All eyes will be on the Indian contingent when the boxers take to the rings at the IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships set to begin on 15 March in New Delhi. India last held the Championships in 2018. Indian women, who have been in good recent form at major events, returned with three medallists in its previous edition at Istanbul.

The rise of reigning World Champion Nikhat Zareen and her journey to becoming only the fifth Indian woman to secure gold medal at the World Boxing Championship also plays a major role. Her consistency, the convincing nature of her wins in the ring and the hat-trick of golds in 2022 have ensured that she steps into the tournament as not just a local favourite, but also a heavy favourite in her weight category.

That the Indian women have had a better showing in major tournaments off-late in comparison to their male counterparts, also plays a role in expecting promising results at the big stage. With a mix of experience, recognised winners and fresh faces, India are going in with a solid 12-member squad.

Women’s World Boxing C’ships: Nikhat Zareen to Lovlina Borgohain – meet India’s 12-member squad

In the likes of Lovlina Borgohain, Saweety Boora and Zareen, India are assured of experience at the big stage. With Nitu Ghanghas and Manisha Moun, recent performances and good form are taken care of. Interestingly, five boxers in the squad have emerged out of the youth system. And with relatively lesser-known faces in Preeti, T Sanamacha Chanu, Shashi Chopra, Nupur Sheoran and Sakshi Chaudhary, the country can also showcase the talent depth, strong grass-roots and diversity in the boxing circuit.

Selection policy

However, the lead-up to the grand event hasn’t been without turbulence. Not everyone in the camp was happy with the selection for the squad, as a result of a new selection policy devised by the Boxing Federation of India in consultation with High Performance Director Bernard Dunne.

Instead of the traditional selections via trials method, the boxers underwent a three-week evaluation procedure based on various parameters in accordance with the new policy. Three boxers approached the Delhi High Court challenging the BFI for being left out of the Indian contingent.

“My opinion is if you are holding selection trials for every competition, we will just go competition, competition and competition. So before a major event your only focus becomes winning a trial,” Dunne had told Sportstar in January.

The Delhi HC recently ruled that they won’t interfere in selection matters.

Olympic qualification criteria

Then there is the continuing conflict between International Olympic Committee and International Boxing Association. With the former insisting that they will host the qualification tournaments for the Olympics, it has now been confirmed that the IBA is currently not going to be hosting these qualification events. As a result, the Championships have fewer stakes involved for athletes vying for a berth at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

However, IBA president Umar Kremlev in the press conference on Tuesday, also made it clear that only the IBA must be considered as the managing association for the tournaments that will be qualifiers for the Games.

“As I was informed, IOC representatives will attend the Championships and they will review all our work here,” he said.

He added: “We don’t pretend to be IOC or tell them what to do regarding this but the rules say that IBA be the one responsible for hosting these qualification tournaments before the Games. My recommendation to everyone is that we do it all together in order to develop boxing throughout the world.”

The BFI on Tuesday confirmed that a PricewaterhouseCoopers-led IOC monitoring team will work concurrently with the IBA while Prof. Richard McLaren and his McLaren Independent Investigation Team will be in charge of conducting background checks on competition officials at championship events.

Weaker field due to boycotts

Despite the promised grandeur of the event, it is also important to acknowledge that the boxers will undoubtedly also be participating in a relatively weaker field with several major nations boycotting the event. While some remain divided due to the long-standing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, others have chosen to withdraw due to Kremlev’s association with Vladimir Putin and the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes under their flags at the event.

As a result, India 2023 will not see boxers from Ukraine, the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland, Poland, The Netherlands, Ireland, Czech Republic, Sweden and Canada feature in the tournament. Although it takes away the opportunity to go up against some of the best boxers in one’s weight category, with several World champions and Olympic medallists missing, it sure does bolster India’s chances for a podium finish.

Mary Kom, the most decorated boxer in the history of Women’s World Championships, having clinched the title six times along with a silver and bronze and the ambassador for the tournament, in the press conference said, “We are expecting three or four gold medals, nothing less. The pressure is a lot but I am confident that the boxers can handle it.”

From L-R: Rajesh Bhandari, Senior Vice-President, BFI; Debojo Maharshi, Vice President, BFI; Ms.Neha Anand, Head, Global Brand and Marketing Communication, Automotive Division, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd; Mr. Ajay Singh, President, BFI, MC Mary Kom, (Olympics Bronze Medalist & Six-Time World Champion) and Hemanta Kumar Kalita, Secretary-General, BFI

Weight category challenge

Although Borgohain has returned to winning ways with a gold in the Nationals and ASBC Asian Elite Boxing Championships but her performance at bigger events like the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships last year were rather disappointing. She is aware that she needs to bounce back but another challenge awaits her – this will be her first major tournament competing in the 75kg middleweight division.

The pressure of expectations surely weighs heavy for the reigning 52kg champion, Zareen. But in a bid to strengthen her resolve for the Olympics, Zareen, like Borgohain, has shifted to the 50kg light flyweight category. However, Zareen has already featured in this category at the Commonwealth Games, so she is aware of the challenge she faces in this field and the tactical adjustments she needed to make.

“I am looking forward to defend my title in a new weight category which is an Olympic weight category so I’m really excited. I hope this time too, I can win the gold and make my country proud like I did in Istanbul last time,” said the reigning world champion in the pre-event press conference.

Although after Strandja Memorial 2022, World Championships, Commonwealth Games and Nationals, she is now looking to secure her fifth gold medal in a row, Zareen also remains grounded about her success so far.

Responding to a query about being strong mentally, she said: “It is important for an athlete to be mentally strong in addition to being physically strong. When an athlete loses, nobody feels as bad as they do... not the fans, but the athlete themselves. But I personally believe that whatever happens, happens for good. I’ll take that as a lesson and work on that, work on whatever mistakes I make in the match and make a stronger comeback.”

The IBA Women’s World Championships will have prize money of $2.4 million split across 12 weight classes and gold, silver and bronze medallists.

India’s squad: Nitu Ghanghas (48kg), Nikhat Zareen (50kg), Sakshi Chaudhary (52kg), Preeti (54kg), Manisha Moun (57kg), Jaismine Lamboria (60kg), Shashi Chopra (63kg), Manju (66kg), Shruti Yadav (70kg), Lovlina Borgohain (75kg), Saweety Boora (81kg) and Nupur Sheoran (81+kg).