Nikhat Zareen and MC Mary Kom's rivalry has been among the biggest stand-offs in Indian sports with the two competing in the same flyweight category of boxing.
It all started in 2019 when Nikhat was denied a trial against Mary for the World Championships and had to write a letter to the sports minister to ask for one. There eventually was a trial, but for the Tokyo Olympics, and Nikhat lost the bout by a fair margin. As much controversy as there was before the bout, the two rivals alleged unsportsmanlike conduct after the bout as well.
Three years have passed since and Nikhat is now the new world champion in the flyweight category even as Mary Kom has announced she will only be competing at the Commonwealth Games, where the two boxers are set to compete in different weight categories.
On Wednesday, 25 May, Nikhat posted a picture with Mary who was at the IGI Stadium in New Delhi. In the caption, she called the former World Champion her 'idol'.
In an interview with The Quint in April 2022, Nikhat had spoken about how she first got to hear about Mary Kom, over a decade back, when internet and social media were not such freely available tools of disseminating information.
"When I was competing at the Junior National Championships in 2011, my semifinal bout was against a boxer from Manipur. I asked the seniors in my team how the boxers from that state are and they said they were good and that there was a well-known boxer called MC Mary Kom who was a five-time world champion. That is when I started to learn about her," Nikhat said, remembering her time from the year she bagged the Junior World Championship and announced herself as a future prospect in Indian boxing.
"Her story really inspired me. I was shocked and amazed that someone of her age, with two children, had that hunger to achieve more and continue to win medals for India. That really inspired me. If she can do it at her age, we were just kids and to even think we’d done enough in our lives, wasn’t a thought we should entertain. That day onwards, I made her my inspiration," Nikhat added.
"The first film I watched in a movie theatre was on Mary Kom. I lied at home, my family didn’t know I was going to watch a movie," she says as she laugh, sharing insight into her interest in getting to know more about the Indian boxing legend.
A few years down the line, as Nikhat's career progressed and she moved up the ranks, it was time for her to attend national camps alongside her idol.
"When I qualified to fight in the senior level, I never thought someone I had seen in papers and in the news... that person would be in the same camp with me, training with me. That was a big deal for me. It also showed me how much I had progressed in my career," Nikhat said.
"For her, there will forever be respect in my heart. Even now, she is preparing for the Commonwealth Games and that’s so inspirational. Even at 39, she has the hunger in her to win gold medal for her country. That is really inspiring and tells us not to give up and keep aiming higher. Whenever I see her, she always inspires me to do better," added Nikhat while clearing the air about her 'rival' Mary. Idol off the ring, but rival inside it.