The good fight: Boxer Nikhat Zareen on overcoming prejudice and injury
After her first-ever sparring session, Nikhat Zareen returned home with a bloody nose and a black eye. It reduced her mother to tears and to question her daughter’s choice of sport. But the young Nikhat was already thinking of how she would overcome her opponent the next time.
“Maybe some people would have found the sport too brutal, that their health is more important than boxing,” Nikhat reminisced during an interview with the Olympic Channel. “But what I thought, how I always think, was, ‘How did she beat me up so badly? I will return the favour the next time.’”
The flyweight boxer can throw some serious punches, but she has also learnt to take them and get back on her feet.
In her more than decade long association with the sport, she has braved prejudice, overcome serious injury and taken on the established and the establishment. On International Women’s Day, we reflect on her journey from Nizamabad, Telangana to Indian boxing elite.
How it began
Nikhat, coached by her father Mohammed Jameel Ahmed, had started off as a sprinter.
“Once when we were at the stadium, Urban Games were on. There were girls participating in every sport apart from boxing,” she said. “I asked my father, why there were no girls competing in boxing. ‘Boxing bas ladke hi karte hai kya?’ He said, no. But they don’t box because people expect girls are meant to stay at home and do house work.”
Even though she, along with her three sisters, was brought up in a conservative community, Nikhat said she never thought about the prevailing inequality. “In my mind, girls were always equal, and they were always just as strong.”
Her mother and relatives weren’t too happy about her decision, but Nikhat, with the blessing and unconditional support of her father, decided the pursue boxing seriously. She was the only girl in the local gym and spent her formative years in the sport sparring with boys.
“They never treated me differently either,” she said. “Or go easy on me.” From early days, she learnt how to fight for her space in the ring.
Transition to seniors
Her first international triumph came in 2011, when she won gold in AIBA Women's Junior and Youth World Boxing Championships in Turkey. Despite being a star junior, Nikhat had a tough time breaking into the Indian senior squad.
“It was very difficult to make my place in the 51 kg category. There were already established names like Mary Kom and Pinki Jangra. They were a lot senior and more experienced than me,” she recalled.
She first entered the national camp at the age in 2015, at the age of 19. Due to the stiff competition in her weight category, Nikhat was advised to move up to the 54 kg class for the national selection trials for 2016 World Championships.
Nikhat won the trials, and advanced to the quarterfinals at the World Championships in Astana.
“I was happy the way I performed,” she said. “But I was a little wistful about not getting to compete in my original weight category. Everyone told me not to bother about it and there’s a long way to go for me.”
More than four years down the line, Nikhat is still waiting in the wings for her chance to become India’s foremost flyweight boxer. But she refuses to be bumped out of her weight category again.
Injury and way back
It seemed like Nikhat’s young career would be cut short when she dislocated her shoulder in 2017. The boxer had to undergo surgery for it and was out for almost a year.
“It was very tough mentally,” she said. “Lots of people were saying it will be difficult for me to come back and said it would be the end of my career. But I still kept myself positive and kept working hard.”
She announced her return on the international stage by claiming a silver medal at the 56th Belgrade Winner International Championship in 2018. Since then, she has also won an Asian Championships silver (Bangkok 2019) and a gold medal at the Strandja Boxing Tournament (Sofia 2019).
Later that year, Nikhat lost the national selection trial for the Asian Olympic qualifier to her idol Mary Kom, but not without a fight.
Her last international competition before the world went into lockdown was the Strandja Boxing Tournament, where she had to settle for a quarterfinal finish.
Back in camp since January, Nikhat is feeling like she’s packing in a punch yet again.
“The lockdown was difficult on everyone,” she said. “I am part of the Welspun Super Sport Women program, whose support has been invaluable.
“For athletes in combat sports, the trouble was we couldn’t spar during those months. I had to rely on physical training at home. I needed almost a month to feel good in the ring again.”
Though she is eying the Asian and World Championships later in the year, she has a few international tournaments lined up. The 24-year-old will resume her competition schedule with the International Elite Men & Women Istanbul Bosphorus Boxing Tournament, starting March 15.