Hyderabad, India – Once when Nikhat Zareen came home with a bleeding nose, her mother burst into tears. “Your face will be spoiled,” she said, worrying how her girl would find a groom.
Nearly a decade later, Zareen on Sunday became the second Indian after Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom to win the world women’s boxing championship two years in a row.
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It was a formidable victory for the unseeded player who, after having won the 2022 World Championship in the 52kg category, dropped down to 50kg for this year’s tournament held in New Delhi. The drop was motivated by her desire to compete in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, a win that is her next dream.
“I feel great, especially coming from a small town like Nizamabad, and winning gold two times in the World Championship was like a dream come true. I could make my country proud with back-to-back gold medals. It is an amazing feeling,” said the 26-year-old who beat Vietnam’s Nguyen Thi Tam in the finals.
‘Can girls box?’
Zareen’s parents say she fell in love with boxing when she was a young girl. Watching boys slug it out, her first question was: “Can girls box?”
“Why not?” Mohammed Samsamuddin, her first boxing coach, replied.
“I felt that boxing was like love at first sight for Nikhat,” the 72-year-old former coach told Al Jazeera.
Zareen, the third of four daughters of Mohammad Jameel Ahmed and Parveen Sultana, won her parents’ blessing as well. Jameel, himself a state-level football player, worked as a salesman in Saudi Arabia before returning to his home town to guide Nikhat’s sporting career.
“My father used to train me in Nizamabad and I had decent success in athletics. But during a sports meet, there was a boxing event where there was not a single girl in the tournament,” Nikhat had said in an interview in 2011 when she won the Junior World Boxing Championship held in Turkey.
“So I asked my father why there were no girls in boxing. I asked if girls don’t take part in boxing. But he said girls can box.
“Most of the people feel girls should study and then get married. But my father, being a sportsman, encouraged me to take to boxing. My mother, though, was a bit scared. She was very worried,” she said.
From athletics to boxing
But Zareen had not started off to become a boxer. A “bundle of energy” as a child with a “tomboyish streak”, as her father described her, he decided to channel that energy.
“Running around in our small house in Naseem Colony in Vinayak Nagar of Nizamabad town in Telangana, she was always up to some mischief or the other,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera.
He took her to a training centre only to keep the restless nine-year-old girl busy. She surprised everyone, including her father, with her enthusiasm for athletics.
“She excelled in 100 metres, 200 metres, long jump and high jump,” said Ahmed. “She took part in a state athletics event before her eyes fell on an indoor boxing gym.”
It was the place where Samsamuddin trained boxers. Nikhat spent days watching the male boxers in action before wearing the gloves.
“I was stunned initially, but once she wore the boxing gloves, there was no looking back,” said Samsamuddin.
In 2009, when Zareen was 13, she was spotted by Omkar Nath Yadav, a talent scout for boxing, during a state government event in Karimnagar district to promote sports in rural areas.
“She was a skinny girl. After watching a few bouts, I was impressed with her footwork and punching speed. She was hungry to win and I decided to take a risk,” said Yadav.
He entered Zareen’s name for the national games held in Punjab state, for which he said he faced some criticism as well. Many asked how the young girl could box with tall, 18-year-old pugilists from Haryana and Punjab states.
“But she was tough. She justified my faith with a gutsy show. There was some spark,” Yadav said.
‘You hit me, I hit you’
Zareen’s rollercoaster journey in a hitherto male bastion had started. “You hit me, wait, I will also hit you,” became her mantra, she says.
In 2010, she won the gold and the best boxer award at the sub-junior national championships. The next year, the 15-year-old pugilist made history when she won gold in the 50kg flyweight category at the Junior World Boxing Championship held in Turkey’s Antalya city.
Ahmed, convinced her daughter was destined to be a world champion, shifted base in 2014 to Hyderabad, the southern Indian city that has produced some of India’s most prominent sporting stars: Sania Mirza in tennis, P V Sindhu and Saina Nehwal in badminton, Gagan Narang in shooting, and Sreeja Akula in table tennis.
“I knew this boxer was born to win. There was that killer instinct that made her a strong pugilist. She would not flinch from hard blows that she took from the boys at the Nizam College training centre,” India’s national boxing coach Emani Chiranjeevi told Al Jazeera.
“I thought this girl was going to make waves. She oozed confidence and would practice for hours together. She was very strong mentally and that helped her to grow in stature.”
Chiranjeevi also praised Ahmed for standing by her daughter. “He would come by scooter, stay at the gym, and look after her diet,” he said.
When Mary Kom asked: ‘Who is Nikhat?’
Mary Kom, a six-time world boxing champion, is considered India’s greatest boxer who even inspired a Bollywood biopic. Now 40 and a mother of two, the pugilist from the northeastern state of Manipur won a bronze in the 2012 London Olympics in the flyweight 51kg category.
Meanwhile, Zareen also began to rise in the same weight category. She clinched bronze at the senior national championships and bagged the Belgrade International Championship in 2018. The next year, she punched her way to gold at Strandja Memorial, Europe’s oldest international boxing event as well as a silver at the Thailand Open.
But Zareen could not get past Mary Kom in the India Open that year. Mary Kom was even selected for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which was held in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After Mary Kom’s name was announced for Tokyo, Zareen demanded a “fair trial” and called for a fight against her. But her plea was rejected by the Boxing Federation of India which defended its decision by citing Mary Kom’s “consistent performance”.
Meanwhile, a peeved Mary Kom asked in 2019: “Who is Nikhat Zareen?”
Zareen then wrote to the federal sports minister, again demanding a “fair chance”. Much to Mary Kom’s annoyance, the minister ordered a bout between the two players. Mary Kom beat Zareen with a 9-1 verdict, their bitter “trial” ending without a customary handshake.
The controversy upset Zareen but she said she soon came to terms with it. “I take challenges in a positive way. There will always be obstacles. But these challenges make me a much stronger person,” she said.
She says boxing teaches people to cope with challenges. “It makes you stronger physically and mentally. After I became a boxer, I felt more independent. I had no fear as I could protect myself.”
Zareen also said she is inspired by Mary Kom’s feats in world boxing. Once the veteran quit the scene, Nikhat asserted her supremacy with back-to-back gold in 52kg and 50 kg categories in Istanbul and New Delhi. She also won gold in the Commonwealth Games held in Birmingham last year.
But her gold-winning performance in Turkey last year remains a special memory. “Turkey is a lucky country for my daughter. She won the world juniors and the senior world gold there,” said Ahmed.
Olympic medal next dream
Zareen told Al Jazeera winning back-to-back world championship gold medals was tough.
“The first one I won at Istanbul in Turkey. It was my first championship gold medal. It is special because I won outside India and I didn’t have the support of the home crowd, the kind that I got in the New Delhi championship,” she said.
“In this year’s world championship, I fought six bouts and I was unseeded since I was in the 50kg category. But I defeated an African champion, two-time Asian Games medallists, Rio Olympic bronze medallist and the Vietnamese girl, Nguyen Thi Tam, in the final.
“All were tough opponents and I managed to win the gold. I was very happy as I could defeat [Tam] in the finals. I had lost to her in the Asian championship. I wanted to take a sweet revenge and I did it.”
On her growing stardom, Nikhat says, “Who doesn’t like stardom? Everyone enjoys the accolades, fame and success. I am also enjoying it.
“But I am aware of the next few hurdles. I know I need to work hard. Until I achieve my dream of winning an Olympic gold, I would not like to stop my hard work.”
Next target? The Asian Games to be held in September, she says.
“I will try to win a medal and qualify for the Paris Olympics. I hope I will become the first woman boxer to win an Olympic gold medal for my country.”