Nikhat Zareen is in a happy place right now — at her home in Hyderabad with family. She is on a break, after winning her second gold medal at the World Boxing Championships in New Delhi.
Once the camp at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala resumes in a couple of weeks, the 26-year-old will return to the spartan routine of an elite boxer. The day will start early, with promises of sore muscles from heavy gym sessions, bruised egos and blackened eyes from hard sparring, and a constant state of hunger because of the calorie-deficit diet she will follow to make the 50kg weight category she competes in.
But at least for a few days, Nikhat can let her shoulder length hair flow, instead of the tight braid that she adorns while boxing. Her upper lip that was split open by a punch in the final of the World Championships has also healed in the comforts of home.
“ Abhi samjho vacation pe hai (She is enjoying her vacation),” says her father Jameel. “She wakes up at 8 or 9 am. Then she spends the whole day chatting on the phone with her friends and playing with her nephew and niece. It’s Ramzan, so she’s eating her mother’s haleem and biryani. She tries everything. She misses that a lot when she is training,” he says.
But her short break at home has often been broken by regular calls for felicitation and other official engagements. Brands have been quick to cash in on Nikhat’s newfound stardom. Over the past few years, Nikhat has emerged as the face for Adidas, Thums Up and Google. She has also been lavished with money, land and a high-ranking job by the State government. With her two World titles — the only Indian, apart from M. C. Mary Kom, to win more than one — a Commonwealth gold and the Khel Ratna — she is right now the biggest star in Indian boxing.
A bona fide star
Nikhat’s love for biryani is only matched by her passion for Bollywood cinema and Salman Khan, and her desire to sing a duet with her hero is no longer a daydream.
Recently, she recorded an Instagram video of her lip-syncing and dancing alongside the Bollywood star. “When I met Salman Khan, it was special, an emotional moment for me. I was nervous before meeting him, but once I met him, he made me feel comfortable. We talked about my boxing, and we even made reels together,” she says. “Also, when I went to KBC ( Kaun Banega Crorepati) and The Kapil Sharma Show, I got that feeling that ‘wow, these guys know who I am.’ I remember when Kiara Advani and Vicky Kaushal were asked on KBC ‘who received the Khel Ratna recently’, Vicky Kaushal confidently took my name. He knew who I was. That is when I realised even I am a star,” she marvels.
But Nikhat’s life has not always been about adulation, grand receptions, and reels with Salman Khan. “In the last 10 months, my life has changed drastically. I have been watching my dreams come true, and I am grateful for it. Whenever I sit alone and ponder, I get tears in my eyes,” she says.
A tough road to success
“Before becoming a two-time World champion, I was just another boxer. Not many people knew me. I was an underdog. I faced injuries, an orthodox society, and other challenges. I was not ready for all this; I had no idea about them. I had to fight to get an opportunity to show my worth. None of these was easy, but I believed in myself and came through every challenge. Everyone goes through struggles and tough times. Everyone falls. But if you get up after that, there is no one who can stop you,” she says.
It was the Indira Gandhi Stadium, the scene of her latest triumph, that was also witness to the lowest point in her career. Back in 2019, she was still trying to find a place in the Indian team. Even though she was a Youth World champion, standing in her way was India’s first Olympic bronze medallist in women’s boxing — Mary Kom.
The Manipuri literally owned the women’s flyweight spot in the national team. Her resume: six gold medals at the World Championships and the first bronze medal for India in women’s boxing at the Olympics. Replacing Mary Kom in the national team meant replacing a piece of Indian sporting history.
At the end of 2019, Nikhat requested the Indian Boxing Federation to conduct trials to pick the team for the Olympics selection competition. It was not a request that went down well with the senior pro looking at a swansong on the biggest stage.
“Who is Nikhat Zareen?” Mary Kom had quipped.
Nikhat, like every Indian woman boxer of the last decade, had grown up admiring Mary Kom and while she was hurt by the criticism for seeking a fair trial, she would insist on it. It was eventually granted. Nikhat, then 22, lost a close but fair decision. That was followed by a sharp verbal exchange in the ring.
As a dejected Nikhat trudged back to her hostel, she was subjected to further taunts. “Why couldn’t you just wait for your time. You got carried away by people,” a Federation official told her.
“I wasn’t asking for a favour. I was asking for my right,” Nikhat replied.
Sarita Devi, the 2006 World Champion in lightweight, too, had competed at those trials and remembers the day well. “After the fight, I saw that she was almost in tears. But she never cried. Not in public. She went to the toilet next to the boxing hall. Nikhat won’t ever show any weakness,” she remembers. “I knew she was hurting and told her not to worry and that her time will come.”
Sarita, 15 years older to Nikhat, always had a soft spot for her since she first saw the youngster at the national camp. “At that time, I was an established boxer. She was coming from youth to senior. I liked her game. She had a very neat and clean style,” she says. But Sarita also empathised with the rookie. “In Indian boxing, girls generally come from two parts of the country. They are either from Haryana or from the NorthEast. She was from Telangana, which did not have a boxing culture. She was all by herself,” Sarita says. Nikhat was an outsider. She was a Muslim. “I’d seen Muslim girl boxers in Turkey and other Muslim countries. But I had not seen many in India. I think in all my time at the national camp, there have been two including Nikhat. I had a Muslim friend from Manipur who wanted to be a boxer and I knew how hard it was for her. She’d train with us and then change to a hijab when she went home. I was curious whether Nikhat had to deal with this as well,” recalls Sarita.
Nizamabad, where Nikhat originally hails from, is a small town — about 160 km away from Hyderabad — and did not have the most progressive attitude to a young girl trying to make her way in sport.
“We talked about her struggles, how she had to fight to wear shorts and compete. But she always told me that it was her father who backed her. She told me ‘I can do what I can because my father always fights for me. He wants me to do well,’” recalls Sarita.
If you ask him, Jameel doesn’t think he did anything extraordinary. “It’s true that not everyone in the neighbourhood or even the family were supportive. It’s the usual thing. They would say it is wrong and it would spoil her marriage prospects. Some never approved of her wearing boxing shorts. But I never let Nikhat worry about these things. I wanted her to do her best. People always talk. If you stop and listen to what everyone has to say, you won’t go very far,” he says.
Jameel, a former athlete, at first encouraged Nikhat to start as a sprinter, and she won medals at the State level. Nikhat took to boxing after Jameel was left impressed with a training session at Nizamabad’s secretariat ground. In the absence of other young girls, she sparred with older boys. Backed by her father and fighting against tougher opponents, Nikhat progressed rapidly, and won 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.
If you ask Nikhat today, she says she derives more joy from the respect her father enjoys rather than her own wealth and fame. “Wherever my father goes, people respect him. In the initial days of my boxing career, my father had to struggle a lot to get financial aid for my boxing. He had to give up his job to support me. Now he is highly respected, which makes me proud,” she says.
Punching past orthodoxy
But in those early days when she was trying to make her way in the national camp, there was little support. Nikhat doesn’t hide her Muslim identity. At the New Delhi World Championships, she performed a sajdah (prayer) on the canvas after the ring announcer called her name as the champion of the light flyweight category. In the press conference that followed, she said that she’ll use the prize money (approximately Rs. 81 lakh) to send her parents for Haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
Back when she was a freshman at the national camp, there was little understanding of her unique situation. “There was no discrimination in the camp, everyone wanted to see her succeed because we knew how hard it was for her to even get there. Nikhat had to make a lot of personal sacrifices that I knew were hard for her. You had to eat whatever was available at the camps. Sometimes, there were concerns if the meat served was halal, but Nikhat would say ‘God is in my heart,’” Sarita says.
Nikhat found support from the Manipuri girls in the camp. There was not a lot of Hyderabadi biryani at the camp, but Nikhat would always hang out with the Manipuri girls. Sometimes, she would bring imli achaar (tamarind pickle) from home, but she really enjoyed the eromba (a spicy chutney of dried fish and vegetables) that we made. Even now when we meet, she always asks me for eromba,” says Sarita.
The hunger to prove her worth has been the critical driving force for Nikhat, especially after the incident with Mary Kom. Wrestling World Championship bronze medallist and three-time Commonwealth Games champion Vinesh Phogat, a couple of years older to Nikhat, shares a close bond that began when both were recovering from serious injuries — Vinesh suffered a knee injury at the 2016 Olympics and Nikhat hurt her shoulder at the 2017 Nationals.
“We got talking because we were always finding ourselves at the rehab centre at the same time. At that time, she was not so confident. I had already competed at the Olympics and had a Commonwealth Games gold medal and Nikhat was still trying to make her place in the national team. She considered me a bit of a senior back then. She’d ask me ‘ didi kya lag raha hai. Comeback ho payega kya? (What do you think? Will I be able to make a comeback?). I’d try to keep her confidence up. I’d say don’t worry you’ll make it back,” Vinesh says.
Over the years, Vinesh saw her change as a fighter. “I remember she had posted a tweet where she had requested for a trial with Mary Kom. I called her up and asked if she was up for it and that she had to be careful because it’s not easy to go against an athlete who is obviously supported by the Federation. Uss se ladna system se ladne jaisa hai. (To fight against Mary Kom was like fighting against the system.) But she was very clear,” Vinesh recalls.
They spoke again after Nikhat’s loss. “She was disappointed, but she was not depressed. Nikhat said: ‘At least I fought. Agli baar dekh loongi (I will win next time),’” recalls Vinesh.
“As humans, we see defeat as a downfall. But in her case, it worked as a motivation. There was a new energy inside her, as if a volcano inside her had exploded. Once that energy is unleashed, it is impossible to stop,” Vinesh says, echoing Nikhat’s own beliefs. But Nikhat had to bide her time as Mary Kom went to the World Championships, won a medal, and then qualified for the Olympics. Meanwhile in India, with the COVID-19 wave sweeping the nation, and forcing a country-wide lockdown, Nikhat had to find ways to stay motivated.
“It was a difficult time for her,” says Jameel. “She was already unhappy about not going to the Olympics. And she couldn’t train at a gym because of the lockdown. We tried to do our best to keep her motivated. She used to play with her niece and nephew, and we tried to make it competitive. We would organise little races where they would chase Nikhat on the roof of our house. If they caught her, they’d get Rs. 10,” says Jameel.
Polishing her game
In 2021, while Mary competed in her final Olympics, Nikhat started training with John Warburton at the Inspire Institute of Sport. Training under Warburton, a former coach with the Great Britain Olympics team, helped her fine-tune her boxing technique. “Nikhat has always been someone who enjoys fighting. When she wants to box, she can box. That’s not a bad thing. But when I first came, she was not making the most of that mentality. She used to move in a line. Straight in and out. She was easy to hit. She threw a lot of bent arm shots which can get tangled up in her opponent’s guard and are a bit messy. Now when she goes in, she is not just moving in a straight line. She moves around laterally and steps out of position. She makes herself a difficult target. And she throws a lot of straight shots that reach the target faster. She still throws hooks and uppercuts, but she is mixing it up a lot more,” says Warburton.
On the advice of a psychologist, she became a believer in the power of manifestation — drawing up posters with goals and targets before competitions.
The new Nikhat won her first National title in 2021. She then drew up her first manifestation poster for the 2022 Strandja Boxing tournament where she won the title, beating the Olympic silver medallist Busenaz Cakiroglu in the semis. That was followed by probably the most significant win of her career at the 2022 World Championships in Turkey.
While that win didn’t come in the Olympic weight category — Nikhat competed in the 52kg weight class last year — Vinesh believes it was even more special than the World title Nikhat won at home last month. “I remember when we spoke on the phone after she won her first World title. She was so excited. For her it was a completely new experience. Jitni ladai usne ki thi uss mukam pahunchne ke liye, (The amount she had to fight to get to that level), she could not believe she had overcome all of that. When I spoke to her after the second World title, it felt she had at last realised that it was always her level,” says Vinesh.
The confidence that came with that first World title has made a huge difference to Nikhat as a boxer. “From a technical or tactical perspective, there is not much of a change in her ability. But you can see the difference in her self-belief. I have only seen such self-belief in James DeGale (the 2008 Olympic middleweight champion). She knows she can do it. Asian Games or the Olympics, it doesn’t matter,” Warburton says.
In a class of her own
Indian boxing chief coach Bhaskar Bhatt has noticed this change as well. “Right now, the biggest difference between Nikhat and every other Indian boxer is that she knows she belongs at this level. When she punches, there’s no self-doubt. She is boxing instinctively. As a result, she gets her punches off unlike someone who must think before they punch. It is a huge advantage for her,” he says. Warburton, who has worked with multiple Olympic medallists in England, sees Nikhat as a medal prospect at the Paris Games.
“She’s beaten everyone who could be a possible contender for her at the Paris Olympics. We are still a year away from the Olympics, but she has beaten the Asian champion, the Olympic silver medallist, and the Rio bronze medallist. We could see someone come up in the next year, but I genuinely don’t see a potential challenger. The only real threat for Nikhat is Nikhat,” Warburton says.
As her wins have piled up, so have the rewards. While Warburton worries whether the attention will make her lose focus, those close to Nikhat don’t see her changing with success.
The ability to stay focussed
“She might be a two-time World champion, but she has remained the same person I knew,” says Vinesh. “ Ekdum muffat insan hai (She has absolutely no filter). I thought I have a bad habit of speaking a little openly but I’m one percent of what she is. Bohot bakwas karte hain (We talk a lot of nonsense). She’ll talk about films, boys and her non-existent love life. Sometimes she speaks without any sense of shyness, and I feel embarrassed for her. But she doesn’t care. You can’t help but love her,” says Vinesh.
Nikhat’s father Jameel also complains with mock exasperation about how his daughter is constantly on the phone with her companions from the working-class neighbourhood of Vishesh Vihar in Nizamabad where she originally grew up.
While life around her has changed immeasurably, Nikhat doesn’t find any reason to be different. “I stay grounded because I know where I come from. I grew up with very poor people, I spent my full childhood with them. Even I come from a very humble background. Now that I’ve reached this stage of my life where I have got everything I want, I can’t forget my roots,” Nikhat says.
Vinesh, too, is glad that success has not changed her friend.
“Sometimes I call her unlimited talk time because she can talk non-stop. My husband Somvir tells me when I am feeling angry or sad, I should call Nikhat. You are guaranteed to be on the phone for at least an hour and she puts on such a ridiculous Haryanvi-Hyderabadi accent that by the end of it your stomach will ache because you laugh so much,” Vinesh says.
But beyond the fun and frolic, there is an underlying steely resolve in her friend. “We are from very different backgrounds but our thought process, values and direction to sports are very similar. Her boxing hunger has only grown. She is not satisfied. That mentality is as strong as ever,” Vinesh says.
Eyeing the Paris podium
Nikhat believes this as well and wants to keep the fire burning till the Paris Olympics. “I don’t know if I will continue to box after the 2024 Olympics. So, I will give everything for Paris. I don’t want any regrets after Paris,” she says.
It’s not any other medal but gold that drives her to trade her relaxed Hyderabad mornings and home-cooked meals for the standard-issue mattress, blood and sweat of training, scars and bruises of sparring and boiled bland fare of the national camps.
“I come from a middle-class family. I come from a minority community where girls don’t always get the opportunity to take up sports. Boxing has given me freedom. Through boxing, I’ve been able to explore the world and make new friends.
“When Neeraj Chopra won the Olympic gold medal, his life changed but he also changed so many lives. No one knew about javelin. Now everyone knows about it. So many youngsters want to take up javelin. I want that when I win a medal at the Olympics; for more girls from minority communities to take up the sport. I want to be a role model. That’s why I do what I do,” she says.
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