Before the start of the IBA Women’s World Boxing Championship, Nikhat Zareen penned the words ‘champion’ and ‘gold medal’ on the pages of a coloured notepad. “I drew that myself,” she said on Sunday. “Every day of the championship, it was the first thing I would see when I woke up. Before going to bed I would see that, pray and go to sleep. It kept pushing me.” The affirmation kept the goal in sight; made the struggle worth it.
Zareen was no longer the perennial challenger to M.C. Mary Kom’s throne. She is a bona fide world champion; the poster girl for Indian boxing. With India hosting this year’s championship, the spotlight was well and truly on the 26-year-old from Nizamabad.
Inside the ring, she was still acquainting herself to the challenges of a new weight class. Having won the 2022 World Championship in the 52kg category, Zareen had decided to drop down to the 50kg weight class since it will be featured at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. It meant that Zareen went to the championships unseeded and had to start her campaign from the Round of 64. She would have to win six bouts, in 12 days, to clinch the title.
But this latest version of Zareen, courage and confidence coursing through her veins, doesn’t bow down to any challenge. Unlike last year’s championships, she didn’t steamroll opponents, but ground out one hard-fought win after another. She defeated two-time Asian champion Nguyen Thị Tam, a southpaw, in a final that was much closer than the 5-0 scoreline suggested to win her second gold medal in as many years. Zareen is now the only Indian female boxer, apart from six-time winner Mary Kom, to claim two or more World Championships.
“This was the final, I treated it like a do-or-die situation,” she told media after the bout. “Aaj puri jaan lagani thi, energy bacha ke kya karti? (I wanted to give it my all, what would I save energy for?) Today's bout was the toughest in the competition. It was a rollercoaster. She got a warning, even I got a warning then she got one count and then I got one count so it was going very up and down but in the last round, my strategy was to go aggressive.”
In the semi-final (against Colombia’s Ingrit Valencia, Mary Kom’s conqueror at the Tokyo Olympics) and the final, Zareen faced up to opponents with a lot more international experience. She had to think on her feet, regroup, rethink her strategies. Zareen took a pounding but would always come out of a tricky, tough situation punching.
“In the previous weight category (52kg), I didn't have to put in that much effort to lose weight. but to be in this category I had to follow a very disciplined diet and work hard,” said Zareen, whose already bruised upper lip had cut open and was bleeding in the second round of the final.
The second world championship gold capped a remarkable 12 months for Zareen. The boxer is unbeaten in over a year now, and has captured four gold medals in that period. Along with the two world championship medals, she topped her class at last year’s Strandja Memorial Boxing Championship and the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
The cool, confident Zareen represents the country’s growing might in women’s boxing. And India’s performance at the 2023 World Championships, which was held in New Delhi from 15-26 March underlined it. Hosts India captured a total of four gold medals, equalling their best gold medal haul at the event in 2006. Joining Zareen in the list of champions were Nitu Ghanghas (48kg), Saweety Boora (81kg) and Lovlina Borgohain (75kg).
For Borgohain, the first World Championship gold was a reminder that she can still make a dent at big events. The Assamese boxer was the only one in a group of nine—India’s largest boxing contingent to the Olympics—to win a medal at the Tokyo Games. Rather than propelling her to new heights, the bronze medal (69kg) ushered in one of the toughest phases of Borgohain’s career. She lost in the pre-quarter-finals at the 2022 World Championship and the quarter-finals in Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
But Boroghain’s decision to jump to the 75kg weight category has helped her hit the reset button. She won the 2022 Asian Championships in November last year to announce her arrival in the new weight class. It seems like a better fit for the tall boxer, who can now add strength and power without having to sweat over the weight limit.
A sharper Borgohain began the World Championships campaign with three unanimous 5-0 wins. But things got gnarly in the final, when she came up against two-time CWG medallist Caitlin Parker. Though the 25-year-old Borgohain edged 3-2 ahead in the opening round, her opponent pushed her back in the second, winning it 4-1. In the third, Borgohain used her reach to keep her opponent at a distance and struck vital blows on the counter. Though, as she explained later, she wasn’t able to execute the strategy perfectly, she executed it well enough to win 3-2.
“I've had many ups and downs since the Olympics,” said the newly-minted world champion. “This medal is very important for my career. I had won bronze in 2018 and 2019 (World Championships) so it feels good to change the colour of the medals to gold.”
Be it Borgohain’s return to form or Zareen retaining the title, ‘Champion’ and ‘gold medal’ are becoming a consistent part of Indian women’s boxing lexicon at big competitions.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.