Punching Her Way: Nikhat Zareen

Nikhat Zareen does not speak.

Indian boxer Zareen is focused on the 2024 Paris Olympics.  (Raj Ke Raj/Hindustan Times)
Indian boxer Zareen is focused on the 2024 Paris Olympics. (Raj Ke Raj/Hindustan Times)

Inside the boxing hall of New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, India’s elite female boxers are in high spirits—the Women’s World Boxing Championship is just days away (it was held in March this year), and everyone is raring to go. They are in small groups, laughing and talking, warming up, lifting weights, wrapping their arms in bandages, working heavy bags and pads. The happy hubbub of the boxing gym, the screech of fast-moving feet, the sharp click of gloves hitting leather, reflected off the high ceilings.

Zareen, 26, does not speak to anyone, there is no music in her ears, her mouth has a hard, scary line. You look into his eyes. They have a kind of merciless cruelty that is almost terrifying. You get the feeling early on that, no matter what else happens in the championship, Zarin will come away with a second world title.

At the championship, inside a packed, deafening stadium, Zarin drops to her knees inside the ring and holds her palms together in prayer. He won his second consecutive World Championship. He is the only Indian boxer after Mary Kom to do so.

“This has to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Zarin told me later, an upper-lipped smile. “Six fights in eight days. I’ve never had to fight so many times in a tournament. It was a test for me, and I’m happy with how my body and mind responded.

Is the responsibility of carrying forward Mary Kom’s legacy now on Zarin’s shoulders?

There has been no Indian female boxer since Mary Kom won the bronze medal, thus boxers strongly believe that Zareen is preferred for the Olympics.  (Raj Ke Raj/Hindustan Times)
There has been no Indian female boxer since Mary Kom won the bronze medal, thus boxers strongly believe that Zareen is preferred for the Olympics. (Raj Ke Raj/Hindustan Times)

Indian women’s team head coach Bhaskar Bhatt has described her as the best boxer in the country right now. With his second world title, his opportunity to explode into a class of his own is just around the corner. The 2024 Paris Olympics are just days away, and Zarin is counting down.

“If I have a passion, it’s to win Olympic gold,” she says.

ring leader

Zareen recalls how she accidentally became the first girl to take the game from Nizamabad, 186 km from Hyderabad, Telangana. “I didn’t really choose boxing,” she says. “Boxing chose me.”

It started from school. She was in class 6 and finished her class almost two hours earlier than her elder sister who studied in class 10. (She has two elder sisters, both physiotherapists. Her younger sister is a badminton player.) So Zareen used to move around. Campus, their father is waiting to pick them up. She watched her friend, a sprinter, train on the school grounds. One day, the training group called him to join a race. To everyone’s surprise, she won.

Zareen’s father Mohammad Jameel says, “The coach called me and said, ‘My daughter should be involved in sports.'” I was happy. Because she was very naughty and got into fights. Parents used to come and complain that my girl beat her boy. She was always outside annoying the neighbors by climbing trees and picking fruit. I thought sports gave him an outlet for all that energy.

It did, but it also gave him a new kind of tree to climb. At school sports competitions, Zarin noticed that girls were in every sport except boxing. She asked her father why not. “He said, ‘Girls don’t get support because they think about beating their daughters, scaring their faces. Then who will marry them?'” recalls Zarin. “I am very stubborn. It didn’t take me a second to decide that this was the sport I wanted to do! ”

At that time there were no other girls in boxing in Nizamabad. However, Zareen trained with the boys. His mother Parveen Sultana, who came home for the first time with a bruised and battered face, broke down crying. But Zarin quickly learned that she had a gift for calculated violence, that she could dance around the ring and throw punches with precision and power.

“When I’m in the ring, it’s my stage, I stand there alone, I fight my own fight, and there’s no thought in my mind other than calculating what I have to do to win,” she says. Within a year of boxing, she became a junior and sub-junior national champion. The next year, 2011, and she was the Junior National Champion.

Nikat Zarin played in last year's winning match.  (@zareennikhat)
Nikat Zarin played in last year’s winning match. (@zareennikhat)

Neighbors and extended family pressured her parents to reconsider continuing with the girl in boxing, allowing her to wear shorts. The family also faced some financial problems, and had to sell their house and live in a smaller house. “I have faced everything and I have fought,” said Zarin. “I was just going and I didn’t stop.”

Knocking it out

By 2019, Zareen was already an accomplished boxer at the senior level, confident enough to challenge Mary Kom in the trials for a place in the Indian team for the Tokyo Olympics. She fought a close, bitter battle, earning the wrath of legend, but also the respect of all watching.

But it was at the end of the epidemic period that Zarin really blossomed. In 2022, she won a major international tournament, won her first world championship on debut and also won gold at the first Commonwealth Games on debut.

“She’s quick on her feet, and she’s done a lot of work on developing different punches,” says Bhatt. “Hooks with both hands, a sharp jab, body punches, all more accurate, more flow. And she’s worked on fighting from both close and medium range.” Parveen Sultana saw her daughter fight for the first time at the world championships in Delhi. No one in the stadium supported them. were not more vocal.

Since Mary Kom won bronze when women’s boxing was introduced in the Games in 2012, no other Indian woman boxer has been there, thus there is a strong belief in her circles that Zareen is preferred for the Olympics.

“I think I breathe boxing,” Zarin said. “If it hadn’t been in my life, I don’t know what I would be.”

From HT Brunch, April 29, 2023

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