After his victory over the Olympic silver medalist, boxer Nikhat Zareen is ready to dominate the 51 kg division
Nikhat Zareen has an open, expansive and unfeigned personality outside of the boxing ring. Not quite the open guard bravado inside the ring that will invite a crushing flurry. But there are remnants of exuberance from outside the square, which might need to be tamed and tightened up, if she is to step out of the shadow of MC Mary Kom in the women’s flyweight division and make her mark. brand internationally. Gold in Strandja, beating the Olympic silver medalist was a start.
The 25-year-old had boldly gone to war to even claim to be the challenger ahead of the last Olympics, asking Mary Kom to appear for trial. Having earned her place as a competitor now with Mary stepping down and, importantly, Nikhat taking the wins under her belt, there is now the start of the real battle – at international level, starting with the World Championships in May. Someone kept her on the right path to “Planet Athlete-hungry-for-success” clearly, because she holds back a self-assessment of 10/10 when asked about her footwork . “I want to appear humble. So, chalo, theeke, 9/10 for the footwork,” she laughs in a deceptively reluctant tone.
Mary Kom danced dodging and danced dashing into the 51kg ring, through her shimmering footwork. Nikhat does not think she has a lead foot at all, far from it. But given that there are miles to go before Paris arrives, she keeps her ratings conservative with plenty of room for improvement: “Speed 7/10. Power in shots 8/10. Cumulative coolness of being a hardcore Salman Khan fan? 10/20. “Very big fan. Fan kya, AC samjho. I believe he hasn’t married yet, because he’s waiting for me,” she says in a deceptively grandiose tone, a bona fide pugilist, whose pre-punching, pre-jab is pure bluster, uttered for effect.
Although not quite the Dabangg fan here. “I was a big fan of him in Hum Saath-Saath Hain. That innocence on his face. Salman of the 90s,” says the Bhai-buff, although for someone born only in 1997, the movie mania in Nizamabad must have started much later. “I’m waiting for his new movie Tiger,” she recalls.
But first came boxing by chance, for the girl who started out as a sprinter.
Nikhat’s father, Mohd Jameel Ahmed, is a true blue Hyderabadi. That is, he played cricket with elegance and extended his love of the sport to football and athletics, with no prerequisites of elegance in these. “He was into athletics, so I ran 100/200m. We were watching Urban Games once and I asked him why there were no female boxers. He said there were, but the people think ‘ladkiyon mein dum ni hota’. I took that statement as a challenge. I wanted to change people’s mentality that women can do anything,” she says.
But the women in the 51kg division in India had to do more – jump over a very high door, plus its halo. Take down the legend, MC Mary Kom, and for Nikhat, there was no smoothness of weight to maneuver around the rock in this category (read EDot). A little out of her depth when they met for the hastily called tryouts ahead of the Tokyo qualifying encounters, she would be hyped to bide her time, to up her game after a bit of tactical licking.
“I needed to come home after that. Eat my mother’s food. Play with my nephews, my nieces, ”she recalls, toddlers aged 4, 2 and 7 and a half. “Of course I felt bad because the Olympics wouldn’t come for another 4 years (3). But I always believed there was more to come. And maybe Tokyo wasn’t my destiny. I haven’t looked back and moved on,” she adds.
Boxing has always been about “winning and learning” for Nikhat. In 2017, she tore her shoulder and forearm. “It was a bad deal. I never imagined that I could have such an injury. It hurt and it took a year to heal. But I believe I have become wiser and more mature after this injury. God wanted me to become mentally stronger,” she says.
She may be quick, but there was and still is a lot in ring-craft that Nikhat knows she will have to work on, to be spoken in the same breath as multiple world champion Mary Kom. “Experience was the big difference,” she says of the recent semi-final against Tokyo silver medalist Buse Naz Çakıroğlu of Turkey.
“It was sweet revenge because I lost to her last year in the semi-finals. I had worked through my mistakes and I knew what her strength was, and I had the strategy of not letting her play her game,” she says.
At the Bosphorus boxing tournament in Istanbul last year, Nikhat defeated two-time world champion Nazym Kyzaibay of Kazakhstan, a day after defeating 2019 world champion Paltceva Ekaterina of Russia in the preliminary quarters. With gold medalist Stoyka Krasteva in her late thirties unlikely to be in Paris, a new crop awaits, the outlines of which will be seen at Worlds and Asiad.
The new women’s head coach, Bhaskar Bhatt, was in Nikhat’s corner in Strandja. “I had never worked with him at the elite level before. But he is very hardworking and humble and gave me great support in this semi-final. Nikhat had been very nervous, the memories of last year’s loss haunting her more than the Tokyo medalist’s reputation. “I didn’t know how I would actually fight once inside the ring because I lost last year by unanimous decision. He just shook my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, ‘punch rukne nahi chahiye’. He was so motivating that I was fired up.
Aside from humbly 9/10 rated footwork and agility, Nikhat feels confident about her left and right hooks – something she maximizes with her 163cm frame. Still, tactically there is a lot of work to be done. “Of course, you always have to change things. It can’t be the same, because people read you,” she says. One of Mary Kom’s enduring abilities, even when the speed waned but she bravely clung to the spot, was her anticipation of the opponent’s reach and when to go all-in and when to parry from a distance. It came from years of experience and a cunning brain.
Nikhat, not yet so marinated in trickery, understands that she needs great variety to trump the tricks. “I need a game that can confuse people when they say, ‘iska samajh ni aata (it’s hard to read it). I should be able to switch between very defensive and change of style in a split second” , she believes.
Nikhat uses his sprint past primarily to help gain weight now. She’s well past the singular tempo of running blindly fast down the track – freely and fiercely. She’s learning to keep her cards close to her in the ring now – the excitement, sometimes an optimistic facade.