Nikhat Zareen: Golden Fists Forged in the Fires of Adversity

Nikhat Zareen’s steely determination – bolstered by the challenges she faced both inside and outside the boxing ring – carried her to the top of the World Championships. She now has her sights set on the Paris 2024 Olympics

Nikhat Zareen’s steely determination – bolstered by the challenges she faced both inside and outside the boxing ring – carried her to the top of the World Championships. She now has her sights set on the Paris 2024 Olympics

There can be no better picture of the rapprochement in Indian sport than the one posted on social media by new boxing world champion Nikhat Zareen. The photo with his idol MC Mary Kom not only represents the end of a three-year feud between the two world champions, but also sends a feel-good message to anyone looking to explore boxing as a career option.

It also signifies Nikhat’s status as one of the few top female boxers in the country.

The fact that the 26-year-old future woman, from Nizamabad in Telangana, is the only Indian woman other than Mary to have won the world crown in the last 16 years is Nikhat’s feat, in the 52 kg category at the Istanbul World Championships last month, all the more special. Leaving aside Mary, who is a six-time world champion, three others – Sarita Devi, Lekha KC and Jenny RL – won their world titles (with Mary) at another time in New Delhi in 2006.

bold decision

Growing up in a place where women’s boxing was not popular, Nikhat, before entering her teens, made the bold decision to stop sprinting and put on the gloves. She made the switch just to prove a point after learning that boxing was only for “powerful boys”. Her father Mohammad Jameel, who has always been a pillar of support, supported her until the end.

She faced some resistance from those with conservative notions, but that could never deter the energetic Nikhat.

She first caught the eye when she won the World Junior (50kg) title in Antalya in 2011. It clearly showed her potential, but she still had a long way to go to establish herself at the elite level.

Gloves on: Nikhat switched from sprinting to boxing just to prove a point to those who thought the sport was only for

Gloves on: Nikhat switched from sprinting to boxing just to prove a point to those who thought the sport was only for “powerful boys”. | Photo credit: Getty Images

So, the family moved to Hyderabad in search of a better coach and was lucky to find E. Chiranjeevi. Under the guidance of Chiranjeevi, a former Services boxer who believes there is logic behind every punch, Nikhat has honed her skills to taste success in top national competitions.

But a serious shoulder injury in 2017 robbed the talented boxer of a year, forcing her to start from scratch. Again, she was lucky to find another knowledgeable guide in American Ronald Simms, who worked for the Inspire Institute of Sports (IIS), Vijayanagar.

“Ron was a big part of my growth because when I got injured in 2017 and started from the basics after my rehab, I trained with him. He was a dedicated coach and I liked my job. train with him,” says Nikhat.

Everything went well and Nikhat won a bronze medal at the Asian Championships in April 2019. But she got into trouble at the Indian Open in Guwahati the following month when she said she should fight to beat Olympic bronze medalist Mary.

A misunderstanding sparked bitterness between the two as Mary believed Nikhat was challenging her.

Months later, when the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) canceled the 51kg selection trials at the last minute to allow Mary to compete in the world championships, Nikhat raised her objection. The issue gained further attention when it demanded a fair selection trial for Olympic qualifying.

Mary won the lawsuit, but the episode ended in unwanted publicity.

Nikhat Zareen, when she won the gold medal in world junior women's boxing.  File photo.

Nikhat Zareen, when she won the gold medal in world junior women’s boxing. File photo. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Library

Throughout, Nikhat carried herself in a dignified manner but stuck to her rightful request without getting bogged down in pressure.

When Mary sportingly congratulated Nikhat on her world title, the latter quickly buried the hatchet and happily accepted the respect she deserved.

Nikhat’s determination helped her overcome difficulties inside and outside the ring. “I believed in myself [and thought] whatever happens, happens for a good reason. The struggle and everything I had to face in the past made me stronger,” says Nikhat.

another hurdle

The pandemic was another hurdle, but Nikhat rose to the challenge to push herself to get better. She was so keen on improving her game in the post-pandemic period that she spent out of her own pocket training at IIS for about three months after her sponsorship ended.

Nikhat’s efforts were reflected in the results – she beat two world champions at the Bosphorus Tournament for a bronze medal last year, won gold at the Strandja Memorial Event and won the world crown this year.

Even though adversities made her braver, Nikhat chose the best from every trainer she worked with to improve her game in various aspects – aggression, combinations, attack, counter-attack and ranged combat. “I worked on how to face different styles of boxers. I worked with [chief coach Bhaskar] Bhatt sir on this. I normally chat with Ron, the current IIS coach John [Warburton] from England, Mr Bhatt and Mr Chiranjeevi.

In addition to Bhatt, Simms was the go-to man after every fight at the World Championships.

With experience, Nikhat’s approach to the sport has changed. Now she tries to throw the right shots to avoid injury.

Want more: this is just the beginning.  I will have a greater responsibility as world champion, says Nikhat.

Want more: This is just the beginning. I will have a greater responsibility as world champion, says Nikhat. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Areas for improvement

World Cup bronze medalist V. Devarajan, who worked as a coach and was part of the 10-member panel that witnessed the tryout bout between Nikhat and Mary three years ago, thinks Nikhat can land a Olympic medal if she works on some aspect of her game.

“Currently she is a world champion, but soon you may see her an Olympic champion. For that, she has to improve her game because the whole world will have her video now. She has to work on her coordination of punches, feigning and keeping her guard up. She needs to use her presence of mind more often during a fight,” says Devarajan.

With her newfound confidence, Nikhat is keen to shine at major events, including the upcoming Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, as well as the Paris Olympics in 2024.

“This is just the beginning. I will have a greater responsibility as a world champion. My next goal is to win a gold medal at the Paris Olympics,” says Nikhat.

Blessed with unwavering determination and a willingness to work hard, and backed by a battery of effective coaches, Nikhat has everything at her disposal to further elevate her game and fulfill her dream of a podium finish in Paris in two years’ time. .