For many, combat sports may be described as being drenched machismo — blood, sweat, hard-hitting punches, and low-pitch announcer voices are all part of the image. But that description probably won’t fly for Fil-Am professional fighter Ana Bonifacio Julaton who is holding it down in the male-dominated sports.
Among other world titles, Julaton was the first to win the Women’s World Boxing Organization (WBO) Super Bantamweight where she insisted she gets the same winning red belt instead of the pink one meant for female boxers.
“The original belt for women was very gender profiled meaning the belt was much smaller and it was pink,” Julaton told the Asian Journal.
She called the pioneering win surreal, but quickly highlighted the fact that women’s boxing has been around for a very long time yet continues to fail in getting the same acknowledgment men’s boxing has.
“It’s been around for a very long time, but you’re telling me it’s not only until now that these organizations are starting to recognize women?” said Julaton.
In the United States, the first women to have had the first “official” female boxing match were Nell Saunders and Rose Harland at the New York Hills Theater in 1876 at which Saunders fought out Harland not for a trophy or belt, but for a silver butter dish.
Having hit the mainstream, both men’s and women’s boxing were introduced to the Olympics in 1904, but only men’s boxing got accepted leaving female boxers behind struggling to get the same recognition.
It wasn’t until over a century later in 2009 did the International Olympic Committee vote to lift the ban on women’s boxing, having the women’s event debut in 2012 for the first time since the games began.
For the three world titleholder who was an advocate for lifting the Olympic ban, boxing wasn’t something she initially saw herself getting into. Having been a martial arts teacher, it was something she learned in order to teach.
“It’s been a journey. It’s something we didn’t anticipate but it’s something that kind of organically happened,” said the 37-year-old fighter.
At her first ever bout at the San Francisco Golden Gloves, where she competed after just a couple weeks of training, she took home the silver which encouraged her to see how far she would go.
She went far, training under under big names like Freddie Roach, Nonito Donaire Sr., Roger Mayweather, and now Angelo Reyes — all especially familiar to the Filipino boxing community.
But Julaton doesn’t only throw punches. She also elbows, knees, kicks, wrestles, grapples, and pins her opponents down as one of the few boxers to also take on mixed martial arts where she sees big opportunities for female fighters.
Double boxing and MMA pursuit
It was a family thing, said Julaton, who has black belts in a number of martial art sports. One of her very first memories was learning basic martial arts moves from her dad. More formal training came as soon as her younger brother was potty trained.
“It kind of just took off from there. It was something that I loved right away,” she said as she recalled looking up to the few Asians in media like Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto who worked with Lee and was also Filipino.
“Just being able to see figures like that growing up as a child — it helped shape and hone me to what I am today,” said Julaton.
While MMA as it’s known today is relatively new, women’s participation in MMA is even newer and Julaton sees the cage as untapped territory for female fighters and boxers such as herself.
Julaton made her successful MMA debut for the ONE Championship organization in 2014 where she beat out Aya-Saeid Saber via technical knockout in the third round. That same year, she defeated Egypt’s Walaa Abbas at the Mall of Asia Arena in the Philippines.
Now, she fights under American MMA organization Bellator which many see as being a rival to other American MMA organization Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
While other organizations require fighters to stay exclusive with them, Bellator allows Julaton to box while still pursuing MMA.
“As a fighter, it’s nice to actually have direction and have control of my career versus getting locked up and kind of feeling like I’m getting lost in the shuffle with other organizations. There’s a lot more opportunity with this,” she said.
The crossover between boxing and MMA is something that has been sprouting among mostly male fighters. Just last year, the big ticket fight between boxer Floyd Mayweather and MMA fighter Conor McGregor caused a frenzy as fans from both sports made bets on who would take the win. Mayweather just recently pulled out of negotiations for a rematch in the MMA cage.
To spectators, the event might have looked like a simple crossover of two athletes, but as actual boxer-turned-MMA fighters like Julaton would say, it doesn’t quite work that way.
“It’s almost like trying to play football and basketball at the same time,” Julaton said. “They’re two completely different sports.”
In boxing, you have the boxing shoes while in MMA, you fight barefoot. Getting accustomed to different glove weights is just another small difference fighters would have to master. Then there are the rules and tactics.
But even those challenges aren’t at the top for Julaton.
On added challenges
On the most challenging experiences Julaton faced during her journey she said, “I would definitely say facing social issues” — referring to her experiences being not only a woman in the male-dominated sports, but a Filipina.
“You have to be fierce,” said Julaton. “A lot of people are always sizing you up, they look at you like you’re new meat. It’s like wolves upon wolves. You have to have that dynamic within you in order for you to survive in training.”
Like in many areas, women and women of color have experienced having to push extra hard to get their deserved recognition.
This has true for Julaton who has often found her accomplishments overlooked.
“I mean right now, what I think is very interesting is that they’ll highlight my opponent a lot more than they’ll talk about me,” said Julaton.
Despite her world titles and having worked with some of the best names in the industry, Julaton has many times found herself cut short from being dubbed the “next big thing” while opponents with fewer accomplishments have.
Her nickname — “The Hurricane” — for example, didn’t stem up from her quickness as others would say, although it would make sense. Instead it was created to help announcers and reporters remember how to pronounce her last name correctly after a well-known announcer butchered it despite having been in the industry for a long time.
“I’ve been fighting for over 10 years and there’s a lot of these big media writers, especially in North America, and they’re being paid to be a reporter and they can’t get my name right?” said Julaton.
“That’s the only reason why,” she added. “Because people don’t want to spend that little effort, it becomes too much work so to speak, for them to try and say someone’s name when you want to try to give them respect.”
But fighting is what Julaton does, and she gives partial credit to her Filipino blood.
“I’ll tell you what — I think fighting is all in our blood,” she said laughing. “It doesn’t necessarily have to come with lacing up some gloves — it’s through adversity. Time and time again, with all the stories, with all the struggles we have all experienced as people all throughout the world. You know, we work hard and we always fight through adversity.”
Julaton’s latest fight on Friday, February 16 MMA against American fighter Heather Hardy — who followed Julaton’s footsteps into the MMA cage from boxing — was nothing short of unsparing competitiveness. The months leading up to the fight were hyped as the two threw threats and expletives at each other, as fighters typically do.
NBA Champion Ronny Turiaf was also present as one of her MMA coaches — he was also present at her debut fight in 2014.
Hardy ended up taking a win, not through knockouts, but via unanimous decision in a fight that left many MMA fans unsatisfied. The two will next face each other in the boxing ring as part of the two-sport deal.
But as Julaton said prior to the fight, as challenging as fighting is, it’s also the most fun. It’s everything else that is complicated.
“This is something I want to explore, that I committed myself to — this is my career,” said Julaton.