Magnificent seven getting their kick out of boxing
Sweat trickled down my face after about three minutes inside east Belfast's famous ProKick Gym and that was the moment I realised I wasn't as fit as I thought.
All those hours spent in spin classes hadn't prepared me even for the gruelling kickboxing warm-up.
The passion of ProKick owner Billy Murray was evident from the minute I entered the gym and the discipline exercised within those four walls allowed me to see exactly why such a small gym is home to seven potential world champions.
"I've been blown away by it, to be totally honest. To have seven kickboxers from this gym going for world honours is just amazing. It's a testament to both the gym and the work ethos of all of them," said Murray, Ireland's most successful ever kickboxer.
The iconic Ulster Hall will open its doors to seven of ProKick's kickboxers on Saturday September 13 for the World Championship Kickboxing event billed 'Lords of the Ring'. The line-up will include Belfast's two-time world champion Gary Hamilton, current British and European champion Alex Cioci, Darren McMullan from Ballygowan and Bangor's Johnny Smith, father of Murray's grandson.
The boys will be joined by world karate champion Cathy McAleer, undefeated Samantha Robb and two-time world champion Ursula Agnew.
"No fight's easy but these are title fights we're fighting so we're fighting top class girls who have had loads of experience and have fought all over the world," said Agnew ahead of her contest with Slovakia's Ivana Miklasova.
"It's amazing to know that you'll have the home crowd there though and the atmosphere in the Ulster Hall is amazing," said rising star Robb who will fight Slovakian Sona Ceredejevova.
"It's crazy to have three girls fighting for a world title in Northern Ireland, let alone three girls from the same gym. It's unheard of."
"There are seven world titles up for grabs in this show and that's probably the biggest show stage in Europe, maybe even globally.
"For all of us to win and come away with a world title would just be brilliant. it would make history for Belfast," beamed Agnew, a beautician from Belfast.
"To have that number of people fighting at that level out of the one gym is just amazing. It's a testament to what our coach (Murray) does and how good he is," said Robb.
"He's as fit as a fiddle and he's competitive as hell too. Whenever you're out running, he'll run ahead and shout at you to hurry up," said super-fit McAleer who will face Fadma Basrir from Morocco.
Exceptionally dedicated, the girls have an exhausting training schedule to fit in around full-time employment.
"It's three times a day. We were in here at six o'clock this morning and basically did 12 rounds of circuits," said writer and poet Robb.
"It's tough because you're here at six o'clock and then you're away to work and then you're back again, then home for something to eat and then you're back again. You just can't wait to get to bed every night," added Virgin Active general manager McAleer.
"It's so hard to get your sleep in. You sacrifice so much of your social life and things like that but there's parts of that you can actually get used to. I think it's the lack of sleep after a while that is the hardest and it really starts to get to you," said Robb.
Alongside their demanding training schedule, the girls also have a strict diet plan to follow. With each of them currently cutting down their weights ahead of their world title bouts, I couldn't help but feel guilty for eating two rounds of toast with Nutella before the training session.
"If you need to cut the weight then you have to do it and it's really, really hard but if you're okay in the weight then it's a lot easier," said Agnew.
"Then it's carbs, carbs, carbs," said Robb, dreamily.
"We wish," joked McAleer.
"It's really tiring for training because you're not getting as many carbs as you normally would so you're tired," she continued.
"When you're cutting, you're grumpy, you're frustrated – you're going to kill everybody," said Agnew.
But the talented trio were quick to commend mentor Murray's ability to motivate them, even when they did want to kill everybody.
"He's full of motivation, he's been there and done it himself and he understands mentally where you are too so it helps in terms of whenever you're having a bad day, he can pick you back up again," said McAleer.
"He knows what's wrong with you before you say it. He can tell when you're down and you can tell him what's wrong. He can always pick up when there's something wrong with you and he's good at just being positive and picking you up," Agnew added.
Despite their unforgiving schedule, the girls remain upbeat about their training for their world championship fights and are excited to compete on home soil.
"The build up to fighting somewhere like the Ulster Hall is just special – it's a special occasion," said Robb.
"There will be work colleagues, families, friends, the lot at it so there's a lot of pressure but when you go away, you're on your own so being at home really is just 'woaw' for us," said McAleer.
With seven fighters from ProKick gym on the bill at the Ulster Hall next month, the girls hope that the profile of kickboxing will continue to rise in Northern Ireland.
"There's a market out there for kickboxing and there's no reason why people shouldn't take advantage of those opportunities all over the world," said Robb.
"With ladies boxing coming into the Olympics, I think it's becoming more and more popular and recognised. There has been more and more people wanting to hear about us and write about us which is a lot better than it used to be," McAleer added.
Tickets for the Ulster Hall are available on 028 90334455 or at www.prokick.com.