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."