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Mary Kom has competition as Nikhat Zareen eye Olympic spot

The 51kg category is the hottest contest in women’s boxing in India. Mary won the sixth of her World Championship titles in New Delhi last year (45-48kg), and is gunning for yet another Olympic medal.

other sports Updated: Apr 14, 2019 01:47 IST
Avishek Roy
Avishek Roy
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Nikhat Zareen,Nikhat Zareen Boxing,Mary Kom
Nikhat Zareen during the practice session for Asian Games at Indira Gandhi Indore Stadium in New Delhi.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Nikhat Zareen sweated her shadow work, watching herself in a large mirror.

Punjabi music blared out from a bluetooth speaker.

When Mohammed Ali Qamar, the Indian women’s boxing coach, asked the national campers to move from the boxing hall to the larger badminton arena at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Sports Complex in New Delhi, Nikhat plugged her earplugs into her phone and followed. For the next 30 minutes the boxers warmed up, jogging and sprinting, and Nikhat, like Mary Kom, did it to the beat of her own music.

If at 36, Mary Kom still rules her weight class, 22-year-old Nikhat has been building herself up to disrupt her reign.

The 51kg category is the hottest contest in women’s boxing in India. Mary won the sixth of her World Championship titles in New Delhi last year (45-48kg), and is gunning for yet another Olympic medal.

But moving up from her preferred light flyweight (45-48), since that class was not included in the Olympics, has been a struggle for Mary. Nikhat, who has always been a 51kg fighter, will be hoping to use that to her advantage.

Mary and Nikhat’s fight for an Olympic spot will begin at home, with the experienced Pinki Jangra, who has spent almost all of her career in Mary’s shadow, being the third challenger.

The first opportunity to book an Olympic berth will be at the World Championships in Russia in September, but before that, the Boxing Federation of India will hold trials for every category in July.

Nikhat has already topped Pinki at the recent trials for the Asian Championships in Bangkok from April 16.

“I know that in every competition I have to prove myself,” Nikhat, who is a former world junior champion, says. “I am not a big name and if I have to play at the Olympics, I have to keep performing. At the moment my focus is the Asian Championships.”

Nikhat has once shied away from facing Mary in the trials. In the lead up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, she, Mary, and Pinki were all set to face off in the trials, before she moved up to the 54kg class.

“I was ready to take trials in 51kg but my coach told me you can qualify for India in Rio only if you can knock Mary Kom down,” Nikhat says. “I then decided to give trials in 54kg.”

At just 19, she got picked for the World Championship in 2016, but 54kg was not an Olympic category.

Mary could not qualify for Rio either, losing in the 2nd round at the World Championships. The trial she won against Pinki to earn her spot at the World Championships turned into a controversy after Pinki alleged that there was biased judging.

Since that eventful year, Nikhat’s life slowed down after an injury. It took her almost two years to make her way back to the top level, and she has no plans to move away from 51kg.

“This has been the toughest category in the country because Mary Kom competes,” she says. “But I want to prove myself. I came into this category as a junior, and I have the confidence.”

Comeback with gold

Nikhat announced her comeback with a gold at the Strandja Boxing Championships in February.

“I got lucky that I even played in Strandja,” she says. “I had lost to Pinki in the Senior National finals but then the federation decided to send both finalists in Olympic categories.

“I was the second option. Everyone was hoping for a medal from Pinki but it was a great opportunity for me. When I reached the final after three tough rounds I told myself I cannot mess up here. The girl I was meeting in the final (Magno Irish of Philippines) had beaten Pinki in the first round. If I had lost, people would have said both of us lost to the same boxer,” says Nikhat. She blanked Magno out 5-0 in the final.

Her next big test was facing Pinki in the trials for the upcoming Asian Championships. Nikhat had to fight her own demons.

“I took a week’s break, and worked on my weak points,” she says, “but before the match I was getting the same feeling like when I lost to her in the Nationals. I felt I will lose again. But this time I had sparred with her in the camp and was better prepared. I went with a strategy and I stuck to it.” She won the bout by unanimous decision.

The victory over Pinki has made Nikhat India’s first-choice boxer in the category, at least till trials are held again.

The girl from Nizamabad was considered India’s big find when she won the junior World Championship in 2011. A silver medal at the 2014 World Youth Championships followed but then there was a lull as she made the transition to the senior level.

Surgery on her dislocated right shoulder kept her out of the national camp in 2017.

“I learnt a lot when I was injured,” she says. “Injuries make a sportsperson strong—mentally and physically. When you are performing, people will take note of it and if you don’t perform you are out of sight. It has made me strong.”

It needed plenty of strength for her to come into boxing in the first place. Her father, a local cricketer and athlete, introduced her to the sport when she was 12, and trained her at a local boxing gym where there were no other girls.

“I practised with boys and that has made my basics strong,” she says.

First Published: Apr 14, 2019 01:22 IST