“This year is very important for me. I can’t lose any more opportunities. I just want to give everything I’ve got,” insists former junior world champion Nikhat Zareen.
The last 18 months have been punctuated with brief highs but plenty of crushing blows Nikhat Zareen. The hurt of missing out on high-profile tournaments such as Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, and the World Championships in New Delhi last year still lingers in the 22-year-old’s mind.
In the highly competitive 51kg category, new boxers have thrown their hat in the ring in the Indian camp. Nonetheless, the last few months have seen the resurgence of the Nizamabad-based pugilist, who recently clinched the gold medal in the prestigious Strandja Memorial tournament.
The starting point of the podium finish in Sofia was her silver-medal finish in the senior Nationals at the turn of the year, which was held at JSW’s Inspire Institute of Sports, where Zareen also trains.
“I gave it my best shot but lost by split-decision there to Pinky [Jangra],” Zareen told Scroll.in. “In Strandja, luckily, they send two boxers in the 51kg category and I just knew that I had to grab this chance.”
Last year, the 22-year-old had braved a debilitating shoulder injury to make a gold medal-winning return at the Belgrade International tournament. Somehow, that failed to ignite her season and was she shunned to the sidelines.
Something had to change. As a prodigy sweeping medals for fun at the junior level, her technical expertise in the ring had come for a lot of praise. In India, though, there were little takers. In the senior camp leading up to Srandja, Zareen adopted a new approach on the behest of coaching staff.
“I knew why I lost the bout in the Nationals [final],” she said. “People told me to be a little more aggressive with my game. I then decided that after sparring with other boxers in the camp that I’ll take this [a more aggressive] approach.”
At what point did Zareen think her natural game didn’t catch the eye of the team management? “I was upset after losing out on CWG, Asian Games and the World Championships. I kept pushing myself with an eye on the Nationals and Tokyo 2020 [Olympics].
“[Ahead of the Asian Games] I lost the trials against Ritu from Haryana. I was lacking some aggression,” she said.
As for her not getting her due as a senior, Zareen thinks that it has something to do with the boxing culture that prevails in the country.
“In India, for some reason, they think being aggressive makes a good boxer. That’s not correct. You have to focus on all aspects of the game. And it is important to be a technical boxer too but here they don’t see that,” she lamented. “You see...even Mary Kom is not an aggressive boxer.”
In Bulgaria, the flyweight boxer dispatched her opponents with ease and thinks its better to stick to this new approach for now. “Of course, I want to have an all-round game but if this [aggression] looks better, I’ll continue to fight this way. I had decided that I’ll learn this type of boxing as well.
“If you look at my performance in Strandja, I dominated all the bouts because I wanted to put whatever I learnt into practice,” she added.
Zareen now has set her eyes on the Asian Championships in Bangkok in April. She will have to slug it out in the trials next month. Having altered her style, one thing is sure. The 22-year-old would not want to let this opportunity go begging after a heartbreaking 2018?