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From figure skating to gymnastics to soccer and basketball, thousands of little girls have entered sports after watching televised competition. But for super bantamweight world champion Ana Julaton, 31, her childhood introduction to boxing made no sense whatsoever.
"The first time I watched boxing [on TV] with my grandfather, I saw two guys that were just hurting each other and I couldn't understand why," Julaton recalled with a laugh, thinking back to her pre-teen years. "Everyone was getting all pumped up, but I sat there and thought, wait, these guys are in pain."
Boxing was not the obvious sport for Julaton, a shy Filipino-American girl from San Francisco who disliked confrontation but idolized the quiet finesse of Bruce Lee.
Martial arts would become the focus of her early years as an athlete, and she trained regularly at the West Wind Martial Arts Academy in Berkeley throughout her teens and early 20s. Then, when Julaton was 24, West Wind decided to offer a new form of fitness. Boxing rings went into the facility and Julaton watched a few of the male fighters spar. Suddenly, the sport came together to create a picture Julaton not only comprehended but appreciated.
The science of the boxer's speed, footwork and technique clicked. "There was an actual reason for everything, much like martial arts," Julaton said. "At that point, I wanted someone to teach it to me."
Under the tutelage of Freddie Roach, a renowned coach of world champions across the globe, Julaton began to thrive -- rapidly. She earned herself the nickname "The Hurricane." (The moniker, created by her martial arts instructor, is also a useful assist in pronouncing "Julaton" correctly: HOO-la-ton.)
Within a year, Julaton earned a title shot, a rarity for a beginner. Her loss, a split decision, was a sharp reminder of how much more she had to learn.
"I felt humiliated, like I had a shot other girls didn't get, and I blew it," Julaton said. But with that first loss, a new perspective was formed. Julaton began to reach out to other boxers and older athletes to give her guidance and feedback, creating a bridge between the remaining champions of the '90s and the sport's upcoming stars.
Today, Julaton knows she is not just fighting for her super bantamweight (the 122-pound class) titles, but also for the survival and growth of women's boxing, doing what she can to create awareness for female athletes in the midst of a male-dominated sport. The media is first on her list. "The reason people aren't fans of women's boxing is simply because they're not exposed to it," Julaton said, during a break from her training schedule outside West Wind. "I feel like it is a fight that a lot of female boxers -- actually, female athletes in general -- will always have to strive for."
At least in America, anyway.
While Julaton is relatively unknown in the U.S., she is a nationally celebrated sports figure in the Philippines, where her grandfather's last living sibling and the familiy patriarch lives in the Pozorrubio Village of Pangasinan Province. Parades are thrown in her honor. Everyone in this boxing-savvy country knows "The Hurricane."
"The people of the Philippines actively support a lot of female athletes," Julaton said, adding that the country is quite advanced when it comes to accepting strong women. "We were one of the first countries to have a woman president." If the people accept a female president, she reasoned, they would accept a female champion boxer.
The challenge is spreading this message worldwide. "We need to put [boxing] on good ol' American TV," she said. "If you go to Canada, Mexico, Asia, Australia and Europe, it is huge. We're on national TV. All we need for the U.S. to get into [women's boxing] is to just open up the door! It doesn't take much to make our sport a regular household thing."
The payoff for a public awareness campaign would be huge, said Julaton, who is quick to point out that female boxers are an inspiration for people in all walks of life. "I see women boxers who have no shot at winning, but they will fight," Julaton said. "I think women naturally have that drive. Women always have to fight for more respect, they just don't have the same platform as the guys."
Progress for media coverage has been slow. Women's fights are rarely broadcast on national networks (usually on pay-per-view channels, if at all). Undeterred, Julaton seizes every opportunity she can to act as her sport's spokesperson.
There are women boxers out there who have more than 100 fights under their belt, who have been boxing since they were 8 years old, but no one knows it. I can't move on to the next level unless we all move on to the next level.” --Ana Julaton
"I go out and meet with families," she said. "Sometimes little girls come up to me to have a picture taken, and they'll put their hands up like they're in a fight. Seeing that makes me feel like I can help open up boxing to girls."
Creating an awareness of female boxing is just part of the equation. Making girls feel welcome in it is another. "If a girl wakes up every day surrounded by a family in politics, what's there to hold her back from saying 'I want to be president someday?'" Julaton asked, explaining that positive role models in her sport can have the same effect.
On that front, Julaton is leading the charge: In 2009, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom gave the hometown hero her very own day, declaring October 29 as Ana Julaton Day.
Julaton appreciated the honor but is uncomfortable being singled out. "I don't want people to look up to just me. There are women boxers out there who have more than 100 fights under their belt, who have been boxing since they were 8 years old, but no one knows it," she said. "I can't move on to the next level unless we all move on to the next level."
That level is finally within reach. In 2012, women's boxing will make its debut at the Olympics. Millions of people will see the female side of the sport, as three of the seven weight classes will be offered as medal-contending disciplines. Julaton, who turned professional in 2007, won't be eligible for the Games, but considers boxing's inclusion to be a great step forward.
In the meantime, Julaton won't let anything get in the way of her quest for her sport's equality. Her next fight, originally scheduled for Jan 14 in Las Vegas has hit a speed bump. The No. 1 challenger in Julaton's weight division, Yesica Marcos of Argentina, stalled out of the decision to come to Vegas. For Julaton, geography isn't an issue and cancellations are not an option. She'll happily travel to her opponent's turf.
"Ana's attitude is if they won't come to her, she'll go to them," her agent David Suber said. While Julaton's manager and trainer work to set up the bout in Argentina, Suber's impressed by his client's willingness to do what it takes keep her sport -- and herself -- moving forward. "You don't find a lot of champions like that in any sport, on either side of the gender line."