It was the culmination of an arduous tournament in which she had to overcome as many as six challengers owing to her unseeded status.
Teary eyes and a roar towards the camera — Nikhat Zareen went through the full wringer of emotions after a closely-fought gold-medal match that saw her emerging as World Champion for the second straight year. It was the culmination of an arduous tournament in which she had to overcome as many as six challengers owing to her unseeded status.
Winning back-to-back golds at the IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships was a feat achieved only by the legendary Mary Kom. At just 26 years, Nikhat is slowly filling those giant shoes. The crowd-favourite beat Vietnam’s Nguyen Thi Tam 5-0 at a packed KD Jadhav Indoor Hall in New Delhi on Sunday. But the unanimous decision was no reflection of how close the bout was.
“It’s a special day, a second World Championship gold, that too in a new weight category. Today’s bout was my toughest so far, facing an Asian champion. The next target is the Asian Games, so to win against her, in the first big championships since changing categories… The strategy was to use all the energy I had left, despite a tough tournament, and I threw everything at it,” said Nikhat after the match.
Shortly after Nikhat’s bout, Lovlina Borgohain won a contentious 5-2 decision against Australia’s Caitlin Parker to claim her first ever Women’s World Boxing Championship gold medal. The middleweight Assam boxer was awarded the fight 3-2 in a split decision. She then got two points from the evaluator and the observer under IBA’s new bout review system.
These two wins capped a dream weekend for Indian boxing after the two gold medals on Saturday.
It was a change in weight category, from 52 kg to 50 kg, that had left Nikhat unseeded at these World Championships. In her six gruelling, physically taxing bouts, she spent a cumulative 45 minutes ducking, weaving and charting a path over the roughest of seas to get her second World Championship gold.
In all these bouts, Nikhat was rarely allowed to play her natural game. She needed to think on her feet, change strategy and innovate. A mid-range boxer, she has the ability to stay just beyond the reach of her opponent, while being close enough to avoid an attack and then land a punch of her own. It’s that unique ability, mastered over years of practice with multiple international coaches, that has resulted in her becoming one of India’s top boxers.
“I think it’s because she’s got so much confidence in her own abilities. She actually enjoys boxing. She actually enjoys the challenge of having that combat,” said John Warburton, the boxing head of Inspire Institute of Sport and one of the international coaches who worked with Nikhat recently. “The way she’s fighting, she’s making a statement. ‘I can beat you in any way I want to beat you. I can beat you at long range, I can brawl with you and beat you’, and that’s her mindset,” he told The Indian Express.
Nikhat’s boxing journey came into prominence when she won the gold medal at the 2011 Youth World Boxing Championships. The Nizamabad native has now added the World Championship medals as well as the 2022 Commonwealth gold to that initial spark. Her next stop: the Asian Games in Hangzhou. And if the same performances continue: the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
It is a target that has been part of her life since the day she won her Youth World Championship medal. Early in her career, Nikhat had been under the towering shadow of Mary Kom. She has had her own fair share of battles against the celebrated Manipuri boxer, most notably before the last Olympics where she demanded a trial and lost. With Mary Kom’s age ruling her out of the next Olympics, Nikhat has positioned herself to finally take over that weight category.
While still bitter about missing out previously, her father Mohammad Jameel Ahmed feels that it was just a matter of time: “She has missed out on two Olympics at the peak of her career. Not just as a father, as a mentor and as someone who plans her career, it was disappointing for me to see things go this way. But there was nothing we could do except focus on the next target. Upar wala likhega, toh bilkul aayega. Hum toh chhodne wale nahi hai (If god wills, our time will come. But we won’t stop trying),” he said.
Sunday’s bout was among the toughest Nikhat faced at this competition. Her Vietnamese opponent, taller and longer in range, won the second round and almost seemed to have taken the third. But the judges scored all rounds in favour of the Indian.
Warburton thinks her abilities are special, and now with an Olympic weight category solely hers, she just has to continue boxing in the same vein as she has been doing over the last couple of years.
“She’s going to be World Champion two years running. She will likely be the Asian Champion. She will qualify for the Olympics, and in my opinion, she will win gold. I’ve worked with lots of people who have won Olympic medals, gold medallists, silvers, bronzes and World medallists. She has all the same characteristics that they have. The attitude, the willpower, and the technical and tactical abilities — she’s got the lot,” said Warburton.
As for Lovlina, luck may have played its part in her bout. The judges scored the contest in her favor and so did the evaluator and observer, despite a shaky performance and an especially poor third round.
She recently made the move to the 75-kg weight category as her previous weight was not a part of the 2024 Paris Olympics boxing programme. Before this win, her trophy cabinet was adorned with two World Championship bronze medals and an Olympic bronze, all in the 69-kg category.
Speaking about her gold later, she said: “I was a little stressed before the final. I tried to play how the coaches asked me to play. It wasn’t a complete success but I thought it was 90 per cent successful. It feels very good to win a gold medal and become a champion.”