A packed arena at the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex roared in unison on Sunday as Nikhat Zareen walked in when ring announcer Rishi Panicker introduced her before the opening bout of the final day of the IBA Boxing Women’s World Championships in Delhi.

Surely there must have been questions. Can she do it again? Can she get another gold? Can she withstand the pressure of expectations?

But, the reigning champion’s confident posture, swagger and a commanding presence were positive signs. It was indicative of her stepping into the ring with a clear plan, a good reading of her Vietnamese opponent and a solid strategy in place.

With a flurry of about six punches that followed right after Nguyen Thi Tam was given a warning in the first round, the judges were bound to be impressed. With a dominating first round that the Indian took on all five cards, the questions had started to take a backseat.

But Nguyen, a two-time Asian champion, wasn’t giving up so easily. A better show from her followed by Nikhat being handed a warning too, ensuring the contest heated up in the second round. And to make things even more interesting in the final round, both boxers were given a standing count each.

Eventually, it was the defending champion who prevailed, winning the bout by a 5-0 unanimous decision. As her hand was raised, the now trademark Nikhat Zareen euphoric celebrations followed. Similar to the last time she was crowned World Champion but this time, she also had a smile on her face to go with it.

She topped it all up with fingers pointed to the sky, followed by a little prayer.

Admitting that it was her most hard-fought medal, Nikhat dissected the final saying, “It was a rollercoaster bout. She got a warning, even I got a warning. Then she got one count and then I got one count. So it was going very up and down but in the last round, my strategy was to go aggressive. So I tried to use the same strategy and attack as much as possible and I followed that.”

She added: “This was the last match so I thought jaan bachake kya hi karu (What will I gain from saving my energy in this match?)”

Her shift from last year’s 52kg weight division to this year’s 50kg category, an Olympic weight category has required rigorous weight cutting, dietary change and a changed training approach. But perhaps the most underrated aspect about her meteoric rise since last year has been her mental resolve.

Nikhat makes promises out loud. She talks a good talk. But she also walks the talk. She often needs to remind herself of these promises she makes. Ever since she became the World Champion in 2022, Nikhat has developed a habit that has fetched her immense success.

She manifested a top of the podium finish at the Worlds in Istanbul last year. She did the same at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. But this time, at home, in New Delhi, something was different.

“Everyone has a success mantra, right? For me, it is visualising things,” said the 26-year-old.

“I try to think positive during competitions. You know those coloured notepads? I write things like ‘Champion,’ ‘Gold medal’ and draw them and stick them on my bed. Every night, I see that, pray and sleep and wake up to see that again,” she said in the press conference late on Sunday.

“I find that very positive and that pushes me. I have been following this since last year’s World Championship.”

Nikhat Zareen showing her phone screen with post-it notes next to her bed during the press conference | Photo: Samreen Razzaqui / Scroll

Asian Games next

With five back-to-back gold medals from Strandja Memorial 2022 to the World Championships 2023, Nikhat has shown that she is moving towards the Paris 2024 Olympics like a horse with blinders. Undistracted from her goal.

She’s not just a boxer to look out for in India anymore, but the one to beat at a global level. But, with the success comes the weight of expectations. With the upcoming Asian Games, an Olympic qualifying event, she will be another step closer to fulfilling those expectations.

“I feel good that I won gold in back-to-back World Championships,” the 26-year-old from Nizamabad said. “I would like to continue my winning streak. The expectations from people will be there but like I said, I believe in being positive and take that pressure positively. I will take my learnings from here and work hard for the future. Whatever the result may be at the Asian Games, my aim will be to win the gold and qualify for the Olympics.”

Nikhat Zareen on the podium | BFI Media

Grim in the ring and free-spirited off it, a tinge of humour is ever-present in her conversations. Asked about how she will utilise the prize money of $100,000 for winning the gold, she joked, “I had said that I would buy a Mercedes but now that I have got the [Mahindra] Thar, I think I can forget about Mercedes.”

She then added, “The immediate plan for me is to send my parents for Umrah (pilgrimage) as even Ramadan is going on.”

Her own big plans can wait. Because for now, Nikhat Zareen can bask in the glory of becoming the World Champion again. First time is always special, but she will definitely remember this for the higher difficulty level, and the better atmosphere.

Two-time World Champion, and still very much trending.

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