A week after our men’s badminton team won the Thomas Cup, the world cup for team badminton, we have another world champion in Nikhat Zareen who won the flyweight title at the recent world boxing championships. Regular readers would note that we would jump at featuring against-the-odds kind of success stories. Nikhat’s is one such as Deepti Patwardhan writes in this piece for The Mint.
““Is boxing not for girls?” Zareen’s boxing journey had started with that one innocent question. When she was 12, the girl from small-town Nizamabad in Telangana, was more of a track athlete. During a sports meet at the local stadium, she saw girls signing up for every sport except boxing. The question popped in her curious mind, and her father, Mohammed Jameel Ahmad, explained that though a few women did box, society expected them to stay home and do the chores.
“Why does the society think we girls are weak?” Zareen wondered while talking to the media after her win in Istanbul. “I discussed it with my father and decided to take up boxing.” The youngest of three children, Zareen was prone to defiance. Boxing was yet another outlet. Her first day in training had ended with a black eye and bloody nose. And though her mother, Parveen Sultana, did not want her to take up boxing because of the injury risks, Zareen was already plotting payback. The only girl in her local gym, Zareen learnt the ropes by boxing against boys. The rise through the ranks was quick for this fearless fighter.
She announced her arrival on the international stage by winning gold at the 2011 Junior World Championships, also in Turkey. That early success, however, did not help her fast-track into the seniors. The weight category that she competes in, flyweight, is one of the most competitive in the country and was dominated by Mary Kom, India’s foremost boxer.
For a while Zareen stepped up to the 54kg (bantamweight) category, and even made her senior World Championship debut, in 2016, in this category. But for the lithe boxer, it didn’t prove a comfortable fit. A year later, she dislocated her right shoulder at the All-India Inter University Championships and had to undergo surgery. Pushed to the side-lines for almost a year, Zareen had to dig deep into her mental reserves. “Making a comeback from that, I thought, whatever challenges come my way, I have to fight them,” she recalled. “Give up nahi karna hai.”
Nothing, however, could prepare her for the storm over her national trial against Mary Kom in 2019. Zareen had grown up idolising Mary Kom, who won her last World Championship in 2018. She wanted to contend for the Tokyo Olympics qualification tournament spot, which had been automatically handed to Kom. Breaking ranks, Zareen wrote to the federation requesting a trial. When she was finally granted her wish, Mary Kom defeated her, then dismissed her. “Who is Nikhat Zareen?” asked the boxer, refusing to shake hands with Zareen after the bout.
Some painted her as a villain to Mary Kom’s evergreen hero, others a martyr against a broken system. Zareen was not interested in being either. She did her best to shut out the world and went to work. “In the last two years, I focused more on myself,” she said. The boxer refined her strengths, more importantly she sought to eliminate weaknesses.”
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