“How did she beat me up so badly? I will return the favour the next time.”
These were the words of Indian boxer Nikhat Zareen after her first-ever sparring session as a 12-year-old, which resulted in a black eye and a bloody nose.
While the bashing brought tears to her mother’s eyes, it was clear from Nikhat’s first day in the ring that she did not take losing lightly.
And maybe, this come-back-stronger attitude is what helped her win the gold medal at the women’s boxing world championships on May 20, 2022, in Istanbul, Turkey.
Nikhat Zareen joined an elite list of Indian boxers, including Mary Kom, Sarita Devi, Jenny RL and Lekha KC, who have become world champions.
Her journey from a quaint neighbourhood in Nizamabad, Telangana to the top of the world was filled with obstacles. But she punched right through them, quite literally, to etch her name in history.
Who is Nikhat Zareen?
Born on June 14, 1996, in Nizamabad, Telangana, Nikhat Zareen was raised in an orthodox Muslim family by her father, Mohammad Jameel Ahmad, and mother, Parveen Sultana.
With three more sisters in the house, Nikhat was the naughty one, getting into fights with the neighbour’s kids and climbing trees.
In pursuit of channelling Nikhat’s overflowing energy, her father, who was also a sportsperson in his youth, trained her to run.
Despite excelling in the short sprints, boxing is what caught Nikhat’s attention.
“Once when we were at the stadium, there were girls participating in every sport apart from boxing,” Nikhat told Olympics.com.
“I asked my father why there were no girls competing in boxing. ‘Boxing bas ladke hi karte hai kya?’ (Is boxing only for boys?).
“He said, no. But they don’t box because people expect girls are meant to stay at home and do housework.”
Nikhat Zareen never considered girls to be any less than boys and decided to ditch the running tracks for the boxing ring. “In my mind, girls were always equal, and they were always just as strong.”
Although her mother, Parveen, was not too happy with the decision, instead concerned about who would marry Nikhat, the support from her father was enough to kick start her boxing career.
The young pugilist spent the early years sparring with boys since she was the only girl boxing in the local gym.
“They never treated me differently or went easy on me,” Nikhat revealed.
After a year of training with her father, Nikhat was put under the wings of Dronacharya awardee, IV Rao, in 2009. The results soon followed.
Nikhat Zareen went on to claim the sub-junior national title and followed it up with a gold medal at the Junior and Youth World Championships in 2011. She won another silver at the Youth World Championships in 2013 and soon began her difficult transition to the senior circuit.
Mary Kom, from idol to opponent
For most young boxers in India, Mary Kom is a hero. The Manipur-native’s unmatched feats include six world championship gold medals, five Asian championship titles and an Olympic bronze.
But unlike other upcoming boxers, Nikhat Zareen also found an opponent in Mary Kom as they both fought in the same weight division – flyweight (51kg).
Despite being a junior world champion, Nikhat had a tough time breaking into the Indian senior squad.
“It was very difficult to make my place in the 51kg category. There were already established names like Mary Kom and Pinki Jangra. They were a lot senior and more experienced than me,” she recalled.
Nikhat first entered the national camp in 2015, at the age of 19. Due to the stiff competition in her weight category, Nikhat was advised to move up to the 54kg class for the national selection trials for the 2016 world championships.
An undeterred Nikhat won the trials and advanced to the quarter-finals at the world championships in Astana.
“I was happy with the way I performed. 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.”
Two years later, Mary Kom was still the first-choice flyweight boxer from India after claiming the Asian title in 2017 and another world title in 2018.
Moreover, Nikhat Zareen’s problems escalated after she dislocated her right shoulder in 2017 which put her out of the ring for a year.
Comeback stronger than setback
Nikhat Zareen announced her return to the international stage by winning a silver medal at the Belgrade Winner International Championship in 2018.
A year later, the Nizamabad boxer also won an Asian championships bronze (Bangkok 2019) and a gold medal at the Strandja boxing tournament (Sofia 2019).
With the flyweight spot in the Indian boxing team still owned by Mary Kom, Nikhat Zareen requested the national federation to conduct a selection trial for a chance to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics qualifying event.
Although Nikhat lost the bout fair and square, the defeat to her idol did not stop her from putting in the hard yards.
Mary Kom opted out of competing after losing in the round of 16 at Tokyo 2020, opening the door for the youngster from Telangana.
Nikhat Zareen then won the national championship in 2021 and followed it up with triumphs at Bosphorus Open and Strandja Memorial.
Nikhat Zareen, the boxing world champion
The Indian boxer was on a rampage during the 2022 world championships in Istanbul, Turkey, winning all her bouts by unanimous decision.
Nikhat Zareen outpunched Tokyo Olympian Jutamas Jitpong of Thailand in the flyweight final to win the gold medal for India.
"I'm trending on Twitter?” Nikhat Zareen asked the media after her triumph. “It was one of my dreams to trend on Twitter! If I'm really trending right now then I'm really happy,”
Nikhat Zareen indeed got the world talking about her on the social media platform. It had been 16 years and seven editions since an Indian other than Mary Kom became women’s world champion.