It’s possible to get a peek into the very different personalities of Nikhat Zareen and Nitu Ganghas from their response to a common question. Having been awarded a massive cash prize of $100,000 (approx. ₹82 lakh) for their gold medals at the IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships held in New Delhi last month, the two were asked what they planned to do with the money.
Nitu, who grew up in a family of modest means in Dhanana village near Bhiwani, Haryana, said she plans to use the money conservatively. The 22-year-old intends to pay off debts that her father incurred to support her career — he sold off his car, took long spells of unpaid leave and multiple loans to give his daughter the support she needed.
Nizamabad’s Nikhat on the other hand, famed for her brashness, Salman Khan fandom and cheeky sense of humour, grinned and said she’d always wanted to own a Mercedes!
Both champions will be able to do exactly the above as they won gold at the World Championships that concluded on March 26.
They weren’t the only ones though.
Indeed, if you are an Indian boxing fan, you probably had a dream weekend at the end of March. Those who showed up at the 20000-seater KD Jadhav stadium, with barely any room left to sit, were witness to a sea of Indian flags and roars of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, even as tears flowed freely, and fists pumped in the ring.
By late Sunday night, India’s tournament had ended with four champions – Nitu (48kg category), Nikhat (50kg), Lovlina Borgohain (75kg) and Saweety Boora (81kg) – their best haul in terms of gold medals since the World Championships in 2006, also in New Delhi.
Of course, a decade-and-a-half ago, the tournament was conducted at a time when women’s boxing was in its infancy and featured all of 180 athletes from 32 countries. In contrast the latest edition had 324 boxers from 65 nations participating. In a year’s time, there will be six Olympic gold medals to contend for. And with Indian boxing president Ajay Singh declaring that India would pitch to conduct the Olympic qualifiers for the Paris Games, the stakes are higher than ever.
Both Nikhat and Nitu won their weight categories in convincing fashion. Nitu established her credentials with three straight stoppages in the early rounds, while Nikhat was named the best emerging boxer of the tournament — a slightly perplexing decision considering this was her second consecutive World Championship gold.
But what will set up the two boxers on an inevitable collision course over, if not this then certainly subsequent Olympic cycles, is the fact that while the World Championships with its 12 weight classes kept them separate – albeit by just a couple of kilos – they will both be in competition for the same marquee 50kg light flyweight category – famous for being the one in which Mary Kom won a historic bronze in 2012. While they both returned with a gold medal each at the World Championships, there is only one spot in the potential Indian Olympic roster.
But more on that in a bit.
Let’s be clear. This isn’t diminishing the performance of either Lovlina or Saweety, both of whom won their first gold medal at the World Championships. Saweety’s gold is a testament to her devotion to the grind – her medal coming nine years after she won a silver at the 2014 Worlds in Jeju. She stuck it out in an unglamorous non-Olympic weight class, before finally tasting success in New Delhi.
Lovlina’s performance is significant, too. Bronze medallist in the 69kg category at the Tokyo Olympics, she had to recalibrate after the weight category got dropped from the Olympic programme for the Paris Games. She moved up to the middleweight (75kg) class populated by bigger, stronger and heavier punchers. The transition to the new weight was hard though – she crashed out of the 2022 World Championships and finished without any medals at the 2022 Commonwealth Games as well.
By the time New Delhi arrived, she showed just how well she had adapted. She swapped her aloof long-range style with a grittier combination of clinching and close-in punching. Despite her pedigree as a two-time World medallist and an Olympic bronze medallist, she was probably the underdog in the semifinal against Tokyo silver medallist Li Quan and in the final against Caitlin Parker – the Australian who remains the last boxer to have beaten Olympic champion Lauren Price. Lovlina managed to beat both by split decision and win her maiden World gold.
But it remains to be seen how successful this style of hers will be when she competes away from India. Boxers generally perform well in home events – Kazakhstan won a record 4 gold medals when they hosted the 2016 Worlds, Russia had their best performance in 2019 with three golds, while Turkey bagged 5 gold medals at the 2022 Worlds in Antalya, a record for the country. While boxers certainly have an edge in familiar conditions, studies have shown that strong crowd support can influence judges to favour certain fighters.
Neither Lovlina nor Saweety’s styles are the most visually pleasing, and in, at least the former’s case, her Australian opponent seemed to have reason to feel a tad aggrieved with the scoring in the final. In unfriendly shores such as the Asian Games in Huangzhou – which incidentally is the first qualification tournament for the Paris Olympics – it might well be the Indian who comes out on the wrong end of a close decision.
But that brings us back to Nitu and Nikhat.
The performance of both the boxers was something that seems tuned for more consistent success. While for Nitu, three stoppages were the most by any Indian boxer – male or female – in the history of the World Championships, Nikhat has the keys to a Mahindra Thar, her reward for best upcoming boxer.
Nitu, who at 22 years old was competing in only her second World Championships after losing in the quarterfinal of the 2022 edition, was in red hot form early in the tournament, stopping three straight opponents inside the distance. In the semifinal, she was up against two-time Asian Champion Alua Balkibekov, who had beaten her at the Worlds a year earlier. The Indian lost the first round before digging deep to win the next two with uncharacteristically scrappy grappling and defensive boxing. In the final against Asian bronze medallist Lutsaikhan Altensetseg, she switched tactics again, lobbing overhead left crosses over her opponent’s defensive right paw.
It wasn’t the prettiest style but what it showed is that Nitu has a thinking head on her shoulders. While her height and reach make her a natural distance fighter with the penchant for counterpunching on the backfoot, Nitu showed the ability to step forward and take control in the early rounds and clinch and grapple for position in the semis and final. “I used to box in the long-distance style in the past. What I like in this tournament is that I am now boxing according to the opponent’s style as well,” Nitu said after the semifinal.
Nitu is still a work-in-progress, admitted coaches. She is far more comfortable throwing shots while back-pedalling and prefers clean technical work to the street fight she found herself in in the medal rounds.
With Nikhat, it is hard to find any major weakness in her game at the moment. Unseeded at the start of the tournament (since her World Championship gold from last year came at a higher weight class of 52kg), she had to fight a career-high six tournament bouts, through a veritable minefield that included the African Champion in her second round, the Rio Olympic bronze medallist in the semifinals, and a two-time Asian champion in the final.
She has, according to her coaches, the style that’s closest to the manual for Indian boxers. “She has attained mastery of the middle-distance range,” says chief coach Bhaskar Bhatt. “You notice any time Nikhat fights, she is never more than one or, at the most two, steps away from her opponent. That puts a lot of pressure on her opponent because they are always within range of Nikhat’s punches. It also means that Nikhat is within range of their punches, but her movement is so good that she avoids their shots,” says Bhatt.
It’s an assessment that’s shared by John Warburton, chief coach at the Inspire Institute of Sport in Bellary where Nikhat has trained for the last two years. “Over the past two years, Nikhat’s movement has really improved. She doesn’t walk in straight lines in and out of range. She’s always moving back and forth and side to side and making a hard target,” he says.
This isn’t to say that Nikhat is unbeatable. Her high-risk high-reward style was punished when she walked into a left hand from her opponent in the final – Vietnam’s two-time Asian Champion Thi Tam Nguyen – and received a standing eight count, less than a minute after she had subjected her opponent to the same situation.
But even in such a situation, the Indian was unfazed. “What I liked most about Nikhat in this tournament was the level of control she had. Even when there were difficult moments, when there was grappling, she knew what she was doing. She was never under sustained pressure. Even in the final, she maintained the initiative (indeed there was never a moment over six bouts where Nikhat was trailing on the scorecards going into the final round). To sustain that level of dominance over six very tough bouts is incredible,” says Warburton.
For now, at least, it is Nikhat who is the superior boxer in her weight category. Bhatt says, “Nitu right now has to gain a lot of experience. She needs to know how to fight different kinds of opponents. Nikhat on the other hand is a very mature player already. If Nitu is still developing, Nikhat is about to reach her peak. Her confidence is very high and that is a huge help to a fighter.”
According to the selection criteria of the Boxing Federation of India, Nikhat’s gold in Delhi earned her the right to compete at the Asian Games and get a first shot at the Olympic quota for the 2024 Games. On form, there’s no reason she shouldn’t book her ticket to Paris in Hangzhou itself. Nikhat says she’s laser-focussed on that. “The World Championships were just like a preparatory tournament. I am focussed on winning the Olympic quota at the Asian Games and then performing at the Olympics next year,” she says.
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That’s where the challenge will come for Nikhat. “Until now she was the underdog. Now she is the frontrunner. She’s the boxer everyone will be targeting. She’s going to have to stay focussed and use her time well because there will be a lot of boxers looking to knock her off her perch,” says Carpenter.
Nikhat knows this will be the case since she was on the other side of a similar situation just a few years ago. Back in 2019, it was Nikhat who was the underdog, while Mary Kom was the established fighter. While she didn’t succeed in toppling the established boxer back then, she will recognise a familiar hunger in Nitu.
The younger boxer isn’t publicly demanding a trial for now. After the Worlds, she was asked about a potential clash with Nikhat. She made it clear that she was in agreement with the Federation’s selection policy.
But it’s also true that she’s thinking of the day when a clash is inevitable. “Nitu has wanted to go to the Olympics from the time she first became a world youth champion,” says Jagdish Kumar, Nitu’s coach at Bhiwani Boxing Club. “She knows she must move to the 50kg division. It is definitely something we are thinking about. We know that right now Nikhat is the strongest boxer in 50kg. But we know that we will have to give her a fight at some point. We are prepared for it and Nitu will give her 100 percent. She has a hunger that will only be satisfied with the Olympic medal,” says caoch Kumar, who has already has produced an Olympic medallist in Vijender Singh.
That’s for the future though. For now, both boxers are looking forward to some much-needed time off before the national camp restarts next month. “I’m really missing my mother’s food. The first thing I will do when I return home is eat my mom’s churma,” says Nitu. Nikhat is thinking of more savoury treats. “I really want to eat biryani. And it’s not the same eating it in Delhi. The place to eat biryani is at home in Hyderabad. I’m looking forward to that,” says Nikhat.
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