People, Profiles

At 112 pounds, Cal boxer fights her way to national championships

By Allison Lin

The crowd’s roar faded into the background as Julia Isabel Martinez Rivera raised her boxing gloves to face level. Standing exactly 5 feet tall, Rivera locked her eyes on her opponent from the United States Military Academy Preparatory School at West Point, who loomed 5  inches taller. Rivera calmed her breath and relaxed her muscles. The sudden ring of the bell pierced the air and the fight was on for the National Collegiate Boxing Association national championship. Rivera charged ahead.

This was Rivera’s third consecutive night in the ring fighting towards the championship in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The UC Berkeley junior, who had developed an extensive background in mixed martial arts since the sixth grade, had only begun training in boxing after trying out for Cal Boxing last February. Cal Boxing, founded in 1916, is considered the oldest collegiate boxing program in the nation and ranks among the top teams in the U.S. A mere three months later, Rivera was fighting for the national championship in the 112-pound weight class.

Rivera was born in the Philippines, but she has not returned since the age of four. After immigrating to Orange County with her parents, Rivera attended a private school until the sixth grade. To help her transition to a public middle school and build up her confidence, Rivera’s parents enrolled her in Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, a style of close combat that uses the opponent’s strength and weight to one’s advantage.

“My parents were worried about fights that they heard occurred in public school settings,” Rivera said. “A lot of my friends knew I was training in martial arts and I never came across a situation where I needed to physically defend myself, so maybe they spread that piece of knowledge around.”

Julia Isabel Martinez Rivera stands with fellow champions from different weight classes.
Julia Isabel Martinez Rivera (kneeling, second from right) poses with fellow champions from different weight classes.

A few months into Muay Thai training, she was exposed to other martial arts. Watching her peers train in jiu-jitsu, and her younger brother compete in karate, Rivera decided to try out both and deepen her martial arts game.

Rivera says her strong foundation in Muay Thai has helped her in other forms of fighting. Already in possession of basic karate skills, she competed more than she trained in the discipline. She has appeared in regional, state, national and world championships in karate. Just this past summer, Rivera and her younger brother and sister competed as a team in karate, and they defeated a top-ranked team from Chile to take home the gold.

“Each time I’ve competed alongside my younger siblings, who are now 9 and 12 years old, at a world championship is a moment that I know I’ll hold on to for the rest of my life,” Rivera said. “It makes me so happy to have competed with them as the ‘Rivera Ninjas.’”

Rivera listens to her coach's advice in the boxing ring.
Rivera listens to her coach’s advice in the boxing ring.

When Rivera arrived at Berkeley, she quickly saw that boxing was the university’s most competitive form of combat. Boxing matches are much longer than karate. The judge stops and resets the fight after each punch, so there is more time to recuperate. As she learned to box, Rivera drew on her background in Muay Thai, which has taught her to think on her feet and use her space effectively.

The tryout for Cal Boxing was two weeks long, while head coach Jonathan Zaul evaluated students’ abilities and potential to learn new skills. Rivera says Zaul and the club’s appointed officers also look for “heart,” or the willpower to persevere and display positive mental attitudes when tryouts get challenging.

Those who make the team are separated into competition and non-competition squads. The entire team trains together, but competing boxers have additional training sessions. Once Zaul sees that a boxer has progressed, he will extend an invitation to fight on the competition team. Rivera made the team and then set her sights on proving herself to Zaul and competing in at least one tournament in her first semester of boxing at Berkeley.

“I saw in [Rivera] heart, dedication and the drive to learn to be the best she can be in everything she does,” Zaul said. “She has the ability to stay composed while facing difficult challenges.”

Rivera was quickly promoted to the competition team and got serious about training.

Cal Boxing’s season is year-round, but the more important competitions occur during the spring season. The athletes train for a minimum of three days a week. One of those days is dedicated to conditioning through plyometrics or running. The other two are training days, generally shadow boxing, sparring with teammates and practicing basic combination drills with Zaul. Within two weeks pulling her up to the competition team, Zaul booked Rivera for a competition to give her a chance to qualify for the upcoming regional tournament.

In her first boxing competition, she fought in the 119-pound division, which is one weight class up from her normal category. Since she entered the competition at such a short notice, Zaul did not want Rivera to cut too much weight in the short amount of time.

“Being up one weight class wasn’t something that worried me, since I have sparred with heavier men before,” Rivera said. “Stepping into a boxing ring for the first time in front of a crowd and representing Berkeley was truly special. Right then, the butterflies in my stomach disappeared, and I entered a different mode.”

In the following months, she fought and defeated taller and more experienced opponents. When time came for the national championships, Rivera was ready to face off against the best in the country after just a few short months of boxing.

Upon arriving in Lawrenceburg, Rivera prepared to fight three fights, three nights in a row — a first for her. Many other competitors had fewer, because their rankings won them a bye in the single elimination tournament. Since Rivera was fairly new, she had to fight each night that she was there and work her way to the top.

The first night, Rivera squared off against Penn State boxer Erin O’Donnell-Zwaig, and crushed her 3-0. The next night, she emerged victorious over the Naval Academy’s Sophie Lekas, 3-0. In the final night of competition, Rivera felt a pit in her stomach, a level of nervousness that she had never experienced before. Her opponent from West Point, Esther Nagila, had the support of a raucous crowd, who stood and cheered as she entered the ring. According to Zaul, the Army is among the best-known and most successful schools to compete in the National Collegiate Boxing Association.

When the announcer introduced Rivera over the speakers, she swallowed the lump in her throat and stepped into the light. To her surprise, the audience exploded in cheers, giving her a shot of confidence.

Rivera lands a punch against West Point's Esther Nagila in the NCBA national championship fight.
Rivera lands a punch against West Point’s Esther Nagila in the NCBA national championship fight.

This fight was the closest of her three, and the judges scored it 3-2 in her favor. It was one of the greatest upsets in Cal Boxing history, Zaul said. Zaul, who has never missed a tournament featuring any of his students, expressed tremendous pride and admiration for Rivera’s bravery and dedication to the sport.

“Every boxing match of [Rivera’s] is equally memorable, and her championship bout was no different,” Zaul said. “She boxed her opponent with a high level of intensity, counter-punching with combinations, and elusive head movement.”

Rivera says the best part of the entire experience was the new friends she made.

“Once we step out of the ring, everyone becomes buddies and I am so happy to have made new friends,” Rivera said.

Zaul hopes that Rivera’s stunning accomplishment at the national level will inspire other members of Cal Boxing, both today and in the future.

This fall, Rivera took the semester to focus more on academics and give her body a chance to recover after her rigorous run to the national championship. Rivera is a junior majoring in landscape architecture and minoring in both sustainable design and environmental design in developing countries. In summer of 2015, Rivera traveled to Ghana to help provide clean drinking water and research new methods of sustainability. Recently, she has also developed an interest in real estate, and will be taking undergraduate business administration courses related to urban land economics.

“I hope to implement my love for nature and the environment with real estate in the future,” Rivera said.

With the spring competition season just around the corner, she is eyeing a chance to defend her title. Come February, Rivera hopes to be back in the ring, raising her gloves in the air once again.

“It’s been a tough and inactive several months due to my course load and several health issues,” Rivera said. “But once I get the ‘go’ signal from my doctor, I will be right back in training to defend my title, not just for me, but for my coach, my family, my teammates, and of course, for Cal!”

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