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Delivering a knockout: The story of India’s champion women boxers

Nikhat Zareen, Lovlina Borgohain, Saweety Boora and Nitu Ghanghas have changed the script for women’s boxing in India through their will to win. Lounge celebrates their rise

Nitu Ghanghas, Lovlina Borgohain, Nikhat Zareen and Saweety Boora are reigning world champions.

By Deepti Patwardhan

LAST PUBLISHED 02.03.2024  |  10:56 AM IST

Nikhat Zareen likely didn’t want to sound like a 19th century British writer, but here it was. “Every mother is worried about one thing," she says, “Her daughters’ wedding." The story she is narrating is set far away from the genteel trappings of Jane Austen’s Britain. It features a young Zareen, who, against the wishes of her mother, had attended her first boxing lesson and returned with a bloody nose and a black eye.

“When my mother (Parveen Sultana) saw me, she burst out crying. She said, ‘This is why I didn’t want you to take up boxing.’ She wanted to keep their child safe and happy. My mother used to be scared for me, in case I get beaten up and ruin my face. Anyway, we are four sisters, and she was worried about our marriage."

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For Zareen, it was more about proving a point. A few days before the incident, Zareen, a 100m and 200m sprinter back then, had been training at the local stadium in Nizamabad, Telangana, where a multi-sport meet was taking place. Zareen, who was accompanied by her father Mohammed Jameel, noticed that girls were participating in every sport, apart from one: boxing.

Boxing bas ladke hi karte hai kya (Is boxing a male sport)?" she asked her father. He explained that women did box, but that’s not what society expects of them. Good girls didn’t box. In 2009, with her father as her first coach, Zareen set out to challenge these archaic, patriarchal notions.

Nikhat Zareen after winning gold at the IBA Women's Boxing World Championships. (PTI)

The feisty 27-year-old is now the face of India’s rise in women’s boxing. At the Women’s World Championship held in Delhi in March 2023, India won four gold medals: Nitu Ghanghas in minimum weight (48kg), Zareen in light flyweight (50kg), Lovlina Borgohain in middleweight (75kg) and Saweety Boora in the light heavyweight (81kg) category.

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It equalled India’s best performance in the competition, when they had won four golds at the 2006 World Championships, which was also held in Delhi. Women’s boxing was a nascent sport back then, and 180 athletes from 32 countries had participated in 2006. The sport has grown since it was included in the Olympic roster at the 2012 London Games. And the World event in 2023 saw 324 boxers from 65 countries compete. In 2006, M.C. Mary Kom had led the charge of the home team with a gold in the 46kg category. If she had lit the beacon, the current crop of champions is striving to make sure it burns on.

The Olympic Dream

Men’s boxing had been a permanent fixture on the Olympic roster since 1904, barring the 1912 Games in Stockholm because the sport was banned in Sweden at the time. Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard and Lennox Lewis were all Olympic champions before they took the pro boxing world by storm.

But until 1996, Great Britain—the home of the first women’s boxing club that was formed in 1920 in London—had banned women’s boxing. Women were denied a boxing licence in the UK till 1998 on the grounds that “pre-menstrual tension made women too unstable to box". But women’s boxing competitions started cropping up around Europe and the Americas and Asia in the 1980s. The first women’s boxing federation was formed in Miami, US, in 1989. The sport could not be ignored. In 2009, the International Olympic Committee announced that women’s boxing would debut as a medal sport at the 2012 London Games.

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Lovlina Borgohain won gold in the middleweight category at the IBA Women's Boxing Championships. (Courtesy Boxing Federation of India)

Back in India, we already had the woman for the moment. In the inaugural edition in London, women competed in only three weight categories: 51kg, 60kg and 75kg. Mary Kom, a five-time world champion by then, made the semi-finals of the 51kg event to win a bronze medal and ensure that India was on the podium on what was a historic day for the sport.The same year Lovlina Borgohain, only the second Indian woman boxer to win an Olympic medal, started her journey in the sport.

“My father (Tiken) used to work in tea gardens in Assam," says Borgohain, who hails from the remote village of Baromukhia, 3km from the nearest town of Barpathar in Assam’s Golaghat district. “Once, he had returned home with some mithai (sweets) that was wrapped in an old newspaper which had an article on Muhammad Ali. My father narrated his story to me. That’s when I first heard of boxing." It sparked her imagination.

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Before that, like her sisters, twins Licha and Lima, Borgohain was a Muay Thai (Thai boxing) practitioner. But since the sport is not part of the Olympic programme, she was keen on the switch. She started boxing in 2012, when celebrated boxing coach Padum Boro took notice of her talent during SAI (Sports Authority of India) trials at the Barpathar Girls High School. But it meant she would have to move away from home, go to Guwahati.

“People would talk about the fact that I would have to go to a city, stay and train alone in Guwahati. My studies would take a back seat. They would taunt my parents," she recalls. Even before that, her mother was regularly belittled for having three daughters. With only one earning member, the family struggled to make ends meet. To make sure that Borgohain had money for her training and nutrition, her sisters quit Muay Thai and later joined the workforce.

An introverted young woman, Borgohain was struck by homesickness after she started training at the Netaji Subhas Regional Centre in 2012 at the age of 14. Even though she had some experience in combat sport, Muay Thai is completely different from boxing in terms of technique. Which meant her coaches had to break her down before they could build her up.

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“I was not self-confident earlier getting into the boxing ring. When I got into the ring, I was scared," she said in 2021, after winning the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

You wouldn’t have known it to watch her in Tokyo, dancing fearlessly in the ring, always eager to draw first blood. The Indian boxer used every inch of her 5ft, 10 inches frame to close the gap and land punches on her opponents. In the quarter-final, she registered a 4-1 win over 2018 world champion Chen Nien-Chin, an opponent she had lost to in three previous meetings. The dazzling win guaranteed her a bronze medal.

“I won bronze without a lot of preparation," she says. “We lost some time due to covid. It was my first Olympics as well, so maybe I was nervous. I was disappointed not to win gold."

Missing out on gold had become something of a theme in her career. Borgohain had repeatedly proved her mettle on the world stage, taken down some famous boxers. At big tournaments, she would end up in the medal bracket, but not gold, never gold. This happened at the 2018 World Championships in Delhi, then again, a year later, at the 2019 World Championships in Ulan-Ude, Russia.

Meanwhile, the 69kg welterweight category, which had been introduced as an experiment at the Tokyo Games, has been scrapped from the 2024 Paris Olympics. With that gone, Borgohain stepped up to the 75kg middleweight category. “75kg is tougher," she says. “The women competing in 75kg are stronger, more powerful. In Europe or America, they do better in higher weight categories. Traditionally, Asians do better in lighter weight categories." In her new weight class, she had to play smarter, work on her defence and counters. It took some time and cost some tournaments before she found her footing.

And that’s how she finally reached gold. During the 2023 World Championships in Delhi, Borgohain showed that the warrior in her had not dimmed, as she defeated Australia’s Caitlin Parker 5-2 in the final to clinch the elusive gold. “Before that I would get bronze in every competition. It was a very special moment," says Borgohain, who doesn’t feel out of place in the middleweight category anymore. “Right now, I feel fitter. At that time (69kg), it was a struggle to maintain weight for that category. I wouldn’t be able to eat properly. Maybe that was one of the reasons I shifted to a higher weight category. That if I eat better, perhaps I will play better."

She sealed a berth for the 2024 Paris Games, her second successive Olympics, by winning silver at the 2023 Asian Games. “Competing at an Olympics was my father’s dream. Winning a medal at an Olympics was mine," she says. “This time, I want gold."

Gold Standard

Pursuing excellence is like oxygen for athletes. They need the re-assurance of medals; they are driven by the prospect of gold. Whatever it takes.

Whatever it takes. That’s what Saweety Boora kept telling herself during the 2023 World Championships. She had won a silver at the tournament in 2014, nine long years ago, at Jeju City, South Korea. Now the World Championships was being played at home, this was her chance. The only snag in the plot? She had just about recovered from a groin injury and was putting extra time in rehab. And then, just ahead of the tournament, she came down with a stomach infection.

“I was scared that if I tell someone on the team about it, they will ask me to stay out," says Boora, who talks as fast as she rains punches. “If I let go of this opportunity, it would have spoilt my life’s work.

Saweety Boora celebrates her final win in the 81 kg category at the IBA Women's Boxing World Championships. (PTI)

“I used to feel very tired after training," she says about her campaign. “Endurance used to be my strength, but I didn’t have that in Delhi. I was getting tired after one round. I was taking medicines for the stomach pain. But there was a voice inside me telling me now or never! So, I just struggled through. I went into every round wanting to win. My target was to go hard in the first two rounds, so I was a little at ease in the third."

While Boora, 31, breezed through the first round, earning a 5-0 win over Belarusian boxer Viktoriya Kebikava, she was thoroughly tested in the next two bouts. After a hard-fought win over Emma-Sue Greentree of Australia in the semi-final, she overcame former world champion Wang Lina of China 4-3 in the final to seal the gold. First came relief, then the tears. “It took me nine years of hard work to change that silver into gold," she says. Fourteen years in all, she reminds me, since she started boxing.

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“Do you know how I started?" she asks excitedly. Boora, who hails from Hisar, Haryana, was always bold. She proudly narrates that she would beat boys bigger and taller than her in wrestling and started off as a kabaddi player. “Bachpan se hi hatti katti thi (I was well-built from childhood)," she guffaws.

In 2009, she and her elder brother had travelled with their maternal uncle to the SAI centre in Hisar to try out for some sports. “During the trial I was facing a girl who had been boxing for some time," she says. “As soon as I entered the ring, she punched me in the face. I couldn’t see anything. My face was completely red. When the bell for the first round went off, I came and sat in my corner. My brother taunted, ‘dikha diye tujhe din me tare, waise to bohot banti hai tu (she has shown you stars in the day). Now see if you can beat her.’ As soon as the second round started, I threw an upper cut, so hard that she fell down. That was the first knockout of my life."

One of the reasons she had taken up boxing was because Boora’s father Mahender Singh, a state-level basketball player, wanted her to take up an individual sport. Her mother worried for her, but always backed her.

“Earlier we used to train in open farmlands. It develops stamina and strength in legs. Those were rustic methods of training. In the farms, the soil used to be very loose so our feet would sink in. We had to sprint in that. I would work harder than what the coach would tell me. Sometimes I would work so hard that I would vomit blood," she says, gleefully diving into the details of her boxing journey.

But Boora chokes up when talking about her parents, and why she always felt the need to go over and above in training: “Some of my relatives had disowned my family because I was boxing. They told my parents that, ‘nothing good will come out of it, girls only go there and get spoilt. She will run away with someone; she will bring bad name to the family.’ Those thoughts would swirl in my head. I was the first girl from my village to go out and train. Succeeding was absolutely important for me."

Boora is one of the few Indian boxers who has performed consistently in the heavier weight categories. Apart from the two world championship medals, she also has a silver (2015 Wulanchabu), bronze (2021 Dubai) and gold (2022 Amman) at the Asian Championships. She does walk the talk.

Young and Restless

In the boxing ring, nowadays, Nitu Ghanghas rarely retreats. But there was a time when she was ready to give it all up.

Ghanghas was born in the cradle of Indian boxing: Bhiwani district in Haryana. The place is fondly called “Little Cuba" for producing a number of international boxers and came into the spotlight as one of its residents, Vijender Singh, won India’s first medal in boxing at the Olympics. a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games. Soon after that, his coach Jagdish Singh opened a boxing academy exclusively for girls.

Nitu Ghanghas won gold in the minimum weight category at the IBA Women's Boxing Championships. (Courtesy Boxing Federation of India)

That is where Ghanghas’ father, Jai Bhagwan, enrolled her in 2012, to help her channel her energy. Though a diligent student, Ghanghas wasn’t a standout in the early days and considered quitting the sport.

“I live in a village (Dhanana), which was 20km away from the academy and I used to travel by bus. There were times when I would miss the bus and so couldn’t make the training daily," she says. Missing whole days of practice sessions set her back.

“My performance was suffering. I told my father I won’t go. Financially also we were struggling. I have a brother and sister. My parents had to look after our school fees, my diet, boxing kit, travelling allowance. My father even took a loan, despite that there was a shortage of funds. I could feel the pressure building on my parents, so I thought I should drop out."

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But her father, a Class III employee at the Haryana Vidhan Sabha, was keen on her boxing. He took unpaid leave for three years and ferried her to and from training on his scooter. While supervising Ghanghas’ training and diet, he farmed a little piece of land they owned. Bhagwan also racked up loans as high as 6 lakh.

Her career took an upturn once she was selected for the National Boxing Academy (NBA) in Rohtak, which is a SAI centre; she now had access to top notch training and nutrition. At the NBA, they also oversaw the rehab of an injury, a second-grade pelvic tear, that she had endured for nearly three years. Results were quick to follow: the southpaw won the 2017 Youth World Championships in Guwahati, then defended her title in 2018 in Budapest.

“Almost every youth tournament I competed in, I won gold. That gave me a lot of confidence and motivation," says the 23-year-old. Her first major medal at the senior level was another gold, at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. She silenced a boisterous crowd in Birmingham by beating home favourite Demie-Jade Resztan 5-0 in the final.

“I was playing in the same weight category as Mary Kom. I felt like a responsibility to continue her work, and prove that I could also do well in this weight category," Ghanghas says. That year, she also competed in the World Championships but went down in the quarter-finals. It only strengthened her resolve to do better at the world event in 2023.

“The big mistake I made in 2022 was that I took my time to suss out the opponent. But this time I was aggressive right from the start. I played a very attacking game." Speed and accuracy are paramount for boxers in the lighter weight categories. And Ghanghas delivered a heady mix of the two in her first three bouts which ended in RSC (Referee Stops Contest). In the final, she secured a 5-0 win over Lutsaikhan Altantsetseg to clinch India’s first gold at the 2023 World Championships.

All the gold medallists were handed a winners’ cheque of 82.7 lakh. It went some way in helping Ghanghas, the youngest of India’s world champions in 2023, and her family pay off the loans. All the sacrifices they had made as a family had been worth their weight in gold.

Battle Ready

The boxing hall at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala has been abuzz with activity since November. Indian boxers, including Olympic-bound Borgohain and Zareen, have been in the national camp for almost three months. Vacation? No. Family time? Not yet. At the entrance, a digital display counts down the days to the Paris Olympics. The countdown has been ticking in Zareen’s mind since the end of the Tokyo Games.

Choosing boxing had been an act of defiance. She had picked up the gloves despite resistance from her extended family and a conservative community. When she started boxing, Zareen was the only female boxer in the district. She honed her skills by sparring with boys and believes it jumpstarted her career. Within a year, Zareen had won the state championships. In 2011, she won gold at the Youth World Boxing Championships. By 2015, she was in the India senior national camp.

Back then, Indian boxers didn’t quite have the army of coaches and trainers. In fact, Indian boxing was in turmoil from 2012-16 over administration issues. As the federation was suspended, boxers couldn’t represent India on the international stage and had to fund their training and competitions. Once Ajay Singh took over the reins as the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) chief in September 2016, things started to get better. Boxers now have better facilities, access to scientific training programmes and coaching personnel on par with the best in the world.

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Even as Indian boxing was transforming, Zareen was at a standstill. Apart from the shoulder injury that kept her away for a year in 2017-18, Zareen spent a lot of time under the giant shadow cast by Mary Kom since the two competed in the same weight category. She rebelled against it at times, most famously in 2019 when she requested for a trial against Mary Kom to compete at the Olympic qualifiers for the Tokyo Games. The BFI had given Mary Kom a last-minute exemption from the trials because she had won the World Championships the previous year. Depending on which side of argument you stand, the move was either irreverent or brave. But how often do we see a young woman take on the establishment and a legend for what she believes is her right?

Zareen would rather move on. “I always believe whatever happens, happens for a good reason," she says of the years spent on the sidelines. “All those years that I waited…if I had got those opportunities instantly maybe it would not have stoked my hunger. The wait was worth it, it lit a fire within me." She finally got her chance at the 2022 World Championships. A ravenous Zareen gobbled up the competition in the 52kg event, winning all five of her matches, four of which were against southpaws, with a unanimous 5-0 verdict to clinch the title. After beating Thailand’s Jutamas Jitpong in the final, Zareen told the press: “Aj final hai, aaj hi ke din history create karni hai (Today is the final, today I have to create history): That’s how I got myself ready for today."

Her time on the sidelines have also made Zareen a cannier boxer. She knows when to bite down, and when to step up. Making the most of her experience, the Indian also clinched gold at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Despite dropping down to the 50kg category—she mainly made the switch because the 52kg weight class will not feature at the Paris Games—Zareen arrived at the 2023 World Championships as the favourite. Of the Indians competing, she was handed possibly the most extensive draw.

Boxers Jasmine Lamboria, Nitu Ghanghas, Nikhat Zareen and Lovlina Borgohain in training. (PTI)

“Even though I was the world champion, I was not given a bye," she says. “In my first world championships I was the underdog, now I was the poster-girl. The crowd was there to support me. It gives a different kind of confidence. I used to push myself. If so many people had paid to come and watch me, I had to give my best."

Six bouts, ten days, that was Zareen’s schedule in Delhi. She started off with an RSC in the opening round; then toppled the No.1 seed, Algeria’s Roumaysa Boualam, in the second. Zareen wasn’t quite as dominant this time around, but she still packed a punch. By defeating Nguyễn Thị Tâm of Vietnam in the final, Zareen became the first Indian boxer to win back-to-back world titles. As soon as the referee lifted her arm, bound by lean muscle, Zareen let out a scream. Outside the ring, away from the spotlight, her mother wept tears of joy.

“The Delhi World Championships was the first time my mother was watching me live," says Zareen, who won bronze at the 2022 Asian Games to qualify for Paris Olympics. “It was a great feeling being a world champion in front of her. My mother also used to be scared for me, in case I get beaten up. Mummy is now chill. Now when I tell her I am hurt, she says don’t worry just put some ice on it. I am glad that in my own little way I have changed that mindset."

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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