During a routine day at work, ONE Championship atomweight athlete Natalie Gonzales Hills came face-to-face with a terrifying scene, and was powerless to stop it.
While attending university in England back in 2009, she held down a day job raising money for charities, a position that required her to solicit donations in not-so-friendly areas of the country. What began as a normal evening took a horrific turn when Hills and her co-workers ran into the wrong crowd.
“I was attacked while working in a rough area,” the 29-year-old recalls. “It was a racial attack. They called me a [racist term]. I was with a team of five people, and we all got assaulted by 20 or 30 people.”
The attack proved to be the last straw in a string of events that left Hills’ life veering off-course.
Life was a lot simpler when she was a kid. During her childhood, Hills was a good student in the classroom and a dedicated pupil inside the dojo. She practiced her first martial art, karate, when she was 8 years old, and worked her way up to a brown belt.
However, she started getting into trouble as a teenager, something the Philippines-born but England-raised fighter attributes to growing up in a small town.
“It was small town living,” she says. “There really was not much to do.”
As the cliche goes, an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Hills began to act out due to her boredom in typical teenage fashion, being irresponsible, drinking, getting into trouble, and mixing with the wrong crowd.
Despite her behaviour, she continued to excel in the classroom. At the age of 17, she enrolled at the University of the West of England: Bristol (UWE Bristol) where she studied the History of English. The university experience provided Hills a new outlet for harder work, but it was not enough to make her kick the bad habits she had formed.
“When I went to university, that was the first time I had to work to get the grades,” she explains. “During my first year, I still got into a lot of trouble. I was studying, I had two jobs, but I did like to party. I was burning the candle at both ends. I was in an abusive relationship, too.”
In many ways, the aforementioned racially-motivated attack was the last straw in a series of unfortunate events. Tired of feeling powerless, Hills took up the sweet science of boxing so she could learn to defend herself. What she found in those classes, and in herself, proved invaluable.
“When I went to the gym, I had control over my training,” she says. “I was in control of my life. That made me seek out everything else. The more I trained, the less I partied. I kicked bad people and habits out of my life. It was a process.”
Seeing her progress in the gym also kept Hills motivated.
“It was really empowering,” she says. “Training is all about self-improvement and growth. I could feel myself getting fitter, stronger, and more confident. When I first started training, for one week I did not have the best technique, and a couple weeks later I am throwing combinations and doing better at sparring. That made me feel like I was on to something.”
Hills’ love of boxing turned into a love for Muay Thai, which ultimately led her to MMA and the doors of ONE Championship. At ONE: KINGS OF DESTINY on Friday Night, 21 April, Hills will bring the tools that literally changed her life to the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila, where she will meet fellow Filipina Gina Iniong in an atomweight showdown.
Despite dropping her last four bouts, Hills, who goes by the nickname “The Kilapino,” will walk into the cage with nothing but confidence. Confidence she first learned in the ring.
“Boxing gave me something,” she admits. “I was peaceful. I did not have that before.”