Punching it into the history books

- May 25, 2022
| By : Patriot Bureau |

Following a tumultuous road to success, Telangana’s Nikhat Zareen has emerged as the undisputed queen of boxing at the IBA Women’s World Championship when she defeated Thailand’s Jitpong Jutamas without breaking a sweat in the 52kg final

“Am I in the real world? Or am I just living a dream? I’m sure once I reach my home and meet my family, especially my mother, I would be able to come out of all this”, said India’s new boxing queen Nikhat Zareen after joining an elite bunch of women’s World Boxing Championships in Istanbul, Turkey.

But the journey from “Who is Nikhat Zareen” to now newly-found stardom has not been easy for this 25-year-old pugilist. Hailing from a traditional Muslim family of Nizamabad in Telangana, she was previously a junior Youth World Champion.

Courtesy of her historic victory, Zareen joined the likes of six-time champions MC Mary Kom, L Sarita Devi, Jenny RL and Lekha C to become only the fifth Indian woman boxer to win the world title.

Living up to the expectations, Zareen thrashed Thailand’s Jitpong Jutamas without breaking a sweat in the 52kg final with judges scoring the bout 30-27, 29-28, 29-28, 30-27 and 29-28 in the Indian pugilist’s favour. 

However, Zareen’s journey has not been an easy one as she has trained very hard for her success. It all started a couple of years ago, when the Boxing India (BI) authorities were conducting trials to pick an Indian contingent to represent the country at the Tokyo Olympics, which is where it began. Six-time World Boxing Champion MC Mary Kom, who was certainly not at her peak, but a strong contender to take this spot, was handed a direct qualification to represent India in Tokyo.

It was at that point that the winner of many junior titles, Zareen wrote to the Sports minister Kiren Rijiju, requesting a ‘fair trial’. The minister obliged her and asked the authorities to provide her the chance to stake her claim on the quota. A bout was organised between the two amid the news that Mary Kom was displeased with Zareen’s claim over the country’s quota.

The veteran Manipuri pugilist even questioned the merit of young Zareen’s claim to the throne and even advised the Telangana native to focus on her trade instead. On the day of the trial, Zareen’s inexperience let her down as Mary Kom emerged winner with a resounding score line. But things became ugly when the Manipuri boxer refused to shake hands with Zareen after the bout.

Zareen did not board the plane to Tokyo, but she moved on on a positive note and set sights on the Paris Olympics in 2024. She sat at home and kept her eyes on her close friends — Neeraj Chopra and Vinesh Phogat — competing at the Games. Zareen was surely bitter after her bout with Mary Kom, but certainly learning it the hard way to handle her emotions.

“I am happy to make my own mark at the world level. In flyweight, this was my first World Championships and I still managed to win gold for my country. I am also sure that I will keep performing well and win more medals in the future”, Zareen said.

Paris Games may be more than 775 days away, but Zareen has already achieved what was on her mind by winning the World title when she beat Thailand’s Jitpong Jutamas in the 52kg final by a unanimous verdict.

This was her first World Championships medal and her second gold medal of the year — she had won the Strandja Memorial in February.

Change in weight category

Zareen, who currently competes in the non-Olympic 52kg category, will have to switch to the 50kg category for the upcoming Commonwealth Games.

Though it’s not that easy for any boxer to change categories so easily, Zareen is prepared to do so. “It is a little hard to change weight categories as there are differences in each category. You are at a disadvantage if you go from a lower category to a higher one as most boxers drop weight before events to make the cut and you’d be facing stronger boxers. In my case, it won’t be any issue as my current weight is 51kg and it will hardly take me any time to switch to 50kg”, she told Patriot over the phone.

With the CWG starting in Birmingham on 28 July, Zareen knows that a big medal there would also be a step towards realising her dream of winning an Olympic medal. “The challenge is to continue to be in top form during any big competitions. I took part in the Strandja Memorial and then attended the trials for the World Championships and Asian Games. That helped me in my preparations as I faced some very experienced and decorated boxers in Strandja. I know that I will keep improving each and every day if I manage to remain injury-free”, said the 25-year-old pugilist.

Injury & comeback

The injury she is worried about happened in 2017 when her shoulder got dislocated during the All-India University championships.

The injury was such that she needed surgery and was forced to be out of the competition for almost a year. “I was away from boxing throughout 2017 and made a comeback at the nationals the next year and won bronze. As I was advised to be cautious after injury, I had to skip a lot of major competitions like the CWG, Asian Games and the World Championships after that”, said Zareen, adding: “Thankfully, I was fully fit in 2019 and never looked back. I always believed in myself and that has helped me reach where I am right now.”

Zareen emerged an undisputed queen of boxing at the WC as she thrashed her fancy Thai opponent one-sided.

Not an easy walk

When asked what was going on inside her mind after winning the final bout, Zareen was not hesitant to say that she was thinking about ‘when would she be trending on the social media site Twitter?’.

She certainly started trending after a while as the entire world was eager to know about her journey. But after talking to her father Mohammad Jameel, one could understand how difficult it was for young Zareen to pursue her dream of playing a sport not really meant for women, especially Muslim women.

Zareen initially trained in 100m and 200m and even won gold at the district level. Before she could reach the next level, Zareen found boxing.

Recalling the taunts that he used to hear when young Zareen used to go for practice in shorts, Jameel recalled how people in his neighbourhood would often raise objections to her choice of sport. “We (the family) learned to ignore such complaints about Zareen. And now that she is a World Champion, the mindset of those people would certainly change for the times to come”, said Jameel, who himself used to play cricket and football during Zareen’s youth.

Zareen has also understood with her bitter experiences that nothing succeeds like success. “It was after that bad loss (to Mary Kom) that I looked for a place to hide”, said the new world champion. “I was at home, alone in hiding, and suddenly, the pandemic (Covid) hit. It was such a blessing to be at your home with your near and dear ones during such a difficult time. I spent most of my time with my nephew (Abdul Malik) and niece (Mahad). That time took me away from all my bad dreams, and by the time I entered the new year, I was a changed person. I was fresh and ready to take on any challenge”, said Zareen.

Zareen’s new mantra is simple and straight: “Move on, work hard. What will happen, will happen. No point fretting over things which are not in your control.” She just wants to celebrate today. She knows she is the World Champion today. And this moment should be celebrated right now with an eye on the future.

Her dream of winning Olympic gold is continuously pushing her to train hard, but with caution. “Staying fit and staying healthy is most important to me at this point in my career. The dream will follow for sure.”

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