On Friday, 10 March, during a media interaction ahead of the 2023 IBA Women's World Boxing Championships, Nikhat Zareen was asked if she had butterflies in the stomach. “Sirf butterflies nahi, sab kuch chal raha hai,” (not just butterflies, everything is fluttering) Zareen quipped.
The nerves and the excitement are understandable as she returns to the tournament that made her. Last May, when given an opportunity to battle in her preferred weight category at the event for the first time, Zareen had gone on to decimate her opponents in the ring. She scored five unanimous (5-0) wins and was crowned world champion in the flyweight (52kg) weight class. In the whirlwind ten months that followed, Zareen won a gold (50kg) at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, was congratulated by her idol and former rival M.C. Mary Kom, and met with her celebrity crush Salman Khan.
Less than a year after she was thrust into the spotlight, Zareen will spearhead the Indian challenge as the country hosts the Women's World Boxing Championships from 15-26 March. “If this would not have been held in India there would have been pressure but since it is happening in India, you attain a different level of confidence because of the home crowd,” said Zareen.
Hosts India will field a boxer in each of the 12 weight categories at the event, which offers a total prize money of $2.4 million. Along with Zareen, the Indian squad also includes Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Lovlina Borgohain (75kg), 2022 World championship bronze medallist Manisha Moun (57kg) and 2022 CWG gold medallist Nitu Ghanghas (48kg).
The world championship will not, however, comprise a field befitting the stature of the tournament. With the IBA (International Boxing Association) and the BFI (Boxing Federation of India) allowing competitors from Russia and Belarus, 11 countries, including boxing powerhouses like Ireland, UK, Canada and the USA, have boycotted the event over the war in Ukraine.
Moreover, there is still no confirmation on whether the championship will count as a qualifying event for 2024 Paris Olympics. Due to concerns over governance of the IBA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has set up a qualification system of its own for boxing at Paris 2024. According to that, five continental competitions, including September’s Asian Games, and two world qualification events in 2024, will offer Olympic berths.
Closer to home, Indian boxers Manju Rani (48kg), Shiksha Narwal (54kg) and Poonam Poonia (60kg) moved Delhi High Court, earlier this month, as they were excluded from the squad. Though all the three won the title in their respective categories at the 2022 National Championships, they did not make the cut for the worlds due to the new selection criteria chalked out by the national federation. BFI president Ajay Singh, on Friday, dismissed these ‘minor issues’ during the press interaction. “Every championship will have its own small controversies,” he said at the press conference.
Despite the troubled lead-up, the showpiece event, which will be held at the K.D. Jadhav Indoor Hall, New Delhi, will provide a platform for India’s growing might in women’s boxing.
The country sent its largest women’s boxing contingent (four) to the Tokyo Olympics. At the 2022 World Championship in Istanbul, Turkey, India captured three medals and was ranked fourth. While Moun and Parveen Hooda won bronze, Zareen won the country’s first gold medal at the tournament since Mary Kom’s title win in 2018.
With Paris in sight, Zareen will compete in the light flyweight 50kg, which is an Olympic weight category. Cutting weight hasn’t been easy for the boxer from Nizamabad, Telangana, but she has climbed down to the 50kg class since CWG.
“While increasing body weight is challenging, cutting it down is tougher,” she recently told Hindustan Times. “I did not get much time before the Commonwealth Games to get used to the category. The preparation wasn't as much as the category required. But now I have worked hard. I have had to struggle to reduce weight and fit into this class.”
Under the supervision of new head coach Dmitry Dmitruk, who previously worked with the Irish Athletic Boxing Association, the Indian women boxers have been in camp at NIS Patiala since late January.
Borgohain, meanwhile, is hoping to find success and form in a higher weight class. The lanky boxer, who will compete in the 75kg category at the world championship, has struggled since winning India’s only medal in boxing at the Tokyo Games. She lost in the pre-quarterfinals at the 2022 World Championship and the quarterfinals in Birmingham.
“The focus is on improving the power in my punches as my opponents will be much stronger than what I encountered in the 69kg category,” Borgohain, who has won world championship bronze medals in 2018 and 2019, told Sportstar recently. “I am more comfortable in this (75kg) weight category. There is no tension to control my weight. I have also changed my technique a bit.”
While the spotlight will be on more established stars like Zareen and the 25-year-old Borgohain, youngsters like Ghanghas, Jaismine Lamboria (60kg) and T. Sanamacha Chanu (70kg) are also hoping to pack a punch. The 22-year-old Ghanghas has shown her chops at international events by claiming gold on her CWG debut in Birmingham. Meanwhile, Lamboria, a CWG bronze medallist, is a rising talent from the boxing hotbed of Bhiwani, and Chanu a trainee of M.C. Mary Kom Academy in Imphal and a former youth world champion. With so much talent in the ranks, India is ready to flex its muscle on the world boxing stage.
Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.