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On a gray February morning, a crew from ESPN buzzed around WestWind Schools martial arts studio in Berkeley, prepping Ana "The Hurricane" Julaton's story for the mainstream. Production lights cast dramatic shadows over the boxing ring and backlit the punching bags like so many giant bats in a dungeon. An hour behind schedule, Julaton's manager's Escalade pulled up to the curb. Out stepped the Hurricane, a five-foot-five, San Francisco–born Filipina in commanding four-inch heels who might show the boxing establishment once and for all that women don't have to look like men to fight, and that hers might be a sport worth watching after all.
Julaton, 29, took a seat on a bench in front of the ring. The hot production lights glowed off her public-appearance game face: smoky gray eyeshadow, red lipstick, dangly gold earrings, showstopper white smile. Makeup covered a faint scar below her right eyebrow, where eight stitches from a Las Vegas surgeon cinched up a slash from her fifth pro fight. The crew asked her to drape a section of her waist-length hair, worthy of a shampoo commercial, over her shoulder.
Camera rolling, Julaton introduced herself with a straightforward confidence that belied her dainty appearance: "Hi, everyone. I'm Ana Julaton. ... a two-time world boxing champion. I'm also known as the Hurricane." The producers corrected her, telling her to leave out the two-time world champion part, because, by the time the story runs after her upcoming fight, it could be three. The crew from ESPN's E:60 show was here to get a closer look at the woman some people call the female Manny Pacquiao.
Boxing is a sport with a singular ability to foment ethnic pride. African-Americans had Joe Louis. Italian-Americans had Rocky Marciano. Mexicans had Oscar De La Hoya. But the last decade has heralded the reign of the Philippines through Pacquiao, the dirt-poor kid with an elementary-school education who became the Pac-Man, possibly the best boxer the sport has ever seen. In the Philippines, he is a bigger star than Tiger Woods.
The comparisons between Pacquiao and Julaton are inevitable, even if they're baseless. Both are Filipino by blood and have trained under legendary coach Freddie Roach. But the similarities end there. While Pacquiao commands cameras wherever he goes, Julaton is thrilled to get a bio-blip on E:60. Even in 2010, the reason comes down not only to talent but also that divider of yore: gender. Julaton makes a novel athlete profile, but that doesn't translate into love from the network for her sport. The only time you'll usually see women's boxing on ESPN in recent years — or on any other network, for that matter — is as time-killing filler when the male headliner gets knocked out in the early rounds.
Julaton is fighting not only to become the world's undisputed champion, but also for women's boxing to get some respect. "All I want to do is have these people change their mind," she says. "That's it."
The sport's advocates are all for any star who can help buoy it past its second-class standing. Yet all its promise could be over if Julaton loses her third world title match to Canada's best female boxer, Lisa "Bad News" Brown, in Ontario on March 27. Then the hype swirling around the Hurricane would be just that.
In the eight weeks leading up to her big title fight, Julaton grimaces and smiles and sometimes cries through her pain during nonstop conditioning exercises at Sessions Training Center in Hayes Valley. After one recent two-hour session, she sat on a couch in the lobby where her manager, Angelo Reyes, iced her knee that had seen its share of trouble so she could box eight rounds with her male sparring partner later that night. (The logic: After a fatigued Julaton takes blows from a 170-pound man with the Spanish word for "dangerous" tattooed on his arm, Brown's jabs will feel like swipes from a kitten.)
Reyes met Julaton six years ago, when she was a student at WestWind. Reyes is coy about the fact that when he was 21, he was one of the first Americans to test for his black belt in front of the kung fu masters in China. Now 35 and a bit softer around the middle, he is Team Julaton's driver, the schedule-maker, and the jolly stream-of-consciousness cheerleader for both women's boxing and Julaton's place in it. "Ana should be on a Wheaties box," he says.
While driving Julaton to lunch recently in Daly City, the heart of the Bay Area's Filipino nation, Reyes ranted about the sexism of the U.S. boxing industry. Just look at South Korea and Germany, he says, where promoters fill arenas and broadcast the duels nationally.
Reyes says women are more attractive and have smaller egos than male boxers, and their fights can be more compelling. The women's two-minute rounds force them to throw punches, while men can dog it for long stretches beforehand. Since nearly the beginning, he has worked the phones, trying to negotiate purses any male boxer would laugh at. Now he attempts to leverage Julaton's star power for more respectable paydays. (Reyes is savvy enough not to announce her purses in the papers, though he insists she makes "far more" than the average women's winnings of roughly $5,000 per fight.) While many women fighters have to keep day jobs, Julaton hasn't had to think about anything other than boxing for the frenetic eight weeks before her title fights.
Getting this far has been a struggle. USA Boxing, the country's amateur boxing organization, didn't even allow women into the sport until after a 16-year-old girl sued in 1993 for discrimination. The International Olympic Committee was even worse. After holding out for more than a century as the last summer Olympic sport without a female competition, it is finally allowing women's boxing in the 2012 London games.
Why the holdup?
"There's an aversion to seeing women fight," says Allan Tremblay, president of Orion Sports Management, who is promoting Julaton's upcoming match with Brown. "It takes some getting over sometimes with guys, and particularly other women."
Reyes disagrees — just look at the popularity of mixed martial arts, in which women wrestle and punch each other to the ground, regularly aired on Showtime Sports. And that's a young sport compared to boxing, he says: "Ana would be happy to show how easy it is to beat" any female mixed martial arts competitor.
Industry insiders say some boxing promoters believe the only women who belong in the ring wear bikinis and hold a round card. "They don't want girls that act very — the best word is 'dykey,' and I'm not saying that in a derogatory manner," says Butch Gottlieb, a World Boxing Federation commissioner who manages several women boxers. "They want girls who look like girls who can fight."
In such a milieu, it's no surprise that some have used their sexuality to get ahead. The sport's resident sex kitten, Mia St. John, is probably less known for her 45 professional wins than for posing for Playboy, holding her boxing gloves over her breasts. Julaton draws the line at that (though she says posing in a bikini for Sports Illustrated "would be instrumental in promoting women's sports"), but it's no coincidence that the woman who prefers sweats for everyday wear shows up for press appearances in heels and lipstick.
"For the longest time, female boxers had the image of being too tough or too masculine," she says. "Now a lot of the female boxers have longer hair and will wear the swimsuits" to weigh-ins. "I think that's something that can interest the public."
The men in the industry have certainly taken notice. "Ana is really good-looking," says Ryan Wissow, the president of the Women's International Boxing Association (WIBA). "I have a thing for Asian girls." Yet Julaton sees herself more in the vein of De La Hoya, a great fighter who just happens to be attractive.
The formula seems to be working. Julaton is starting to rack up the trappings of a bona fide pro: her own personal rap song for her ring entrance, featuring the lyrics "She the total package, far from ordinary/Step in the ring, get sent to the mortuary"; an emblem, created by a Filipino-American clothing brand and emblazoned on all her gear; billboards in the Bayview and Potrero Hill; a contract with a Philippine TV network to air her matches; and a constant stream of free protein bars and sports drinks from wannabe sponsors arriving at the gym. While the deals may not be accompanied by the mainstream name recognition for male boxers who've won two world titles, Julaton counts them as a victory against the boxing establishment. "None of this was supposed to happen," she says.
Arriving for the ESPN shoot, Julaton's parents plunked down on a couch to watch their daughter shadowbox for the cameras, all intensity and focus and "Zsst!" sound effects as if her jabs were delivered by the tail of a stingray.
"That's my little girl," said her father, Cesar, a gentle, unassuming man with a light black mustache. For the last 34 years, he has clocked eight hours a day behind the Safeway meat counter so his two children could go to college and get ahead. His son, also named Cesar, will be graduating with an engineering degree from UC Berkeley this spring. He thought Ana would make a good teacher. "I never expected this," he said. "I thought she'd just grow up and be a normal girl. Not that she's not normal. I just didn't expect this."
Her mother, Amelia, is an elegant and vivacious woman who deals cards at Artichoke Joe's Casino in San Bruno and likes to assure reporters that her daughter is very feminine: "Even me, when I see her I don't think she's a boxer." While watching Julaton throw punches, she opened her eyes so wide it's hard to tell whether she was excited or frightened. When Julaton stepped down from the ring, Amelia gave her a hug: "That was goooood! Oh my gosh! That was good!" Cesar added, "You look sharp, sweetheart."
If the Hurricane's life were to someday be a movie, the montage of her early years would go something like this: Growing up in a thoroughly Americanized household in the Bayview and Daly City, Julaton felt American, not particularly Filipina. At El Camino High, she sat idly as friends chatted in Tagalog, a language she never learned; she preferred to wear baggy hip-hop clothes and talk slang to African-American classmates in the hallway.
But she did have one Asian connection: her love for Bruce Lee. When Cesar enrolled himself and her younger brother in tae kwon do classes, Ana asked if she could take lessons, too. Throughout her childhood, as soon as Cesar got home from work, the three would either go to class or work out in the garage.
Instead of fulfilling her parents' wish for her to go to college, Julaton got a gig teaching at WestWind in 2002. Other instructors wanted to work some boxing into their classes, so they taught her basic techniques to pass on to her students. Julaton was instantly intrigued. Every move had an answer: A jab can be blocked, you can duck out from an opponent's hook, and if you fail, you get punched in the face. Boxing wasn't senseless beating; it was physical chess. Julaton wanted to figure it out, and in 2004, she started competing in amateur bouts, winning the San Francisco Golden Gloves silver medal that year. Reyes read everything he could on women's boxing, and signed on as her manager.
Julaton noted that some of her opponents had 50 or 60 fights — delaying going pro for their shot at the Olympics, which allows only amateur boxers. But that was mostly a dream, since the International Olympic Committee kept refusing to add women's boxing to the summer games. Julaton was angry. "It's something you imagine happening 50 years ago, 100 years ago," she said. "It's like why? Because I'm just a girl?"
She competed in local and national amateur tournaments, racking up 35 fights and building on her technique throwing simple one-two punches down the middle. The announcers often butchered her name: Luciana Jewelaton. Luciana Jubilation. So she shortened Luciana to "Ana" and added the nickname of "The Hurricane" to nudge announcers to correctly pronounce her last name ("Hula-ton"). It stuck.
At the U.S.A. Boxing National Championships in 2007, Julaton won the silver medal, and, to this day, suspects shady judging kept her from the gold. Still, she'd gone about as far as she could in amateur boxing, and the Olympic committee had again barred women from competing in the 2008 summer games. She was heartbroken. "I was thinking, God, I don't even want to box, but I can't leave this sport," she recalls. "Something needs to be done about this."
Julaton wondered whether it was time to turn pro. She decided to get advice from the man who helped make Manny Pacquiao a world champion.
It wasn't the first time Julaton had met Freddie Roach. In fact, she had first walked into his Wild Card gym in Los Angeles as an amateur in 2006. He had told her to put on her gloves and do some mitt work. Julaton could hardly concentrate with the legendary Pacquiao's trainer holding up the mitts, but Roach says he was equally smitten. "I liked her work ethic," he said. "I don't like lazy people. A lot of people come and say, 'Train me,' and they can't go a round. ... I can push — and she hung in there and she performed well."
He jokes he has a crush on her: "I don't like to see her fight because I don't want to see her face messed up, but I believe in freedom of choice, so I can live with it." (Reyes' usually jovial demeanor flares with irritation at Roach's jokes, knowing how gossip can spread in the boxing world: "We don't want a scandal; we don't want anything like 'Freddie Roach is in love with Ana Julaton.'")
When Julaton and Reyes returned in 2007, they asked Roach if he thought Julaton could go pro. She was ready, he said, and he wanted to be her trainer.
Julaton dropped one weight class from her amateur weight to 122 pounds, super bantamweight, so she would generally be taller than her opponents. In a two-week camp before her pro debut, Roach taught her to close in on her opponent — to bob and weave and pop short inside punches. The technique served her well, earning her four pro wins and one draw, mostly on the undercards of men's matches in Las Vegas and California casinos.
In the pros, the headgear comes off, and, in her fifth match, Julaton felt cold liquid streaming down her face. Only later when she swiped it away did she discover it was blood: "It was pretty neat."
Each day after her workout with Roach, the Pac-Man himself showed up for training. Though their communication was limited by Pacquiao's then-halting English and Julaton's nonexistent Tagalog, he invited her to lunch a couple of times at his apartment with his team. One time, he asked her why she wasn't eating with a fork in one hand and a spoon in the other, like Filipinos do. His interrogation continued: Why don't you speak Tagalog?
Julaton had no answer. "I couldn't say anything," she recalled. "I didn't want to seem rude, because it's like [he's] this world champion boxer." Still, Pacquiao's questions and her Filipino following helped pique her curiosity about her own heritage, alongside guilt for not knowing more.
While Julaton had never visited the Philippines and always questioned what being Filipino meant to a born-and-bred American, there was no doubt that Filipinos had started identifying with her. At the 2006 San Francisco Golden Gloves boxing tournament where she earned the championship, she was approached by a man and a gaggle of Filipino boys who all wanted pictures and autographs.
Reyes says that Filipinos don't hold it against Julaton that she didn't grow up in the country. "If you grew up in the Philippines, you moved to America to be somebody, and Ana is somebody," he said. "That was the dream. That was the whole point."
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.
The accolades poured in: A declaration of Ana Julaton Day from Mayor Gavin Newsom. A letter of congratulations from the Philippines' president. Julaton's signed gloves were auctioned for $500 to benefit the country's typhoon victims, a price that surprised even her: "I'm just tripping out right now," she told a reporter. "Just for female boxing ... to have anything worth something, you know?" Her father was amazed when they went to a Filipino bakery in Daly City and customers begged her for photos and autographs.
Julaton's skills drew the attention of the boxing industry, too. "A lot of women with no amateur background push their punches ... like hitting someone with their purse," says Allan Tremblay, who is promoting her next fight. "She has good defense, and a high work rate, and very good balance. When she throws a punch, she doesn't stumble around."
After the Jeffries fight, no one expected Biggers to provide much competition; she had lost six of her previous seven matches. Still, Julaton knew her opponent wouldn't go down easy: When she did win, it was usually by technical knockouts.
Compared to Julaton, Biggers looked like a flat-footed zombie in the ring, launching lazy hooks and jabs that rarely made contact as Julaton smacked her with rapid-fire attacks and darted away. Blood streamed down Biggers' face after the second round. Reyes says if he were her coach, he wouldn't have let her continue past the seventh. Winning by unanimous decision, Julaton waved a Filipino flag for the nearly 4,000-strong crowd, and donated part of her purse to Filipino typhoon relief.
While Reyes sees Julaton's victory as further evidence that she is a top female boxer, some in the industry say it was a lousy matchup. "Donna Biggers shouldn't be in a [title] fight," said Butch Gottlieb, the World Boxing Federation commissioner.
The fight allowed the naysayers to contend that Julaton is relatively untested and insist they are unconvinced of her skills. The debate will be resolved this month when she fights Brown, a 39-year-old Trinidad-born Canadian who Roach says is "fresher and more of a challenge" than Jeffries, and will be Julaton's toughest opponent yet.
Julaton "hasn't been, in my view, in a really career-threatening fight," Tremblay said. "We don't know what she can take because she's never really been pushed, but she'll be pushed a little in this fight, so we'll see how she'll do."
Reyes parked in front of the Manila Star restaurant in a Daly City shopping plaza. He picked up the Filipino newspapers in the entryway and entered the near-empty restaurant, which had a piped-in cover of "Kokomo" playing and a faux-bamboo tiki hut along the wall. Julaton and her sparring partner bowed to another WestWind instructor waiting for them and sat at a long table.
Reyes leafed through the Manila Mail, spotting a photo of Julaton posing with "future World Champion Ciso 'Kid Terrible' Morales." The previously undefeated Morales had since lost his most recent world title match. Julaton half-smiled, half-grimaced, and shook her head, a reaction she uses often when confronted with an uncomfortable truth: "Yeah." One day you're the hyped future world champion, the next day you're nothing.
If Julaton wins the WBA title, she hopes to fight for the World Boxing Council title to become the undisputed world champion. She wants to win the titles quickly, because she plans to spend two more years maximum in the sport to avoid brain damage. While society may have some tolerance for Muhammad Ali's tremors or Freddie Roach's slurred speech from Parkinson's disease, seeing a woman with a boxing-related disability is the depressing stuff of which Million Dollar Baby Oscar winners are made.
At the Manila Star, Julaton limited herself to two bowls of catfish soup and a chicken breast — she has to watch what she eats while she's in training. "I'm so hungry," she groaned. But food, like the motorcade through Manila the Philippine GMA Pinoy TV network is promising if she wins her third title, will come later. First, she has to win.
In business terms, the match is already a victory. As a benefit of sharing a card with a title match involving Canada's favorite boxer, Steve Molitor, the bouts will be televised on the Sports Network, the country's most widely broadcast sports channel. The Filipino channel will be transmitting Julaton's performance to Filipinos the world over, and the promoter is betting on Ontario's proven Filipino fan base to turn out. Julaton is stoked: "It's going to be a 10-round title fight where they'll show all of the rounds," she said. But unless you know someone who gets one of those channels, you're out of luck. No American networks signed on.E-mail Lauren.Smiley@SFWeekly.com.