breathing on my neck again’. And of course, Cholo got back in the game and became champion again, and then I lost my title, but I worked hard to regain my title and I did, and said ‘I have to go on, because I must one-up Duran’, that was my wish. I wanted to be great, like Cholo, and even better. For me, this was an incentive to achieve everything I achieved, because everything I did in my career I did it to try to beat Roberto Duran.”
With Duran already in his fold as a friend and ally, the only remaining goal in Zapata’s career became to catch up with his two former enemies by earning the one honor that had been denied to him so far: the induction into the Boxing Hall of Fame.
That frustration ended with a call from WBA president Gilberto Mendoza.
“’Hilario, are you ready for the news?,’” recalls Zapata, when asked about how Mendoza told him about his induction. “He said ‘you got into the Hall of Fame’ and I started laughing with joy, so much so that even my hair was messed up, I looked like a cat. I said ‘no way, you’re lying’, but it was true, and my heart was beating fast and I was so excited. I was nominated on 17 occasions for the Hall of Fame, and I didn’t expect to enter this time. It wasn’t just the time I expected to be elected; it was the moment in which God wanted me to be inducted. It was now, and I thank God for this privilege.”
After giving the deities their due, it was time to call the IBHOF and express his gratitude
“I told him how excited I was to be in the same place of honor with Roberto Duran, with Panama Al Brown, that great boxer we had, Ismael Laguna, Eusebio Pedroza, and other glories,” recalls Zapata about his brief phone conversation with IBHOF director Ed Brophy. “And now it is my turn, I am the fifth Panamanian to be inducted”.
He is also a part of a group of three 2016 inductees that share the common trait of being proud Latino fighters representing different Central American countries.
“This is a great situation, because all three of us are very deserving of this honor”, said Zapata, about his fellow inductees. “Lupe Pintor is an excellent boxer and former champion, a warrior like all Mexicans. And what can we say about Macho Camacho? A man who acted crazy, but in all his craziness he had great fights. I am happy for him, even though he won’t be with us to celebrate that, but I feel happy to be honored alongside those two great fighters that are Lupe and Macho.”
Today, Zapata lives in Panama City and works at the headquarters of the Banco Hipotecario, a mortgage banking institution, as a messenger and mailroom attendant, living a quiet life with his wife and surrounded by friends. But his transit to a non-boxing life was marred by the usual problems that prizefighters have endured when making this adjustment.
“After my fight with (Amado Ursua), I made a mistake that no one should make. I got into drugs, but I finally made it out of that world. My career went down and up, and up and down again. At one point I felt that my work of so many years was going to be lost, and I had to decide between drugs and boxing, and unfortunately took the wrong path.”
Later, in more desperate times, he sought refuge in the word of the Lord, and he found the solace he craved for and a new chance to get his life back on track.
“I asked God for forgiveness, and I made a pact with God that remains unbroken up to this day. He has blessed me with His guidance,” said Zapata, who claims to be 16 years sober.
Aside from his job and his family life, Zapata runs a boxing program called “No to drugs, yes to sports,” in which youngsters compete for a special title created by Zapata and with the support of the Panamanian government, his fellow boxers and others who have gone through his same situation.
“I do this with the notion that the fighters have to understand the problem of drugs, because they are invited to listen to former addicts and alcoholics as part of the event, and they give testimony about how my life was and how I was able to overcome this situation,” said Zapata.
Editor’s note: Diego Morilla writes from Argentina. Tomorrow he catches up with fellow IBHOF inductee Lupe Pintor. Check The Boxing Channel for our continued coverage of Hall of Fame Weekend direct from Canastota.
Inductee Hilario Zapata