Nikhat Zareen recounted an anecdote from several years ago when she spoke to the media from Istanbul on Thursday. Of a time when a stubborn little girl from Nizamabad looked at the boxing ring at the Urban Games and asked her father, ‘Why are there no women here? Is this game for men only?’ She remembered her father replying, ‘No, women can also box but people think women are not strong enough to enter this sport.’
That felt like a challenge to the girl who was dabbling in athletics until then. She resolved to be one of the female boxers in that ring.
Nikhat Zareen, the proud winner of the gold medal in the Flyweight category (52kg) at the IBA Women’s Boxing World Championship, is now only the first Indian not named Mary Kom to have clinched gold at the event in the last fourteen years.
Manifesting a reality is often bringing something tangible into your life. The best of athletes visualise the biggest moments to will themselves on, to make their dreams a reality. And on the morning of her final bout in Istanbul, she believed and manifested that reality before she entered the ring to face Thailand’s Jitpong Jutamas.
“The first thing I did this morning was remember God and tell myself that it’s the final day and I have to give my best and create history. This is what I thought, this is how I prepared myself. And then I went for the weigh ins,” Nikhat said on Thursday.
“All day, I was visualising that my hand was being raised, that I am performing like this, that I am winning unanimously.”
Not only was her hand raised, not only did she perform like a champion, but she also won the final bout unanimously, just like her four previous bouts in the tournament.
The road to becoming World Champion
Nikhat had raised expectations in India after her dominant show throughout the year. She had already clinched gold at the Strandja Memorial where she beat decorated pugilists, like Turkey’s Busenaz Cakiroglu who was a silver medallist in the Tokyo Olympics and won gold in the European Games in 2019 and a silver in the World Championship in Russia in the same year. She then beat Ukraine’s Tetiana Kob, a three-time European Championships medalist, 4-1 in the final.
As a result, stepping into Istanbul, she was one of the favourites to make it to the medal rounds. Earlier in the tournament, Nikhat defeated Mexico’s Herrera Alvarez by unanimous decision to start off her campaign. She then beat Mongolia’s Lutsaikhan Altantsetseg by a unanimous 5-0 verdict to sail into the quarter-finals.
And expectedly, she assured India of its first World Championships medal in 2022 by dominating in a 5-0 win against England’s Charley-Sian Taylor Davison. Her comprehensive 5-0 win over Brazil’s Caroline De Almeida looked rather easy in comparison.
Up against her in the final was Thai counterpart Jutamas, who she had already defeated in the Thailand Open semi-final in 2019. However, she could not let that advantage be a means for any complacency as Jutamas was also high on confidence having entered the finals after stunning two-time World Champion Kazakhtan’s Zhaina Shekerbekova 4-1 in the semi-final.
And so Nikhat got out to a fast start in the final, landing some hard punches in the first three minutes to gain the lead. All five judges gave the first round to the Indian. The plan was on track. But the second round was much closer as Jutamas attempted a comeback with a counter-attacking show but the quick-moving Nikhat didn’t let it get out of her sight. The Thai got the second round 3-2 but the Indian still had the overall advantage.
And then came the final push, Nikhat was not going to play it safe even if she needed just a 10-9 from one the three judges on the fence. Her focus before the bout was on winning 5-0 and that was not going to change now. Instead, Nikhat went all out and launched a relentless assault to secure a 30-27, 29-28, 29-28, 30-27, 29-28 score from the judges and eventually, win the gold.
“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,” Nikhat told Scroll.in earlier this year.
Although Nikhat relishes challenges, the road so far has been more bumpy for the 25-year-old than she would have liked. But she acknowledged its where her strength – both mental and physical – comes from. Now, she almost always brushes aside the incident that took place right before the World Championships back in 2019 when she asked for a fair trial against Mary Kom.
She had also faced a career-threatening injury in 2017, dislocating her shoulder, putting her out of the game for nearly a year. She went through her recovery and did intense training after which she was raring to display her peak, but then she was left to navigate a pandemic-enforced international gap that made her wait to represent India again far longer.
“The challenges that I have faced in my journey... those things have made me strong. After my injury, I have become more mentally strong. Since then, I decided that whatever comes my way, no matter how many challenges come my way, I will fight and not give up,” she said.
“These two years, I focused on myself and my worked upon my weaknesses and the areas that I was lagging in. I knew why I was losing the bouts I lost and I improved upon that. I made myself strong and that’s what helped me here.”
Navigating through challenges
Nikhat has a clear, long-term vision that eyes a podium finish in Paris 2024, and she believes in taking every achievement in the build-up as a stepping stone. For her, the big challenge she overcame at the World Championship was maintaining the peak level of her body.
“I came straight from Strandja and appeared for the trials of World Championship and Asian Games. It was not easy because there you are playing tough bouts against experienced and decorated boxers. I tried to keep my body calm and composed to ready it for the trials. I managed to win in both the trials and then begin preparations for World Championships. Now that this is over, I will move to preparing for Commonwealth trials. The focus will be to preserve my body and remain injury-free,” she said.
In conversation with this writer in March, Nikhat acknowledged the privilege of representing her country and reaping success. She said, “I am truly grateful for the support of my family and parents for the life I’m living now. 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.”
When Nikhat’s hand was raised, she burst out in an animated celebration that seemed to contain multitudes of feelings, ranging from pure satisfaction to rage to happiness and sheer self-confidence. But as she greeted her opponent and acknowledged the audience and moved towards stepping out of the ring and hugging her coach Bhaskar Bhatt, she also burst into tears.
On being asked about what was on her mind when the tears came rolling down, she answered, “My parents.”
“Whenever I won a bout and called home, my mother used to talk to me after offering namaaz and praying that her daughter wins. Her prayers have been fulfilled by God today. I am very happy to win it for her. And my father... everyone knows how supportive he has been of me. All of that flashed before my eyes,” said Nikhat.
“During my bad phase, there was no one for me except my family. All of this is because of my parents’ support. The first thing I wanted to do after the bout was hug them.”
There was a light moment during the press conference, when she enthusiastically asked, “Tell me, am I trending on Twitter? It was one of my dreams to trend on Twitter. If I am trending, I’m happy.”
Trending, she was. And, that is one heck of a way to let the world know who Nikhat Zareen is.