'When I'm walking to the ring, my stomach just feels like it's going to drop,' says Catherine Brown. 'I feel as if I'm going to vomit and faint. Then you stand there shaking while they check your gloves for iron bars and stuff. But when that bell rings, everything else goes out the window. You're in there and you've just got to do it.'

Kickboxing is not a glamorous sport. Its coverage is confined mainly to late-night cable TV, and its venues tend to be dingy sports halls with spartan facilities. Tucked away in this musty corner of broadcasting, it seems somehow furtive, illicit, just a few rungs up the ladder from arm- wrest1ing and pit-bull fighting. Another drag on its long haul to public acceptance is its perceived association with gory computer and arcade games which appeal to maladjusted teenage technophiles.

Kickboxing is a respectable martial art and most kickboxers are well balanced, dedicated athletes. Unfortunately, too many of them are heavily tattooed and they ought to strip down: their vests and baggy she11-suit pants deprive us of voyeuristic delight in their sweaty, muscular bodies. Although the potential exists, kickboxing badly needs someone to revamp its image and the first fighter who should be signed up is a Geordie called Catherine Brown.

She is just what her sport requires: young, smart and attractive, a natural athlete with an open, earthy personality, untainted by the reek of prison gyms and unlicensed mini-cabs. With her girlish smile and pixie features, skin pink and scrubbed, hair scraped back in a ponytail, Ms Brown could pass for 17 but has just turned 24. Even her hands - long, slender, tapered - seem unsuited to pugilism. But despite her appearance and size (she is only 5ft 1in), Ms Brown has a kick that could break a bank door.

Which is just as well, because tonight in Hastings she will fight Lorna Histed, the reigning champ, for the British Women's Kickboxing title. If it goes the distance, the fight will last four 90-second rounds, during which the two women will attempt to pummel each other into submission, stopping just short of grievous bodily harm.

Kick-boxing is a semi-contact sport; points are scored for accuracy rather than damage inflicted. Punches and kicks to the face are banned, although blows to the forehead are allowed. There is no kicking below the knee, but thighs and ribs take a pounding. Contestants have to 'pull' their punches and kicks to ensure that opponents are not seriously hurt: any disabling blow will get the aggressor disqualified.

Since there are no weight categories in women's kickboxing, nearly all Ms Brown's opponents enjoy a clear advantage over her in size. 'In a semi-contact sport,' she explains, 'that shouldn't really matter. But it does, because if you're smaller you have to get in close, and they can push you, lean on you, use weight to their advantage.' But she has a bonus in her personality. 'I've always had an aggressive streak. I don't know why. All the women in my family wear flowery dresses, but I'm more like one of the lads.

'In the ring, adrenalin is pumping so hard, it floods your brain and you have to control it, otherwise you start brawling, like a street fight.' This is where she applies the skills learnt from her boyfriend, Matt Galea, the super-middleweight British kickboxing champion. 'Basically, it's about thinking. If you are matched in technique and power, you must think faster, anticipate and react quicker than they do.'

Having beaten Ms Histed in a one-round tournament bout earlier this year, Ms Brown feels she has the psychological edge. 'If I fight like I did on that day, I'll win. I know I can beat her, but I don't want to get too cocky.'

When training she prefers to spar with men, because the girls moan that she is too heavy-handed, that she hurts them. Sometimes though, she gets injured, too. Her first fight, against a woman some 40lb heavier, left her unable to train for several weeks.

Ms Brown's parents will not be in the audience tonight. 'I don't think my family understands how important this fight is. My mum thinks it's just another silly scrap. When I told her, she said, 'I thought you'd grown out of that tomboy stage.' I don't think she even watches the videos of the fights I send her, though my dad does.' As always, though, Mr Galea will be there in her corner, urging her on and shouting: 'Sort your life out]'

(Photograph omitted)