By Erin Sherbert
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Julaton called her grandmother and aunts to talk about her grandfather, who died in 2004. He had grown up in Pangasinan Province, the youngest of 13 children. Their parents were rice farmers, and he quit elementary school to work in the paddy fields. By the time he was 16, he decided to leave poverty and lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Army. With a physique similar to Julaton's, he boxed other servicemen as a southpaw (left-hander), and took his blows from racism, too.
After bringing his family to the Bayview in San Francisco in the late 1950s, Julaton's grandfather decided it was best that his children assimilate to thrive. In the 1970s, his son, Cesar, had a circle of mostly African-American and Chinese friends while attending what is now Burton High School, and put up with some berating from more recent Filipino immigrants for not speaking the language.
Julaton wrote a note to Pacquiao about her grandfather on the cover of a 2007 Premier Round magazine, on which she appeared with Laila Ali. "He doesn't necessarily understand how hard it was to live as a Filipino-American during a certain time," Julaton says. "[My parents] always told me how they couldn't choose what they wanted to do in life, which is why I want to give back to them and show all the hard work [that] led up to this: to be able to do what I want to do."
In the ring, Julaton wanted to win a world title. During her early pro fights, she alternated flying to Los Angeles for a couple of weeks to train with Roach with working out at home with Reyes and Filipino-American Rick Noble, known for coaching multiple world champion Carina Moreno from Watsonville. The camps preached diametrically opposite techniques: Reyes and Noble wanted her to use her height advantage and arm extension to strike, sniperlike, from a distance, while Roach wanted her to use the close-range tactics he had taught her.
After only five pro fights, Julaton got the chance to compete for her first title against Dominga "La Tormenta" Olivo for the vacant World Boxing Council International (WBC) championship. Olivo was a Dominican Republic–born, lead-fisted fighter from Brooklyn with a short but successful career against tough opponents.
Dropped into the ring at Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino in Lemoore, Calif., with competing orders, Julaton forced Roach's technique, getting close even when it didn't make sense, overthinking to the point she couldn't find a flow. "There were all these voices in my head," she recalled. "I'm thinking, which one should I follow?"
"I think she was trying too hard to impress me or the people that night," Roach said. "She got caught in the middle, trying to please everybody. We had a long talk after that, and I said to be herself and do what comes natural to herself."
Julaton and Roach parted amicably, and still talk on the phone. But after the humiliating loss in her short pro career, she thought it might be time to leave boxing for good.
For a year, Julaton went back to teaching and practicing martial arts at WestWind, during which she took yet another hit, injuring her knee. She underwent surgery and rehab, and as time went on, she started thinking about boxing again. Last summer, Reyes got on the phones, looking for another title match. The HP Pavilion in San Jose wanted to tap into the Filipino boxing fan base galvanized by Pacquiao, and promoters arranged for Julaton to fight for the vacant International Boxing Association title.
Julaton was matched against Kelsey "Road Warrior" Jeffries, a seven-time world champion from Gilroy who had never lost in the arena.
Because of her inexperience, Julaton was pegged as the underdog. But she had gained a valuable addition to her corner with renowned coach Nonito Donaire Sr., who prides himself on training fellow Filipinos — including his world champion son — but had not yet trained a woman. Donaire told Julaton that when the veteran fighter Jeffries realizes she's getting beat, she uses unorthodox techniques. Julaton felt ready. If she won, it would be a chance for redemption. If she lost, she was prepared to quit boxing.
From the first bell, Julaton looked relaxed, while Jeffries was jittery. By round four, Julaton was making her opponent miss consistently. Growing more flustered, Jeffries hit Julaton in the side of the head after the bell rang. Julaton played the dirty move to her advantage, holding up her arms as if to say, "What was that?" to the crowd, which booed wildly in response.
In the fifth, Jeffries missed a shot and head-butted Julaton, drawing blood. The crowd chanted, "A-na! A-na! A-na!" But Julaton was not thrown off her game, raising a glove to the crowd after the round. Through the remaining rounds, she continued to land punches as the two butted up against each other like rams.
At the end, Julaton stood in the ring to hear the first score: 96-94 Julaton. The second was a tie. She couldn't make out the third score above the crowd's yells, but the spry Donaire seized her left hand and threw it into the air. She was the world champion. Julaton's face contorted and she burst into tears, hugging Donaire and then Jeffries.