x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Championship boxer Ana Julaton climbs into the MMA cage

Filipino-American is to make her UAE debut on August 29 as part of the ONE Fighting Championship, which is organising a 10-bout card at the World Trade Centre in Dubai, writes Ali Khaled.

Ana Julaton, left, a Filipino-American fighter, won three championship boxing titles before she made the switch to mixed martial arts in 2013. She is slated to fight in Duabi next month. Chris Young / AP Photo
Ana Julaton, left, a Filipino-American fighter, won three championship boxing titles before she made the switch to mixed martial arts in 2013. She is slated to fight in Duabi next month. Chris Young / AP Photo

For someone who has collected title belts for fun, Ana “The Hurricane” Julaton had little interest in boxing when she was growing up.

The Philippine native, 34, would dominate women’s boxing, but it was mixed martial arts (MMA) that had always been in her blood.

She is to make her UAE debut on August 29, versus the Malaysian Ann “Athena” Osman, as part of the ONE Fighting Championship, which describes itself as Asia’s largest MMA body and is organising a 10-bout card at the World Trade Centre in Dubai.

Read more: MMA event in Dubai on August 29 could be ‘one of the biggest’ says promoter

Her career has come full circle.

“My earliest memories are of my father calling out commands of basic martial-arts stances to demonstrate in front of my late grandfather,” said Julaton, who is of Filipino heritage but was born in California.

When she was 10, she and her brother enrolled in a taekwondo class and soon excelled at it, earning a black belt and training in South Korea, the home of the sport.

In those days, boxing had yet to make an impression on the young Julaton. When it did, the effect was devastating.

“I wasn’t a fan of boxing before I started learning it. When I was practising kenpo karate, I was also teaching full-time, spending 12 to 14 hours a day, five to six days a week, and when boxing was incorporated into the system, I had to learn it to teach it,” she said.

“A couple of weeks later, I entered a Golden Gloves tournament, won a silver medal and quickly got involved with the amateur competition. Boxing sparked my competitive edge.”

Once the fires were stoked, Julaton set her sights high: her aspiration was to compete in the 2008 Olympics. Her management team connected with Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao’s trainer, and she worked under Roach’s tutelage and trained alongside the Philippines boxing hero.

It was Roach who suggested she take up boxing professionally and aim for world titles.

“I never had aspirations of becoming a boxer, never mind a professional one,” she said. “But when my competitive edge surfaced and when I experienced unequal opportunities in the sport as a woman, fighting became more than just capturing a win. It became a fight to make a change.”

Read more: Vaughn Donayre wants to be ‘in your face’ at next month’s MMA event

From the start she had the backing of her family in what became a lifelong mission.

She said her parents and her coach, Angelo Reyes, “are probably my biggest critics, which can be frustrating, but it inspires me to be better”.

“I have a chip on my shoulder,” she said. “So when I decided to become a professional fighter, I made it into my career. I’m not a weekend warrior or have taken an interest in MMA because it looked cool.”

Julaton credits Reyes for accelerating her boxing career.

“My first lesson was stepping in the ring with another guy who was bigger than me and who was told to ‘really’ fight me. It wasn’t a fun night, I went through a lot of punishment but I knew that I wasn’t going to quit,” she said.

“So I came back the next day and the next day after and the next day after that. Without realising it at the time, my teacher was actually teaching me something, not just about boxing, but about myself. I learnt how to put things into perspective.

“Nothing is impossible until you put up a good fight. Everyone has a fighting chance.”

Her other inspiration, unsurprisingly, is one of the great champions of recent years.

“Manny Pacquiao has always been one of my boxing heroes,” she said of her countryman.

“I personally watched and trained alongside Manny and it will always be a lifetime experience. He is not only a world-class athlete and champion, he is generous and down to earth.”

Julaton’s beginnings in amateur boxing proved successful and she won the silver medal at the 2007 US national championships. Her aspirations to fight in the Olympics were dashed when the debut for women’s boxing as an Olympic sport was pushed back to London 2012.

Before turning professional she was ranked the No 2 fighter in the US and, in her sixth bout, she had a shot at a world title.

“At the time, boxing promoters were not interested in women fighters, but my team and I made things happen,” she said.

As an amateur, she had attracted attention, particularly in the Philippines, and she found a promoter willing to match her against Kelsey Jeffries – “considered a legend of boxing in my division”, Julaton said – at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California.

On September 12, 2009, Julaton stepped into the ring with Jeffries with the IBA super bantamweight title at stake.

“It was her hometown arena and I was the underdog,” Julaton said. “I trained relentlessly while teaching martial arts and promoting the fight. It was tons of work but it was all worth it.

“I had droves of people, especially the Filipino community, attend, and the arena kept chanting my name throughout the fight. It changed my life.”

She won by split decision and, three months later, the WBO title was added after a win over Donna Biggers.

“It was surreal being able to headline title fights consecutively and win both times,” Julaton said.

More was to come. In March 2010, she beat Lisa Brown to claim the vacant WBA junior featherweight title.

Having experienced rapid success in boxing, a switch to the more financially rewarding world of MMA was a natural step for Julaton. In May of 2013, she crossed over.

“I have always been a fan of the martial arts and I’ve been kicking and punching since I was a child,” she said. “So when ONE FC gave me the opportunity to sign an exclusive MMA deal with them, while still having the ability to continue boxing, I knew it was something I didn’t want to pass up.”

She embraced the sport.

“I felt my inner child was shining through. Being able to throw kicks, knees, elbows, and wrestle and grapple, I felt like I was in the [classroom] all over again,” she said. “It’s like a playground. Don’t get me wrong, the training is tough and challenging, but I think that’s why I enjoy it so much.”

With her first fight in Dubai a month away, Julaton’s preparations are as intense as always. “I constantly evolve and work on something new and make it my own,” she said. “My progression in boxing shows in my fights, where they have all been different. I grow as I go as a fighter.”

She remains obsessive about sharpening her skills, working on weaknesses and consistently ensuring her technique is crisp and effective.

“The only adjustment I make is with myself on a day-to-day basis during training camp. When done right, it translates well in the fight.”

The fight cannot come quick enough for Julaton and she is determined to put on a show for what will likely be strong support from her compatriots.

“I’m excited to travel to UAE and I’ve heard wonderful things,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to visit Dubai and I have also heard that there is a big Filipino community there. To have my match there on August 29, on the greatest card ever put together for MMA thus far from ONE FC is a dream come true.

“I can’t wait until fight night.”

akhaled@thenational.ae

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