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Underdog world champion sounds cool: Nikhat Zareen ahead of Paris Olympics

Apr 04, 2024 09:58 PM IST

Olympics in her tunnel vision, the two-time world champion feels it's her time to shine in Paris.

In December 2019, Nikhat Zareen, all fire and fury, went down to London Games bronze medallist MC Mary Kom in an ill-tempered selection trial that cleared the latter’s trip to Tokyo. Much has happened since that spicy winter evening.

At Strandja, Nikhat made mental notes of each opponent while trying "something new"(PTI)

Now a two-time world champion and an Asian Games bronze medallist, Nikhat, 27, has graduated from being a spunky challenger to an eager torchbearer. However, the unrequited yearning for what she believed was always hers has only grown stronger. It has kept her going — against fearsome opponents and faceless insecurities. And now that the time is almost here, Nikhat is in no mood to relent.

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"I have waited so long for this. I feel it's my time. It has to be," she muttered after a training session at NIS Patiala recently. “Now is the time to show what I can do.”

And what she can do is punch hard. Like she did at Strandja Memorial earlier this year in Sofia, a tournament she approached to "try a few things." Before going down to Uzbekistan’s Sabina Bobokulova in split verdict (2-3) in the final, the 50kg pugilist beat Bulgaria's Zlatislava Chukanova (5-0), Worlds bronze medallist Lkhadiri Wassila of France (5-0), and Mongolia’s Asian Games bronze medallist Oyuntsetseg Yesugen (3-2).

"The only reason I participated in Strandja was to assess myself. I want to get into the Olympics as an underdog. An underdog world champion sounds cool," she said.

The 50kg Olympic weight division has some interesting names, each of which can potentially spring a surprise. China's Wu Yu and Thailand's Raksat Chuthamat along with the bunch Nikhat boxed against at Strandja make it a very competitive group. But Nikhat is not flustered.

"They should be worried to face me. When I am in the ring, I don't care about reputations," she said. “I don't think there are any secrets in this day and age. My opponents are assessing my game as well as I am studying theirs. The more I compete, the better I get.”

At Strandja, Nikhat made mental notes of each opponent while trying "something new". “I can't get into the specifics as of now but I did try a few things. Some of them came off, some didn't. The idea is to present a different version of what I was at the World Championships. I am developing a Plan B for each boxer. Some of the boxers I competed against at Strandja are also likely to be at the Olympics.”

The Strandja tournament was followed by a camp in Montenegro where Nikhat sparred with boxers from Japan, Hungary, Greece, and Tajikistan.

"I went up against 50kg as well as 54kg boxers. Fighting physically superior boxers was a great learning curve," she said.

“I worked on playing from distance while trying to land as many clean punches as possible. I also worked on placing my body in a way that I appear aggressive. The idea was to prepare for unanimous wins because refereeing and judging in boxing has become very subjective.”

Despite the intricate, blow-by-blow planning, bouts are still well and truly decided within the ring. All the pre-bout analysis can be reduced to naught in the face of — as Mike Tyson famously observed — a punch in the face, and so the boxer must be ready to reinvent within the bout.

"It comes with experience. No matter how much you have planned, you must be ready to change everything inside the ring. Things happen very quickly in the ring, so you must be able to think on your feet and back your conviction," she said.

“In my case, I am neither too old, nor too young. I have travelled enough and played enough to know how these things are done, but you never stop learning. The Uzbek who I lost to in Bulgaria, I was fighting her for the first time. The next time we meet, both of us will try to do different things.”

In the final lap of her preparations for Paris, Nikhat is currently on a 10-day training stint in Kastamonu in northern Turkey along with other Paris-bound athletes and two coaches. The trip is being covered by sports ministry's TOPS funding. The Turkey trip is likely to be followed by a preparatory competition in May. A training camp in Thailand is also in the works and the boxing contingent may then spend a month in Germany before flying to Paris.

"I can sense the D-Day approaching. It's a feeling of nervous excitement. I have been waiting for this all my life and I can't wait to get on that flight to Paris," she said. The Olympics begin on July 26 and runs till August 11.

"I also feel the bronze at the Asian Game and my loss in the Strandja final have worked in my favour. Failures teach you a lot. Post Asian Games, I have cut down on my public appearances and I will soon disappear from social media too. I have Paris in my tunnel vision. When you have one goal all your life, you don't get sidetracked."

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