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Nikhat Zareen has an open, expansive, unfeigned personality outside the boxing ring. Not quite the bravado of the open guard inside of the ring that will invite a crushing flurry. But there were remnants of exuberance from outside of the square, that needed reining in and some tightening, if she has to step out of MC Mary Kom’s shadow in the women’s flyweight division, and make a mark internationally. The gold at Strandja, beating the Olympic silver medallist in March was a start. The World Championship title at Turkey, was announcing her proper arrival.
The 25-year-old had audaciously gone warring to stake claim to even be the challenger prior to the last Olympics, asking Mary Kom to fetch up for a trial. Having earned her place as a contender now with Mary stepping aside, and crucially Nikhat getting the wins under her belt, there was now the start of the actual battle — on the international level, beginning with this May World Championships. Someone’s kept her on the straight and narrow of ‘Planet Athlete-hungry-for-success’ clearly, because she holds herself back from a self-appraisal of 10/10 when quizzed about her footwork. “I want to sound humble. So, chalo, theeke, 9/10 for footwork,” she chuckled in a mock-grudging tone.
Mary Kom danced when ducking and danced when dashing forth in the 51kg ring, through her twinkling footwork. Nikhat reckons she’s not lead-footed at all, far from it. But given there’s miles to go before Paris comes along, she keeps assessments conservative with plenty of scope for improvement: “Speed 7/10. Power in the punches 8/10.”
Cumulative coolness from being a die-hard Salman Khan fan? 20/10. “Very big fan. Fan kya, AC samjho. I believe he hasn’t married yet, because he’s waiting for me,” she says in mock-grandiose tone, a bonafide pugilist, whose pre-punch, pre-jab is the pure bluster, uttered for effect.
Though not quite the Dabangg-fan here. “I used to be a big fan of his in Hum Saath-Saath Hain. That innocence on his face. Salman of ’90s,” says the Bhai-buff, though for someone born only in 1997, the movie mania in Nizamabad must’ve started much later. “I’m waiting for his new Tiger movie,” she reminds.
But first came boxing in serendipitous ways, to the girl who started out as a sprinter.
Nikhat’s father Mohd Jameel Ahmed is a true-blue Hyderabadi. That is, he’s played cricket elegantly, and extended his sports love to football and athletics, with no preconditions of elegance in those. “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 are, but 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 women in the 51kg division in India had to do more — vault over a very high gate, plus its halo. Take down the legend, MC Mary Kom, and for Nikhat, there wasn’t weight fluidity to manoeuvre around the rock in that category. Out of her depth when they met for the trials prior to Tokyo qualification meets, she would be packed off to bide her time, to up her game after a bit of a tactical licking.
“I needed to go home after that. Eat my mom’s food. Play with my nephews, nieces,” she recalls, of toddlers aged 4, 2 and 7 1/2 years. “I of course felt bad because Olympics wouldn’t come for another 4 years (3). But I always believed there’s more to come. And maybe Tokyo wasn’t my destiny. I didn’t look back and moved on,” she added.
Boxing has always been about “winning and learning” for Nikhat. In 2017, she tore her shoulder and forearm. “It was a bad case. I never imagined I could get such an injury. It hurt and took a year to heal. But I believe I got wiser and more mature after that injury. God wanted me to become mentally stronger,” she says.
Fleet-footed she might be, but there was and remains much about ring-craft that Nikhat is aware she’ll need to work on, to be spoken of in the same breath as multiple World Champion, Mary Kom. “Experience was the big difference,” she avers when speaking of the recent semifinal against Turkish Buse Naz Çakıroğlu, the silver medallist from Tokyo.
“It was sweet revenge because I’d lost to her last year in semis. I’d worked on my mistakes and knew what was her strength, and had the strategy to not let her play her game,” she says.
At the Bosphorus Boxing Tournament in Istanbul last year, Nikhat had beaten two-time world champion Nazym Kyzaibay of Kazakhstan, a day after packing off 2019 world champion Paltceva Ekaterina of Russia in pre-quarters. With gold medallist Stoyka Krasteva, in her late 30s, unlikely to be at Paris, a new crop awaits, outlines of which will be visible at Worlds and Asiad.
New chief women’s coach Bhaskar Bhatt, was in Nikhat’s corner at Strandja. “I’d never worked with him at the elite level before. But he’s very hardworking and humble and gave me great support in that semifinal.” Nikhat had been very nervous, with memories of last year’s loss haunting her more than the reputation of the Tokyo medallist. “I wasn’t sure how I would actually fight once inside the ring because I’d lost last year on a unanimous decision. He just shook me by the shoulder, looked me in the eyes and told me: ‘punch rukne nahi chahiye.’ He was so motivating, that I was pumped up.”
The humbly assessed 9/10 footwork and agility aside, Nikhat feels confident about her left and right hooks — something she maxes with her 163 cm frame. Yet, tactically there’s much work to be done. “Of course, you have to always 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 flagged but she clung onto the spot gamely, was her anticipation of the opponent’s range and when to go all in and when to parry from a distance. It came from years of experience and a canny brain.
Nikhat, not as pickled in the trickery yet, understands she needs sheer variety to trump the wiles. “I need a game that can confuse people where they say, ‘iska samajh ni aata (it’s tough to read her). I should be able to alternate between very defensive and a change in style in a fraction of seconds,” she reckons.
Nikhat uses her sprinting past mostly to help make weight now. She’s moved well past the singular-tempo of blindly running quickly on the track — freely and ferociously. She’s learning to keep her cards close to her in the ring now — the ebullience, at times an upbeat facade.
EDOT: Why 51 is perfect for Nikhat
Nikhat Zareen has had to wait out her turn in the 51kg with the legendary Mary Kom ensconced there till recently. Nikhat last went to a World Championship in bantamweight (54 kg) in 2016 and made quarters. But she’s woefully uncomfortable stepping up. “It’s not just the height and strength,” says the 163cm tall pugilist. “54kg class is also where many from 57kg lose weight, step down and fight.” So technically, a wide range of fighters are encountered in that bridge class, and Nikhat has found herself overpowered and outwitted with her previously limited set. Mary too straddled her natural 48kg and the Olympics class 51kg, while others like Sarjubala Devi went pro, and Pinki Jhangra waited out. Nikhat though is a natural in 51kg.
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