Stage fright? What stage fright? Nikhat Zareen was done waiting in the wings, waiting in the shadow cast by a legend. She had earned this moment, and she wasn’t about to let it go to waste. On Sunday, 22 May, Zareen, 25, took on Thailand’s Jutamas Jitpong in the flyweight (50-52kg) final of the IBA Women’s Boxing World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey. Dressed in blue, Zareen charged out of the blocks, all 51kg of frenetic energy. Quick feet, and an iron fist.
“Aaj final hai, aaj hi ke din history karni hai (Today is the final, I have to create history today),” she had told herself before stepping into the ring. For nine minutes, Zareen put on a show of speed and strength, and smart retreat as she danced to a 5-0 win. She had dreamt of the moment for more than 10 years, had visualised it through the day: her hand being raised by the referee, declaring her the world champion.
Competing in only her second World Championship—the first time in her preferred weight category—Zareen had earned the World Championship title. She was only the fifth Indian—after six-time champion MC Mary Kom, Sarita Devi, Jenny R.L and Lekha C—to do so. Zareen won five out of five matches by a unanimous 5-0 verdict in a tournament that attracts the best talent in the world. It took some time to process, but Zareen was overcome with emotions as she started shaking hands with her opponent’s coaches.
Returning to her corner, a tearful Zareen raised her hands to thank the faithful crowd that had chanted her name. In those moments, she said, she thought of her family: Of her mother praying for her before every bout; of her father who let her dream.
Punch like a girl
“Is boxing not for girls?” Zareen’s boxing journey had started with that one innocent question. When she was 12, the girl from small-town Nizamabad in Telangana, was more of a track athlete. During a sports meet at the local stadium, she saw girls signing up for every sport except boxing. The question popped in her curious mind, and her father, Mohammed Jameel Ahmad, explained that though a few women did box, society expected them to stay home and do the chores.
“Why does the society think we girls are weak?” Zareen wondered while talking to the media after her win in Istanbul. “I discussed it with my father and decided to take up boxing.” The youngest of three children, Zareen was prone to defiance. Boxing was yet another outlet. Her first day in training had ended with a black eye and bloody nose. And though her mother, Parveen Sultana, did not want her to take up boxing because of the injury risks, Zareen was already plotting payback. The only girl in her local gym, Zareen learnt the ropes by boxing against boys. The rise through the ranks was quick for this fearless fighter.
When the going gets tough…
She announced her arrival on the international stage by winning gold at the 2011 Junior World Championships, also in Turkey. That early success, however, did not help her fast-track into the seniors. The weight category that she competes in, flyweight, is one of the most competitive in the country and was dominated by Mary Kom, India’s foremost boxer.
For a while Zareen stepped up to the 54kg (bantamweight) category, and even made her senior World Championship debut, in 2016, in this category. But for the lithe boxer, it didn’t prove a comfortable fit. A year later, she dislocated her right shoulder at the All-India Inter University Championships and had to undergo surgery. Pushed to the side-lines for almost a year, Zareen had to dig deep into her mental reserves. “Making a comeback from that, I thought, whatever challenges come my way, I have to fight them,” she recalled. “Give up nahi karna hai.”
Nothing, however, could prepare her for the storm over her national trial against Mary Kom in 2019. Zareen had grown up idolising Mary Kom, who won her last World Championship in 2018. She wanted to contend for the Tokyo Olympics qualification tournament spot, which had been automatically handed to Kom. Breaking ranks, Zareen wrote to the federation requesting a trial. When she was finally granted her wish, Mary Kom defeated her, then dismissed her. “Who is Nikhat Zareen?” asked the boxer, refusing to shake hands with Zareen after the bout.
Some painted her as a villain to May Kom’s evergreen hero, others a martyr against a broken system. Zareen was not interested in being either. She did her best to shut out the world and went to work. “In the last two years, I focused more on myself,” she said. The boxer refined her strengths, more importantly she sought to eliminate weaknesses.
The one time Zareen, a self-confessed selfie queen, truly lights up during her interaction with the media after winning the World Championship, is when she asks if she’s trending on Twitter. “It was one of my dreams to trend on Twitter! If I’m really trending right now then I’m really happy!” she guffawed.
Zareen is unapologetic of who she is. She’s got spirit, absolute confidence in her talent, and the ability to take on any fight. More importantly, as Ronald Simms, who coached Zareen for five years from 2016-2021, says, she now knows how to pick her battles.
“She has grown, her confidence has grown,” says Simms over the phone from Houston. “I think it was very frustrating for her because sometimes she would try to fight her way through. Now she has mastered, she is thinking more rather than just fighting for the win. She knows when to bite down.” An evidence of her technical, tactical and emotional growth, lay in that fact that four out of the five boxers she beat were southpaws, who have proven to be perennial banana skins for Indian boxers.
“Fighting a southpaw (leading with right hand and right foot), everything is opposite from fighting an orthodox boxer,” says Simms. “Earlier, she didn’t like fighting southpaws, but we worked on it a lot. For the most part, coaches will say keep your left foot to the outside of the southpaw’s right foot. What I tell her is doesn’t matter too much about the footing. What matters is the punching. So instead of using your jab, you use your right hand as the jab. Your back hand you use as the jab, to set up for the hook. And that’s what she did. It showed that she has become comfortable fighting them as well. She beat four of them, back to back. And in the final she had to play a right-handed boxer.”
Against Jitpong, Zareen owned the opening round. But the Thai boxer, who competed at the Tokyo Olympics and has a 6-0 record as a pro, gained some ground in the second round with a 2-3 verdict. While Jitpong had no option but to go all out in the final round, Zareen cannily chose her moments and hit back. Much like she has been doing for the last few years.
“The challenges, the hurdles that I have faced in my journey, they have made me strong,” said Zareen. “Since 2019, I have not looked back. Whatever opportunities I got, I gave my best.” Having waited long enough, watched close enough, when given the World Championship stage the understudy delivered the performance of her life.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.