It was not the victory, excitement, or her dominance in the final at the Strandja Memorial Boxing Tournament in Bulgaria but her performance at the semi-finals that Nikhat Zareen rates higher.

She had cruised to the semi-finals where she was going to face Turkey’s Busenaz Cakiroglu who had defeated her 5-0 at the Bosphorus Tournament in Istanbul last year. She was well aware that the former World Champion had an advantage over her because of that. She knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

But, Zareen had a plan.

She spent a good amount of time thinking about how Busenaz had nothing to lose. The Turk had won a silver medal in the Tokyo Olympics, a gold in the European Games in 2019 and a silver in the World Championship in Russia in the same year. Busenaz is a decorated pugilist in the boxing circuit and Nikhat knew that but she also knew that she had everything to gain if she beat her.

She almost manifested that if she was able to beat a Tokyo Olympics medalist in the semi-finals, it would be her name that would be making the headlines. In hindsight, it was this mentality that helped Zareen perhaps win the bout before stepping into the ring. What followed was a rather convincing 4-1 victory in the ring that she fittingly termed ‘sweet revenge.’

It was probably that thinking that enabled her to remain steadfast in her resolve to get the gold at the Strandja Memorial for the second time, after beating Ukraine’s Tetiana Kob, a three-time European Championships medalist, 4-1 in the finals.

“My plan was to not let her play her game at all. The first two rounds would be about aggression and then if I can get two rounds easily, I would have fun in the process of taking the third round,” she dissected her plan against Busenaz, in a conversation with Scroll.in.

Nikhat Zareen’s round-by-round account of the bout:

When I went to the bout, the first round was a 3-2 decision and I returned to my corner and asked, ‘Sir, score kya hai?’

He said, ‘3-2.’

Even then, I wasn’t sure that the three judges gave it to me and two gave it to her.

I then asked, ‘Sir, 3 kiska hai?’

He said, ‘3 apna hai.’

Then, there was a really tiny glimmer of hope. I told myself, ‘Nikhat, ek round toh tera hogaya hai , bas ek aur round lena hai tujhe and 2 round mil jaenge tujhe.’

I then gave my 100% in the second round. 

Naz had also got a warning in that round and I was relieved in my head because her points would get deducted.

I happily told myself, ‘Wow, it is a warning for her and now I’ll win the round.’

But just a few moments later, even I was given a warning.

I then told myself, ‘Oh bette, ab khatam. Ab aur jaan lagani hogi.’

I asked, ‘Sir, score kya hai?’

Sir said, ‘4-1.’

I again asked, ‘Sir, 4 kiska hai?’

He said, ‘4 apna hai.’

I was even more happy that I won the second round too.

Then I thought to myself, ‘I have won these two, main teesra halke mein kyun lu?’

After that, I went all out and the last round was in my favour too. When my hand was raised, I was so happy, I had tears. 

Nikhat Zareen (in red) in action at the Strandja Memorial Boxing Tournament 2022

In the first bout at the tournament too, Zareen was handed a rather tough draw with England’s Charley Davison who had performed well at the Tokyo Olympics before losing out in the second round. Zareen had watched her bouts and done her homework before she met her face-to-face in the ring.

“She had good height, is a southpaw and her strength was her left-handed jabs. My strategy was primarily blocking her left hand and continuing with my own attacking game,” she explained.

Her homework proved to be solid. She ended up dominating the English boxer in a busy bout eventually securing a unanimous 5-0 win.

Destination: Paris

Zareen returned from Bulgaria merely 48 hours ago but she’s already thinking about the World Championship Trials that begin this month. She believes that this victory will boost her confidence after beating experienced boxers. She is thinking about it because while she travels across the world for these tournaments, Paris is what is truly on her mind.

The Olympic cycle is shorter this time around but Zareen still has other big challenges to tackle. With the World Championship in May, the Commonwealth Games in July and the Asian Games in September, Zareen only hopes that her body continues to remain in the form that it was in during Strandja.

“I began preparations for the World Championship in July itself, as soon as I found out that a national gold medal would help with direct qualification for the Championship. Unfortunately, after Nationals, we found out that it was postponed till May 2022.

“I’m focusing step by step because my goal is Paris and to reach there, these competitions are very important for me to prepare myself. I have to make my place there so I need to do well before that. I want to focus on each competition step by step, so my focus is consistency. I don’t want to stress about Commonwealth and Asiad early and then end up not performing well at the World Championship,” she said.

Ultimate aims

Zareen has spoken at length before about her family and how her immediate social circle worried about her venturing into a sport like boxing. Her father was already well-versed with the intricacies of the sport and had encouraged and accompanied her since 2010 for every competition she participated in. From nationals to trials, he was always there.

Her mother wasn’t initially sold on the idea of her coming back with a black eye or risk her face being messed up during training but the 25-year-old from Telangana is now convinced that over the years, she too is now ‘in full form’ to become her coach.

“Sometimes, I feel like they really have become my coaches. When I used to win a bout and video call my parents, they used to say ‘Mubarak ho, acha khela but try to avoid being clinched, keep your distance.’ There used to be a time when they didn’t even know the ‘B’ of boxing but now they instruct me about punches like the upper-cut and the hook. I find it really funny.”

Nikhat Zareen with her nephews during the off-season. Credit: Nikhat Zareen

Nikhat’s ultimate professional goal is driven by a philosophy that she seems to follow to fulfill her ultimate personal goal too. And it’s almost astonishing how she can switch from being the aggressive and methodical boxer in the ring to a humble, free-spirited woman each time she brings up her goals and family.

“My ultimate aim is to win a gold medal at the Olympics and that is what I keep working on and the rest is up to God’s will. My job is to work hard and give everything I can and as they say, if you do good, good will come to you. That’s the path I am on.

“I’m living my life to the fullest because I know not many women get to live the life I am living now and for that, I am truly grateful for the support of my family and parents. I don’t want to let them down and only want to make them proud. In the future, I want to give them every happiness I can provide them with.”

Having already seen a fair share of ups and downs in her career, Zareen is equipped with the strength of fists as well as will, in her quest to be one of the best in the business.