‘Door rehna, bas (just stay away)’.
With those words from coach Bhaskar Bhatt ringing in her ears, Nikhat Zareen charged forward from her corner as the bell rang to mark the beginning of the final round of the light-flyweight gold medal bout of the Birmingham Games.
Leading on all five cards after the first two rounds against Northern Ireland’s Carly McNaul, all Nikhat had to do was stay out of trouble for the rest of the bout. She did just that, dancing and prancing around the ring, staying away from her opponent’s reach, smiling and swaying – and occasionally sneaking in a mean punch – and pocketing the gold medal.
Bhatt had earlier given the same instruction to Nitu Ghanghas, who was in a similar position in her minimumweight gold medal fight against England’s Demie-Jade Resztan, before the final round. For most of the last three minutes, Nitu followed the same strategy as Nikhat but the temptation to get involved was too much to avoid, and so in the last 30 seconds, she went all-in and landed three clean back-to-back combination punches to finish with a flourish.
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Sandwiched between these two bouts was Amit Panghal’s flyweight final against England’s Kiaran Macdonald. Panghal, too, was comfortably ahead after the first two rounds but at the CWG, he had spared no one. And there was no way he’d go easy on his opponent in the gold medal bout. So, even as blood gushed down Macdonald’s forehead, and onto his eyes, Panghal unleashed a flurry of punches to put the result beyond any doubt.
Three finals, three unanimous verdicts, three gold medals.
While Nikhat stepped out of the ring to instantly celebrate her gold medal with wrestler and close friend Vinesh Phogat, and Nitu couldn’t stop grinning and punching the air having won her first major multi-discipline medal, Panghal was more muted in his celebrations – just his trademark salute and a Namaste to the cameras.
After his first-round exit at the Tokyo Olympics last year, Panghal’s childhood coach Anil Dhankar said at the CWG that he was out to prove a point to himself more than others. Dhankar recalled how for months after the Tokyo Games, the duo would merely look at each other and tears would start flowing.
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Panghal’s explosive strength
Touted as a medal contender at the Olympics, Panghal slowly began to pick up the pieces after a shock defeat and began training with junior boxers at the academy. “He was hurt, we all were. After the Olympics, he started with the basics all over again,” Dhankar said on Sunday.
“The mistake he made (in Tokyo) was to play according to his opponent’s style rather than sticking to his own. At the CWG, he stuck to his own type of boxing; that is, to land a punch, duck and make the opponent miss his attempt and then launch a counterattack. And that’s where he’s the most dangerous.”
Four unanimous decisions in four bouts en route to the gold underlined how ‘dangerous’ he is. Panghal would – as he did in Sunday’s final – dip low, bide his time and use his incredible hand speed to unleash ferocious right-hand punches from a lower angle, a style none of his opponents were able to deal with.
Indian boxing’s former high-performance director Santiago Neiva, Dhankar said, had pointed out to Panghal about the lack of sting in his punches despite the accuracy. “So, in the last few months he started performing training drills that throwers do to improve their power as well as explosive strength,” Dhankar said. This included exercises like squats and short sprints.
“At the 2018 Commonwealth Games too, Amit was in the final against an English boxer. But he lost that bout because he lacked in these areas,” Dhankar said. “And then, there’s one big change between Amit today compared to a year ago – his willpower. He’s more determined and hungrier than I’ve seen him in a long, long time.”