Competing on home turf, Indian women’s boxing flexed its muscle by raking in a record-equalling haul of four gold medals at the World Championships held in New Delhi, which concluded on March 26. While star boxers Nikhat Zareen (2022 world champion in 52kg) and Lovlina Borgohain (Tokyo Olympics bronze medalist) justified the faith put in them by capturing gold in the 50kg and 75kg, respectively, two more – Nitu Ghanghas and Saweety Boora – punched their way into the spotlight.
Ghanghas, the former youth world champion, clinched India’s first gold at the 2023 World Championships as she secured a unanimous 5-0 verdict against Lutsaikhan Altantsetseg in the minimumweight (48kg) final. Later in the day, Boora proved that Indians could pack a punch in the higher weight classes as well when she defeated Wang Lina to win India’s first gold in light heavyweight (81kg) category.
The two of them fight in weight categories that are poles apart and are at different stages of their careers – the 22-year-old Ghanghas is just getting started in seniors and Boora, 30, has had an eventful career. But the boxers from Haryana each have their stories of struggle.
“On the day of the final I wasn’t even feeling well; I had a cold and fever,” Boora told Mint a few days after her triumph. “But I had the confidence. Now I am at a stage in my career where I don’t get too anxious about my bout. I concentrate on the strategy and how to apply it. Nothing else. I just have to give my best; and I know my best is good enough.”
It is a realization she has arrived at after years of grind. In 2014, Boora was down with typhoid and too weak to even walk. She defied the doctor and her parents and ran away from the hospital to attend the national championships, the winner of which would gain a spot at the world championship. Not only did she win the national title, but returned with a silver medal from the 2014 world event in Jeju City.
Since then, a gold at the world championship and an Olympic medal have been on top of her priority list. Her pursuit suffered a blow a few years ago when she failed to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She didn’t touch her gloves for a few months and even flirted with resuming her kabaddi career – Boora had started her sporting journey with the sport and is married to kabaddi star Deepak Hooda. She almost played for the Haryana state team in the kabaddi nationals during the pandemic, but as soon as the boxing schedule was announced she was drawn back to it, sparked to life.
The rejuvenated boxer has been almost unstoppable in the ring since. She won the Asian Championship gold in November 2022. At this year’s World Championships, though the 81kg category didn’t have the most number of competitors, she came through three tough rounds to emerge victorious. Boora defeated Viktoriya Kebikava in the quarterfinal, Australia’s Emma-Sue Greentree in the semis and 2018 world champion Wang Lina in the final.
“Lina is very good at counter,” added Boora. “She was hoping that I would start attacking head-on, but I didn’t do that. I took my time to settle into the bout. Whenever she tried to attack, that’s when I went on the offensive too. I played a very different game against all three (opponents). I succeeded in doing well with different punches, different combinations.”
If experience was Boora’s trump card, Ghanghas was young and fearless.
Ghanghas, who hails from India’s boxing cradle Bhiwani, took up, and stuck to, the sport mainly because of her father Jai Bhagwan. A class III employee at the Haryana Vidhan Sabha at the time, Bhagwan invested all of his time and money in her boxing future. Bhagwan would not only ferry Nitu 40km on his scooter every day to training, but also took three years of unpaid leave from his government job so he could personally focus on her diet and training. He worked on a small patch of land and took a loan to the tune of ₹6 lakh to help the family survive.
Only 22, Ghanghas has turned her and her family’s struggle to gold. She claimed her biggest title to date and a prize money of ₹82.7 lakh by winning the world championship last month.
“My family has also supported me a lot,” the soft-spoken Ghanghas told the media after her win. “I have been boxing since 2012, I have worked hard for this title. I am glad that we got this prize money as well. It will help towards my training. I can help solve my family’s financial problems. And I can focus on my training.”
The eldest of the three siblings, Ghanghas is now looking after her sister, who is pursuing an MBBS degree, and her brother, a sport shooter.
In the ring, the southpaw has boxed her opponents into submission. Having won back-to-back youth world championships in 2017 and 2018, she announced her arrival at the senior level by winning the 2022 Commonwealth Games gold.
During the world championship, Ghanghas won the first three bouts through RSC – referee stops contest. Her toughest battle was in the semi-final, when she took on two-time Asian champion Alua Balkibekova. But Ghanghas, who had fallen to the Kazakh in the world championship quarter finals last year, edged to a 3-2 win to avenge that defeat. With her idol Vijender Singh in the audience, Ghanghas quashed Altantsetseg’s challenge in the final and claimed the crown.
Her emphatic win set the tone for a historic haul. With four gold medals, India equalled the 2006 World Championship tally and recorded another milestone for women’s boxing in the country. In Ghanghas and Boora, India now has two more successes, two more stories, to celebrate.
Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai