The jubilation across the country over Nikhat Zareen’s maiden World boxing title in Istanbul, Turkey, matched that of Mary Kom’s record sixth crown at home in 2018.
India, which looked up to a global icon in Mary for two decades and rejoiced at Lovlina Borgohain’s Tokyo Olympics medal, found another star who produced a series of resounding victories in a competitive field to rightfully claim a world champion’s status.
After all, Nikhat, who achieved her feat in a country where she had tasted her biggest successes, was only the fifth Indian woman and the first other than Mary to win a World crown outside the 2006 edition, which witnessed four Indian gold medallists on home turf in Delhi.
Nikhat’s scream on being named the 52kg World champion was perhaps a means to let out her suppressed emotions.
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It was dramatic justice for Nikhat, who always relied on her boxing skills and believed in her right to compete by breaking the barriers — including the conservative social hurdle of being a Muslim girl, switching from athletics to boxing to dismantle the stereotype of girls’ non-participation in a male-dominated sport, a career-threatening shoulder injury which robbed her of a year and an unwanted controversy involving her ‘idol’ Mary — from an early age.
Unfortunately, many viewed her appeal for a fair trial against Mary in 2019 as an act of audacity. Even the most decorated Indian boxer vented her ire against a younger rival on public platforms.
It was disappointing to witness the genesis of the controversy, purely out of a misunderstanding, at the India Open tournament in Guwahati earlier that year.
Nikhat never meant to offend her role model.
However, she did not shy away when she believed it was her right to compete in the trials for the Olympics qualifier.
Being mentally strong is a virtue which has helped her win inside the boxing ring and outside it. All through her journey, her parents’ support has been unflinching.
“I always believed in myself.The struggle I have faced in the past has made me stronger,” says Nikhat.
E. Chiranjevi, who coached Nikhat after she shifted to Hyderabad in 2014 and is still one of the people she turns to for advice, vouches for his student’s fighting spirit. “From the very start, she was stubborn. During a bout, if she gets one punch, then she gives back two,” says Chiranjevi.
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Former World champion Sarita Devi admires Nikhat’s ability to overcome the odds.“It is not easy for a Muslim girl to pursue a sport like boxing. Nikhat will be a huge source of inspiration for such girls,” says Sarita.
Nikhat’s game became stronger when she trained with American coach Ronald Simms, who worked with her for four years at the Inspire Institute of Sports (IIS) when the boxer was sponsored by JSW.
Simms instilled the attitude of a champion in Nikhat when she got a bronze medal at the 2019 Asian championships.
“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… There were a lot of tears but I think some of what I said got to her,”says Simms.
Nikhat has been in touch with Simms and seeks his advice on a regularbasis.“Ron has made a big contribution in my growth. When I was injured in 2017 and started from the basics after my rehab, I trained under Ron. He is a dedicated coach and I enjoyed training under him. I was in touch with him during the World championships,” says Nikhat, who was so keen on improving her game after COVID-19 cases came down that she spent from her own pocket to train at the IIS for about three months as her sponsorship was over.
Nikhat’s maturity got reflected in the results — beating two World champions at the Bosphorus tournament last year, winning the gold medal at the Strandja memorial event and then winning the World crown.
“Nikhat’s experience helped her. She was good, technically and tactically (in Istanbul). Her precision was her strength,” says Chiranjevi.
According to former Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF) secretary Brig. (retd.) P.K.M. Raja, who was a referee-judge and the current president of a professional body, the Indian Boxing Council (IBC), Nikhat caught his eye because of her attractive boxing.
“When I saw her as a teenager, I knew she was champion material. She has a clean style with good footwork and is very exciting to watch. She has a combination of styles which she has picked from her experience of working with different coaches,” says Raja.
The influence of various coaches has enriched Nikhat. It might have confused another boxer with a lesser IQ.
“I worked on how to face different styles of boxers. It helped me (in the World championships). I worked with (chief coach Bhaskar) Bhatt Sir on this. I normally discuss with Ron, John (Warburton), the present IIS coach from England, Bhatt Sir and Chiranjevi Sir,” she says.
Nikhat’s polished approach has made her a better boxer. “After my injury I have been very alert. Whenever I throw any punch, I try to throw a correct punch and avoid false punches, which may injure me. Strength training has helped me increase power in my punches.
“I have worked on my aggression and combinations, attack, re-attack and playing from a distance,” says Nikhat, who will turn 26 in June.
While taking heart from her World titlewinning performance to prepare herself for the 2024 Paris Olympics, Nikhat does not want to leave out other goals such as the Commonwealth Games.
Besides Nikhat, bronze medallists — debutant Parveen (63kg) and Manisha (57kg) also proved their worth in Istanbul.
“Parveen fought well and lost by a split decision in the semifinals. Manisha beat some experienced boxers. I think Indian women’s boxing will go far,” says Nikhat.
Altogether eight Indians were in the quarterfinals and a few of them lost narrowly in the biggest ever field of 310 boxers, including some Olympic medallists, from 73 countries despite the absence of strong nations such as China, Russia, Belarus and North Korea.
Of course, the sport has become more popular and has attracted attention since its inclusion in the Olympics a decade ago.
Several countries made their debut and some won medals for the first time in the event which offered lucrative prize money.
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“The standard was good despite the absence of some top nations. Even our girls gave a good performance,” says former National coach Anoop Kumar.
Overall, Indian women are making the most of the excellent facilities, training and exposure provided to them to impress all at the global stage. Keen competition in domestic meets indicate the abundance of talent in the country.
All this has increased the aspirations of the women boxers. Chief coach Bhatt thinks the self-belief to achieve success is a major driving force for the girls.
With Paris 2024 in sight, the women boxers are looking determined to improve upon the country’s Tokyo 2020 performance of one bronze medal earned by Lovlina.