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Boxing

Road to Paris: How Nikhat Zareen transformed into one of India's biggest medal hopes

With two Worlds gold and only two defeats in 18 months, boxer Nikhat Zareen has emerged as one of India's biggest medal hopes in the Paris Olympics.

Road to Paris: How Nikhat Zareen transformed into one of Indias biggest medal hopes
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Boxer Nikhat Zareen celebrates after winning her bout at the World Championships in New Delhi in 2023. (FILE PHOTO: BFI)

By

Sudipta Biswas

Published: 15 Jun 2024 2:04 PM GMT

In 2019, boxer Nikhat Zareen was in the news for all the wrong reasons. The controversy of trials took centre stage, and her career looked off balance.

Then only 23, Nikhat was at loggerheads with legendary Mary Kom over her request for a trial to choose India's contestant at the Olympic boxing qualifiers in Jordan.

As Nikhat sought a fair chance, the six-time world champion Mary took it otherwise. Due to her experience and illustrious career, she sought a direct entry to the qualifiers.

"Who is Nikhat Zareen?" asked Mary undermining Nikhat's abilities.

Boxing Federation of India (BFI), on its part, refused to pay heed to Nikhat's request as well.

After the matter caught the glare of then sports minister Kiren Rijiju, Nikhat was rendered a chance, but she lost the bout by a comprehensive 1-9 margin.

Mary's refusal to shake hands with Nikhat left the youngster in a shamble. She left the ring in tears and struggled to come to terms with the attitude of her 'idol'.

Later, Mary, defending her actions, said, "I am also a human being, I can also get irritated. Cannot I get angry when my credentials are questioned?"

While both boxers expressed their emotions, fans saw it as a bitter rivalry that enthused them. But sports minister Rijiju was not impressed, and he took a shot.

Reacting to the chaos, he wrote on X, "Too much of issues are created on this! Mary Kom is a legend who has achieved what no other boxer has ever achieved in the World Amateur Boxing. Nikhat Zareen is an amazing boxer who has the potential to follow in the footsteps of Mary Kom. India is proud of both of them. Period..."

Nikhat was a special talent, her arrival on the senior circuit was just a matter of time. She had already won the World Junior Championships gold medal.

However, her transition to the senior level was not smooth. Due to Mary Kom's dominating presence in the 50-51kg category, Nikhat's wait for the arrival at the senior level got longer.

Spreading the wings

Nikhat's career eventually spread its wings on July 29, 2021, when Mary lost to Ingrit Valencia in the second round of the Tokyo Olympics.

In her flamboyant style, Nikhat would post a photograph of her outside the NIS Patiala hostel a few days later, with a digital board reading, "Countdown to Paris 2024 - 1082 days, 18 hours, 11 minutes, 44 seconds."

She would write on X, "Road to Paris 2024 begins."

Nikhat has since then emerged as a true heir of Mary Kom. She has already won the World Championships twice.

In 2022, Nikhat clinched the gold medal in the 51kg flyweight category. The following year, she adjusted to the Olympic category, reducing her weight by a kilogram, and emerged triumphant at the World Championships in New Delhi in the lightweight category.

She has been a super consistent boxer. She lost just two bouts since 2022, first at the Asian Games in Hangzhou where she lost to Chuthamat Raksat in the semifinal, forcing her to settle for the bronze medal, and then at the Strandja Memorial, against Sabina Bobokulova, in May this year.

Despite such rare setbacks, one target that remains active in her mind is to fulfill her dream of competing in the biggest sporting show on the earth, the Olympics, and winning a medal over there in Paris.

Nikhat was among the first Indian athletes to qualify for the Paris Olympics following her bronze medal-winning performance at the Asian Games last year.

Over the last couple of years, Nikhat has transformed herself into a champion boxer.

The year 2022 gave her self-belief and the capacity to rely on her skills. On her way to winning the Strandja Memorial in Bulgaria, she outstarted Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Buse Naz Cakiroglu. And then came the biggest performance of her career at the World Championships.

Nikhat was so consistent in New Delhi that no judge dared to hand her a split victory. She won all bouts by a margin of 5-0 creating an aura for herself in the international arena.

She would complete a treble by bagging the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

Nervy days

A naturally attacking boxer, Nikhat would also tweak her style a bit to adjust to the evolving nature of the sport. Her game is now a mix of controlled aggression and rock-solid defence.

By 2023, she was already a renowned face in Indian boxing and there were expectations, but Nikhat did not show any sign of nerves. She delivered by clinching her second gold, in a reduced weight category.

Despite the success, Nikhat remains hungry and strives to make herself sturdy for the big battle. In the last couple of years, she changed her training bases frequently to get herself acquainted with the style of her opponents. She craved to make her campaign in Paris memorable.

Olympic fever has already caught up with Nikhat; she is admittedly 'nervous' before the big event. But she explained why being edgy was important for her before the marquee event. "If I do not get nervous, my body does not work the way I want. When I am nervous, my body works well. I am more focused," she reasoned.

Given her consistency and hell-bent dedication to boxing, anything less than a medal would be a disappointment for Nikhat.

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