In 2019, as a young Nikhat Zareen warmed up by the boxing arena to fight her idol MC Mary Kom in the 51kg trial for the World Championships, she was informed the trail in their category was cancelled and Mary had been made the automatic selection for the big tournament.
Nikhat, a beginner at the time, protested the move and wrote a letter to Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju, requesting a fair trial. With no reaction from the authorities, Mary represented India at the event and won a bronze.
With Mary having failed to automatically qualify for the Olympics – something only a gold at the event would have achieved – it was then the turn for the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) to pick India's representative for the Tokyo Olympics' qualification events. Despite able competitions in the category, the BFI once again changed the rules to name Mary. This time though, Nikhat's protests earned her that fair trial against Mary. A bout she lost.
After the 9-1 victory, the veteran boxer vainly stated in a TV interview, "Who is Nikhat Zareen?"
As Zareen beat Vietnam’s Nguyen Thi Tam 5-0 in the IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships final at a packed KD Jadhav Indoor Hall in New Delhi on Sunday, winning her second and back-to-back Worlds gold, she has come a long way in filling the boots of her idol and India's finest MC Mary Kom.
Nikhat Zareen became the first Indian boxer in 14 years, apart from Mary Kom, to win the IBA Women's World Boxing Championship when she beat Thailand's Jutamas Jitpong by a unanimous 5-0 decision in the 52-kg final in Istanbul in 2022. In fact, she is only one of five Indian women to win the world championships in any weight category
The champion pugilist had far from a breezy path to the summit as despite winning gold by beating Thailand's Jutamas Jitpong by a unanimous 5-0 decision in the 52-kg final in Istanbul in 2022, Nikhat went unseeded at the Worlds due to a change in weight category, from 52 kg to 50 kg, and wasn't awarded a first-round bye.
She had to get past six boxers to bag her second Worlds gold medal, spending a cumulative 45 minutes in the ring – the most among the entire Indian contingent of 12 boxers.
A Worthy Final
All her bouts in the two weeks of the New Delhi World Championships turned out to be tougher than anticipated, specially as she was competing in this new Olympic weight category for the first time. Her toughest bout though came against Asian champion Nguyen Thi Tam.
In the final, Nikhat trusted the strategy which has brought her consistent success of late. She maintained her distance from Tam to ward off her rapid punches and counter-attacked from range. After a close first round, which went her way unanimously, Zareen was caught by a few powerful hooks in the second round, going down by 3-2.
Despite a gruelling tournament, Zareen gave all she had in the third and final round, and struck Tam flush in the face as the referee initiated a count. As the Vietnamese fought back with an extraordinary hook to return the favour, the duo went full tilt at each other in the final few seconds.
Perhaps, it was Nikhat's late combination of punches which saw her win the round, and the match, to be crowned the world champion, the second time on the bounce. Only this time, she had her family by the ringside and the home crowd cheering on the top of their lungs.
Boxing Academy in the Works
“It’s a special day, a second World Championship gold, that too in a new weight category. Today’s bout was my toughest so far, facing an Asian champion. The next target is the Asian Games, so to win against her, in the first big championships since changing categories… The strategy was to use all the energy I had left, despite a tough tournament, and I threw everything at it,” said an exhausted but jubilant Nikhat after the match.
Having moved on from her Mercedes ambitions, a matured Zareen now wants to use the USD 100,000 winner’s cheque to send my parents for Umrah – a pilgrimage to the twin Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Following in the footsteps of badminton maestro and coach Pullela Gopichand, the boxer is also keen to set up a high performance boxing academy in Hyderabad.
Zareen's medal was one of four golds clinched by India at the Worlds. Tokyo Olympic bronze medallist Lovlina Borgohain also bagged gold in the 70-75kg finals, defeating Australia's Caitlin Anne Parker by a 5-2 split decision.
Nitu Ghanghas (45-48 kg) and Saweety Boora (75-81 kg) also sealed gold after beating their respective opponents in the finals on Saturday.
'Boxing Bas Mardon ka Game Hai Kya?'
What deserves mention here is the story of Nikhat Zareen's transition from track and field to the boxing ring. Zareen first specialised in 100m and 200m sprints but a visit to the nearby sports complex with her father changed not only her vocation but her trajectory.
Seeing only boys sparring in the boxing ring, Nikhat expressed her curiosity to her father, "Papa, sab game mein ladkiyon hai but boxing mein kyu nahi hai? Bas mardon ka game hai kya? He said 'no beta, girls can also box, but people think girls don't have guts to box'."
As she stood with the gold medal around her neck at New Delhi's KD Jadhav Indoor Hall, the 'mardon ka game' question had been answered.
Another question needs answering. "Who is Nikhat Zareen?"
A two-time world champion.
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