SAN LEANDRO -- The switch from healing wounds to throwing punches came naturally for Joel Siapno, a nurse-in-training who debuts Friday as a professional boxer.
"I know a lot more about my body and what it can do," said the 22-year-old welterweight his coach calls "The Quiet Storm." "It's only made me a smarter, stronger fighter."
His professors considered Siapno one of their most promising future nurses when he graduated in May from Oakland's Samuel Merritt University, but a detour to the boxing ring has sent him on another path.
"I didn't have goals to become a professional," Siapno said of boxing. "It wasn't until I got in (the ring) with experienced veterans that I realized I could hold my own in the sport."
Now, as he studies for his nursing board exams, the affable East Bay boxer confronts a tough choice: become a healer or a fighter? How he does in a professional ring this year could show the way.
His mother works in a Kaiser Permanente laboratory and would prefer to see her son pursue his health care career. At the same time, she is nervously preparing to attend his four-round bout Friday night at the Longshoreman's Hall in San Francisco.
Other family members and friends have no qualms about rooting for Siapno's rise to boxing stardom.
"My dad's always saying he's going to be the next Manny Pacquiao," said cousin Harrison Overstreet, 17, of Tracy, as he watched a sweaty Siapno furiously sparring on Tuesday at The Kennel Boxing Gym in San Leandro.
The TV rooms of this extended Filipino-American family get crowded whenever Philippines champion Pacquiao enters the ring, Overstreet said. That enthusiasm is now shifting to their own family member as he readies for his first televised fight.
Raised in Hayward and San Leandro, Siapno graduated from St. Joseph Notre Dame High School in Alameda with an idealistic yearning to help people. He enrolled in Samuel Merritt's nursing school. He was a casual basketball player, not a boxer, until he began blowing steam on weekends at a gym.
Kennel Boxing Gym was so close to his family's San Leandro home that he biked there, returning after weekend sessions to study for his nursing classes.
Siapno did so well in his class on sizing up a patient's condition that his professor, Tamera Valenta, asked him to be a teaching assistant.
"He's a great guy. I think he'll be a really good nurse," Valenta said. "He's always got a good attitude, and he's a good teacher -- he's patient, he cares about what he's doing, he's thorough."
But as he was reading up on human anatomy and physiology, Siapno was also testing the limits of his own body and knocking out opponents during amateur fights at rowdy local bars. His coach trained him in an aggressive "pressure" style that always puts him on the offensive.
"I'd have to say boxing is tougher; it's a true test of character," Siapno said. "If I can make it in boxing, make it a living, I'd prefer to do that."
Some trainers would seize and immediately capitalize on a young boxer with Siapno's intrinsic talent and work ethic, but his coach, Arvin Jugarap, said he counseled Siapno to wait and finish his nursing degree before competing professionally.
Boxing is "a hard way to make a living," Jugarap said.
Of his turn toward professional boxing after graduation, Valenta said: "I'm a little surprised, especially when he understands what the injuries can mean. I suppose that will help him protect himself better."
It could also help whoever Siapno bloodies in the ring.
"He could look at the face, determine if the person was critically injured, how the person was acting mentally. He can look to see if their color is changing," Valenta said.
"He can tell if there's a traumatic brain injury," she added. "He can assess his own patient right in front of him, determine what's wrong and then fix it."
And then walk away, Siapno hopes, with a championship belt.