Soon after the Tokyo Olympics ended, Nikhat Zareen posted a picture of herself looking upon the Countdown to Paris 2024: 1082 days, 18 hours, 11 minutes, 446 seconds. The goal had been re-calibrated, the dream had been refocused.
It hasn’t been easy for the boxer from Nizamabad. Competing in the same weight category as Indian boxing legend MC Mary Kom has meant Zareen has spent a lot of time in the shadows, waiting for her turn. Even as India sent their biggest Olympics contingent (nine boxers) to the Tokyo Games, Zareen was left behind. She lost a controversial Tokyo Olympics trials bout against Mary Kom. But Mary Kom, 39, is now in her twilight years: the age cut-off at 40 means she won’t be eligible for Paris and has decided not to compete in this year’s World Championships and Asian Games.
Zareen, sensing her opportunity, has started making her move out of the shadow and into the big league. In February, she won her first gold at the Strandja Memorial Boxing Tournament, the oldest boxing event in Europe. She defeated Tokyo silver medalist Buse Naz Çakıroğlu in the semi-finals and three-time European champion Tetiana Bob of Ukraine 4-1 in the final.
“It is very important for me to win each and every competition,” Zareen tells Lounge. “I don’t have too many major competition medals, except the Asian Championships bronze medal (2019). Whenever I am getting an opportunity, I want to give my hundred per cent. I want to win a medal in each and every competition.”
With every win over more-experienced opponents, Zareen is building her confidence brick by brick. She is preparing for one of the more important stretches of her career this summer, and one that can help her gather strength for the ultimate goal of making it to the Olympics. In 2022, Zareen will represent India at the World Championships (6-21 May in Istanbul, Turkey) in 52 kg and Asian Games (Hangzhou, China from 10-25 September) in 51 kg. The selection trials for the Commonwealth Games (Birmingham, England from 28 July-8 August) will be held in June.
Even though Zareen broke through on the national scene in her teens, she will be competing in only her second World Championships. She made her debut at the world event in 2016, when Zareen was forced out of her comfort zone due to the competition at home and played in bantamweight (54 kg) category.
“I want to keep my focus on each and every competition, step by step. I will train accordingly,” she said. “Currently I am in the national camp, at the Indira Gandhi stadium.” Being a flyweight boxer means you not only need the power, but also the speed to step in and out, duck, weave and throw punches. When we work on speed, we work on the speed bag. It is a speed intensity workout, high intensity workout with speed punches,” she describes.
“When we do punching bag, 15 second speed punches, 15 second break and then repeat. For power also we do a lot of strength training. When we hit the bag, we try to convert that strength into power. When we focus on power, we only focus on one-two punch. When you throw a power punch, you can’t throw more than three punches.
“We do a lot of cardio. We train in the ring as well for cardio, 30 second rounds, one minute rounds, more than 10-12 rounds. That really boosts endurance, help us to do in 3x3 minutes of rounds.” Skipping is one of the staples for the old-school sport and Zareen does at least 30 minutes of it every day to get her heart ready for the work ahead.
Even after the intense training, one of the biggest concerns for boxers is making weight ahead of competition. More so for the athletes who compete in lower weight categories. Zareen, who stands roughly at 5’2", needs a an undercoat of lean muscle but can’t push her weight beyond 52 kg.
“I am from Hyderabad, from a biryani eating family!” she says. “As soon as I go home my mother stuffs me with food. For me it is very difficult, but I know how to maintain my weight I have to be disciplined.
“We start training for a competition maybe two months in advance. Try and lose weight over a period of time, like maybe 200-300gms every day. For that a protein-heavy diet is required. If you lose weight suddenly before competition, your feet won’t work. You might have cramps, you might get dehydrated. Even to train for a certain body weight, you have to do it gradually. In the last week of training, we try to fill in the gaps. For example, if the coach thinks I need more power in my punches we work on that.”
The hours spent sweating in the gym and training paid off in Bulgaria last month, when Zareen knocked out the two decorated boxers. Though she exacted sweet revenge on Buse Naz, the more tactical win over Bob was golden.
“My plan was just to move and play my own game, not allow her to come inside,” she recalls. “I won the first and second round unanimously. I knew that I was winning this match. In the third round, she came like a beast on me. Her coach must have told her she had lost the first two rounds and to go all-out. I was tired by then and she was very strong. There was a lot of clinching and holding in the third round but I managed to keep my distance and play. This win will give me a lot of confidence for the major competitions coming up this year.” Having waited long enough in the wings for a look-in, Zareen is keeping her eyes on the prize.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.