Mohammed Jameel Ahmed won’t claim the gift of foresight, but as a line of journalists and neighbours gathers outside the family home in Hyderabad’s Shaikpet, and calls come in from the Prime Minister, politicians, and well-wishers, he can’t help but crack a 'told you so' grin at wife Parveen.
Their daughter, Nikhat Zareen, is a world champion. Her gold in the women’s 52kg division at the Women's Boxing World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey, beating Thailand’s Jutamas Jitpong, has the nation cheering the emergence of a new star in Indian sport. Cue for Jameel to remind Parveen what he predicted more than 12 years ago.
It had just been a few weeks into Nikhat’s first boxing classes at Nizamabad’s secretariat stadium. As was the risk for a novice 12-year-old, the only girl in the group, the inevitable occurred in her first sparring session. She took a hard punch to the face.
Parveen, who opposed her daughter getting into the sport, was livid as a glorious black bruise spread around her daughter’s left eye. “She was so angry. She was saying ‘already the neighbours think we are mad to let our daughter box. Now, if this goes on, which suitor will ever come to our door,'" Jameel recalls in his Hyderabadi twang.
He wasn’t one to back down either. “Mai bola (I said), forget marriage prospects, the whole world will one day wait outside our door because of our daughter,” he says, basking in the glow of his daughter's success.
It wasn’t with the expectation of becoming a world beater that Nikhat first stepped onto the canvas, though. It had started simply with Jameel’s hope that the naughtiest little girl in the Vishesh Vihar locality would become a little less so.
“I had two daughters before Nikhat. They were always quiet and studious. I didn’t have to worry too much about them. But Nikhat had so much energy as a child. There wasn’t one day that she wasn’t getting into trouble,” says Jameel.
He didn’t have to deal with the problem child when he was working in Saudi Arabia but when he had come home for the summer vacations, he would hear no end of Nikhat’s escapades. “Every day, the neighbours would complain — 'Jameel, your daughter is fighting with our children. Jameel, your daughter is climbing our guava trees. Jameel, your daughter is stealing our mangoes,'" he recalls.
Eventually, he decided to take Nikhat to the secretariat ground, where he hoped she would burn her energy running around the field and then simply go home and sleep. Within a few days at the ground, Jameel noticed his daughter didn’t just have extra energy, she was also pretty quick.
Before family responsibilities took over, Jameel had been a sportperson, playing cricket and football, but also competing in the sprints at the school nationals. “I thought let’s see if she can do something. I trained her for a few weeks and then the local coaches also started taking note,” he says.
It was clear that Nikhat, who trained in the 100m and 200m, had talent. Within a few months, she won gold at the district level and finished fourth at a state meet. However, before Nikhat progressed far in her athletics career, she found boxing.
The secretariat ground has multiple sporting activities. One day, her training done, Nikhat saw a group of boys shadow boxing. “She asked me why there weren’t any girls there. I replied there were. I knew that Muhammad Ali was a great boxer, but his daughter Laila Ali was also a very good one. I told Nikhat that you need a lot of courage and bravery to be a boxer and log sochte hain ki ladkiyon me dum nahin hota (people think girls don’t have the fight in them),” he recalls.
And just like that Nikhat decided she had to be a boxer.
It wasn’t easy at first. With no girls in the academy, Nikhat was thrown into the deep end. “No one took anything easy on me because I was a girl,” Nikhat had said once. Unlike in the movies, there was no quick montage for Nikhat to emerge from as the complete package. “Obviously, maar khai thi shuru mein (took beatings early on)," she admitted a few years ago.
There were difficulties outside the ring too. Nizamabad is a small town – about 160 km away from Hyderabad – and did not have the most progressive attitudes to a young girl trying to make her way in sports. “Not everyone in the neighbourhood or even the family was supportive. It’s the usual thing. They would say it's wrong and spoil her marriage prospects. Some never approved of her wearing boxing shorts. But I never let Nikhat worry about these things,” says Jameel, who would drive her the three km to the secretariat ground in the morning and evening each day. “I’ve been a sportsperson. For me boxing, athletics are all the same. All I wanted from her is to do her best. People always talk. If you stop to listen to what everyone has to say, you won’t go very far,” he says.
Backed by her father and going up against tougher opponents from the start, Nikhat would progress rapidly, winning her first sub-junior national title in a year at the age of 14. A year later she would win gold at her first international tournament – at the Youth World championships, incidentally, also in Turkey.
However, as Nikhat made her way further in the national reckoning, she would run into a bigger challenge. Not just the physical specimen but also the legend of India’s first Olympic bronze medallist Mary Kom. The Manipuri literally owned women’s flyweight spot in the national team. Her resume: Six gold medals at the World Championships and the first bronze medal in women’s boxing at the Olympics. Replacing Mary Kom in the national team meant replacing a piece of Indian sporting history.
For quite some time it didn’t seem that Nikhat would overcome that most daunting of obstacles. She picked up a bad shoulder injury in 2017 and it kept her out of competitive boxing for a year. But there was also the fact that for all her skill in the ring, she almost never could complete the game.
Ronald Simms, former coach of the US Air Force team, who worked with Nikhat for four years when she was sponsored by JSW, says, “She had everything. She was always a hard worker. She had great boxing IQ. In almost everything she’s really competitive. We used to have relay competitions. She would give it her all and encourage her teammates. She was really competitive.”
But when it mattered the most, Nikhat would somehow be satisfied with a minor prize. Matters came to a head in 2019 when she won a bronze at the Asian Championships. “I went and spoke to her and she was really pleased with her performance. I told her that I wasn’t happy. Not with the bronze but because she was happy with it. She wanted to win, but was satisfied that at least she got the bronze. I said I’m not satisfied because I know you can do better. It wasn’t a fun conversation. there were a lot of tears but I think some of what I said got to her,” says Simms.
Where she once was satisfied with a bronze, Nikhat would challenge not just for a better medal but Mary Kom's place in the Indian team. At the end of 2019, she requested the Indian Boxing Federation to conduct trials to select the team that would compete in the Olympics selection competition. It was not a request that went down lightly with the senior pro looking at a swansong on the biggest stage.
“Who is Nikhat Zareen? I don’t know who she is,” Mary Kom would ask rhetorically.
Nikhat, like almost every woman boxer of the last decade had grown up admiring Mary Kom. While she was hurt at being criticised for seeking a fair trial, she would insist on it.
It was eventually granted. Nikhat, then 22, lost a close but fair decision. While the loss hurt, Nikhat alleged that what reduced her to tears was abuse from a boxer she once considered a role model.
Later on, Nikhat would brush off the whole incident. Her family doesn’t speak much about it either. “I believed whatever happens, happens for good. Tokyo (Olympics) was not in my destiny. I decided to move on. I thought to myself, 'Let's focus on next competition. Learning from my mistakes. Getting better,'" she told this reporter a few months ago.
However, those close to Nikhat say a new fire raged within. “She felt very embarrassed not just by what happened after the bout but also how she was treated simply for asking for a fair trial. She was determined to prove herself,” recalls Durga Prasad, who coached her in Hyderabad, where the family shifted in 2014.
Coach Simms believes it was the turning point, which gave her the steely resolve she needed. “The only problem is when she gets to a high-level competition with someone she respects, she doesn’t retain the nastiness that she needs. In her bouts with MK (Mary Kom), she was too respectful. You gotta want it so bad, you got to leave that respect outside.
"What happened to her was terrible. But it allowed her to grow mentally. She was someone who gave too much respect to her seniors. She’s become stronger physically and mentally. She’s grown into a confident woman... Now, her confidence and strength have grown. She went through some adversity which made her stronger. She went through a time when people were against her. It made her more determined to go after what she wanted. That was good in the end,” says Simms.
The Olympics would give Nikhat more motivation as well. She watched in awe from home as Neeraj Chopra won gold medal in the javelin. The two come from completely different backgrounds and compete in entirely different events, but they — alongside wrestler Vinesh Phogat — developed a close friendship while training at the JSW sports facility in Bellary.
Watching someone she had eaten, trained and bonded with win the Olympic title made Nikhat believe she could do the same herself. “Pehle woh dewaana thaa aur baaki log stars thhe. Fir woh star ban gaya aur hum dewaane reh gaye (first, he was an admirer and the others were stars. Then he became a star and we remained admirers),” she joked with her family as Neeraj stood on the podium in Tokyo.
But driven by hunger, the results started coming in. With Mary Kom opting out of the competition after the the Olympics, Nikhat won the national championships in the 52kg division. She won bronze at the Bosphorus Open in Turkey, beating two world champions along the way. This year, she also won the prestigious Strandja Open, beating the Olympics silver medalist in the flyweight division.
“She’s always had the ability, but used to be frantic. She wanted to do too much at the same time... In the last few months, she’s a lot more disciplined. In the past, she would just attack with no control and sensibility. She has the biggest heart, but wouldn’t think about what to do when her opponent would counter. Now when she attacks, she attacks strategically. She’s thinking about the move she needs to make,” says Simms, who has returned to the US. Simms stayed in touch with Nikhat throughout the tournament over video calls.
Nikhat's stocks will soar after her world crown, but Simms believes Nikhat, the person, will remain the same effusive, open personality. “She’s a great person. A good Muslim girl. She loves her family. When I think about Nikhat, I can’t help but smile. She’s a bit of a jokester. When we’d be going on flights, I’d go of to sleep, and when I’d wake up, she’d have taken so many pictures of my face, drawn all over it and posted it on Instagram. When you are around her, there’s never a sombre moment,” says Simms.
Nikhat is also a foodie, her father lets on. “She has her favourites. She loves tahari, biryani, our Telangana-style bhaji with a bit of imli (tamarind) in it. She always wants to eat her mother’s khatti daal. Now, she eats just to get a taste of it. Daba ke khati thi (she used to gorge). But she has to manage her weight now,” says Jameel.
While Nikhat watches what she eats, she has no qualms indulging her passion for movies. “She loves films. She thinks she’s a good actor too. When she did an ad shoot recently with cricketer KL Rahul for Adidas, the ad makers said she was a natural. She is very good at imitation. She picks things up very well,” says Jameel.
She has her favourites here too. “She is a huge fan of actor Salman Khan. She’ll copy his style and his attitude. She insists that one day Salman Khan will call her and she’ll go and visit him,” says Jameel.
An invitation might not be needed anymore though. “When she used to say how she’ll go and meet Salman Khan, I’d say he’s only a national star and that she’s the international one. Now, he’ll also have to come to our house with the rest,” he says.
On Thursday, a beaming Parveen had no complaints, as people milled around in her house. It took time, but Jameel had told her so.
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