On a freckled slip of a girl barely 5-foot-2, Natalie Dove's white gloves look cartoonishly large, like super-puffed marshmallows. But as they slam into her father's padded palms, sure and fierce, nobody at Philly's Next Champ in Bustleton is laughing. Nobody'd dare.
WHOP. WHOP. WHOP.
It's late afternoon, and the basement gym is filling with testosterone, with the grunts of men and boys and the funk of sweat. The space is book ended by an MMA cage and a boxing ring — the square circle where Dove is both a fixture and a ceaseless curiosity.
Waiting for his weekly Jiu Jitsu lesson to start, Brian Brunell is transfixed. In a year of watching her grow as a counterpuncher with a punishing straight right, he has learned something. "I wouldn't fight her," says the 45-year-old Brunell. "And I have 150 pounds on her."
Just 16, Dove is a three-time winner of the prestigious National Women's Golden Gloves, all at 101 pounds and in open competition against more experienced amateurs. In 2016, she fought her way onto Team USA — under the purview of the U.S. Olympic Committee — with a second-place finish at the USA Boxing National Championships. Last year, Team USA ranked her the nation's No. 1 amateur junior woman boxer in her weight class.
"She's a very hardworking, disciplined young lady," says Matt Johnson, USA Boxing's director of high performance. "She has a lot of great potential. She's still at a young age, but she's shown a lot of progression just over the last couple of years that we've had her on our radar."
To get this far, Dove has given up just about everything that makes American adolescence a wonderland, and filled in the empty spaces with six hours of training a day. "I'm focused and I'm dedicated," she says. "When I want something, I want it. And I don't want anyone else to have that. I want that."
"That" would be Olympic gold, which she sees glinting in the not-too-distant future. Her elders advise her not to rush, to wait until she has matured as a contender, beyond her 21-6 record. But Dove has set her sights on "2020 and 2024," she says. "I want at least two gold medals."
No female boxer from Philadelphia has even one. The hometown men have four, beginning with Joe Frazier at the 1964 summer games in Tokyo.
On a wall at Next Champ is a plaque with three photos of 1960 gold medalist Muhammad Ali, commemorating his later legendary victories over Sonny Liston, George Foreman, and Smokin' Joe. Below are the words, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."
She's not a butterfly or a bee, yet. But she fights like no Dove you've ever seen.
‘She’s got something’
One day when Natalie Dove was 11, her grandfather, on babysitting duty, picked her up from school. But instead of depositing her at home, Hector Rios walked her into the Front Street Gym in Kensington for his idea of fun.
An amateur fighter back when, Rios started her on the jump rope. A natural, she wasn't.
"I was a little chubby," Dove recalls. "I just couldn't do it right. Sometimes I would spend days jumping rope."
Eventually, she graduated to the speed bag. "That took a whole month just to get it down," she says. "I was like, 'I don't get this. It's frustrating.' "
But Rios, who died recently, saw something, and started bugging her mother, Elsie Echevarria, to get her lessons. They landed at Next Champ at Grant and Bustleton Avenues.
At first, Echevarria was hesitant to have her only daughter fighting. Then again, "she is good," her mother reasoned. "And they are giving her the tools to defend herself, so why not? I can't hold her back."
Her first real bout was at the gym in June 2014, when she was 12. After she won, her mother asked her, "How far do you want to take this?" And Natalie answered, "I want to win a medal."
Her quick hands and unrelenting energy attracted the attention of the gym's marquee trainer, Mike Cassell. Boys asked why he lavished so much attention on a girl.
"Yo," Cassell would say, echoing Rios, "she's got something."
Since December, her trainer has been her father, Ron Dove, a former city detective who pleaded guilty last spring to helping his girlfriend flee arrest in a homicide case and spent 30 days in prison. Divorced from Echevarria, he works full-time as a project manager for his cousin's home-improvement company in Jersey, but Natalie's obsession has become his, as well.
"I didn't start out knowing a whole lot about boxing," he says. "But Mike told me early on, 'You better get involved.'"
So now, Ron Dove counts his daughter's punches, diligently logging them into a journal. He spars with her every day; by night, he studies new strength and conditioning methods, and calls successful trainers for advice. But he does not, he says, lay awake fretting about his daughter getting clobbered and the potential ill effects.
He watches as she rocks other girls' heads back "like PEZ dispensers," he says. But "to be honest, I've never really seen her get hit super-hard, to the point where I was worried. Never to the head."
Not that she hasn't been injured. Two years ago, she had a minor fracture in her wrist, which she still ices after sparring. "It doesn't hurt that bad, though," she says.
She also has tendinitis in her left shoulder. "Sometimes when she trains, she is actually crying through the pain," her father says. "Nothing we can do about it except long-term rest. And in this sport, that is not really an option at this stage in the game."
Indeed, Dove's schedule wouldn't allow it: workout, breakfast, study, gym, dinner, homework, sleep, repeat.
She was enrolled in Villa Joseph Marie High School in Holland, Bucks County, but was missing too much class time, so she recently switched to an online program for flexibility.
Her friends are other female boxers. She has neither dated a boy, nor tasted alcohol, and while she likes to lather her waffles in Nutella, no junk food passes her lips when a fight is on the horizon. "A lot of girls have the same vision as me," she allows, "but they don't have the discipline."
It is a small measure of Natalie Dove's passion that when she drifts off during car rides, she shadow boxes in her sleep.
"It's the coolest thing," her mother says. "And her combinations are on point."
To be the best
Although women's boxing is on the rise, it has yet to birth a star on a par with Ronda Rousey, Ultimate Fighting's fallen meteor. When she was 12, Dove almost chose mixed martial arts over the sweet science. Almost.
Her heroes don't wind up on People magazine covers, and if you don't recognize their names, well, why would you? Yet bantamweight Christina Cruz and middleweight Claressa Shields are two of the best female boxers in the world, newly anointed icons since women's boxing became an Olympic sport in 2012.
Shields has two gold medals. "So I want three," Dove says.
"Every day, I get closer to my goal of representing my country. It makes me happy."
She's got a ways to go.
For one thing, money is tight. When you're shooting for the moon, the cost of amateur athletics can be stratospheric, and victories aren't paydays. Dove's family gets socked for equipment, and for transportation to tournaments; being on Team USA means she can attend camps at the Olympic Training Center — in Colorado Springs. So there's a Go Fund Me account, which has raised more than $5,600 toward a $10,000 goal. She adds to the coffers with a four-day-a-week job at the gym teaching boxing to children as young as 5.
Physical challenges loom even larger for Dove. The Olympic trials for the 2020 games will offer five weight classes for the women's boxing division, up from three. (The men have 10.) She weighs in at 106, still about six pounds too light for the lightest of the classes. She'll need to be 112, a mark she believes she can hit. But will she be strong enough?
"Competing against grown women, 18- to 39-year-olds, who may be cutting weight from 120-plus down to 112 pounds," Ron Dove said, "is an obstacle we will have to overcome."
And depending on their country of origin, those women right now are training like pros, around the clock. Think: Russia and Cuba.
To make the 2020 Olympic team, Dove will have to place first or second in qualifying events next year, catapulting her into trials from which the final eight will emerge. If she's not among them, her default plan is to get her high school degree, join the Army, apply for its World Class Athlete program, and train for the 2024 games on the government's tab. After that, go pro.
Ron Dove has his money on his kid.
He holds his index finger and thumb an inch apart, like fighters facing off. "What separates this guy, the world champion," he says, "from this guy right here is so small."
The champ "got up a minute earlier. He punched three more punches. You either want it, or you don't. You have to have that in you."
Win or lose, Natalie Dove does.