Winning makes all the difference in sports. But the path that leads to the podium is not always strewn with roses. Individual struggles apart, the journey itself is filled with heartaches borne out of failures and rejection. Nikhat Zareen knows it too well. (More Sports News)
But India's latest world boxing champion has a better path ahead of her. All she needs to do is, start all over again, from the scratch. That's how mere mortals become legends. And for motivation, if she ever needs one, the 25-year-old from Hyderabad will need look no further than the Indian boxing arena. There is someone who has done it all. Fatefully though, they have a love-hate relationship.
When it comes to Zareen's story, the narrative is often hijacked by Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom, of course unintentionally. Their rivalry is not only well documented but also became a matter of public discourse. While Nikhat Zareen is the present; Mary Kom, besides being arguably the greatest woman exponent in boxing, remains one of the most important pillars in Indian sport. She is a trendsetter in the truest sense.
After all, she is the only boxer -- male or female -- to win eight medals at Worlds. And even at the age of 39, the Manipuri boxer still packs a punch, often screaming for new challenges.
Even as Zareen was stamping her authority on the grandest of stages with a series of 5-0 wins over a veritable list of contenders, Mary Kom's shadow lurks everywhere -- in the build-up, inside the ring, on the podium, even in reportage. At times, it looked like stating the very fact that Zareen is only an heir to the six-time world champion.
But after winning India's first gold in four years at the World Championship, Nikhat Zareen can finally exorcise the ghost of expectation and move closer to that impending anointment, a worthy successor to Mary Kom. Zareen has written her piece of history and now owns a corner in the ring. Remember, she once pleaded with the Boxing Federation of India for a "fair chance" to enter it and represent the country at the Tokyo Olympics.
Who Nikhat Zareen!
"I have been inspired by Mary Kom since I was a teenager. The best way I can do justice to this inspiration was to strive to be as great a boxer as her. And Mary Kom is too big a legend in sport to need to hide from the competition and not actually defend her Olympic qualification," she had said.
That was in 2019. Zareen did get her chance though, but Mary Kom was still motivated enough, and the 2011 junior world champion got a taste of brutality that an Olympic medallist can bring into the ring. Brutality! Not because of the thrashing, but because Zareen was also denied a handshake and an attempted hug to her idol.
When a rookie challenges the reigning queen, duels often get soaked in bad blood, and end in bitterness. Such is the nature of the beast. Mary Kom even asked, "Who Nikhat Zareen?" Riddled with sarcasm, it became a pickup line to troll a young boxer, who was asking for a fair trial to represent her country.
"I don't like this, you drag my name into an unnecessary controversy and then you try to posture. Yes, I didn't hug her, what's the big deal? I did not start this, I never said I will not fight you in a trial then why did you drag my name," Mary Kom had said referring to Zareen's open letter to the then Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju.
"I am also a human being, I also get irritated. Can't I get angry when my credentials are questioned like this? And this wasn't the first time. It has happened so many times with me despite the fact that no other Indian boxer has achieved what I have achieved," she added referring to past selection controversies, notably from Pinki Jangra, a former Commonwealth Games bronze medal winner.
"Perform and take my spot, who is stopping you? But don't talk big without that. If you do that, I will hit back. Why was this made a media trial about me?" the mother of three had warned.
But after Nikhat Zareen out-punched Thailand's Jitpong Jutamas to clinch the flyweight (52kg) gold in Istanbul on May 19, Mary Kom was among the first to wish the new world champion. She wrote in a Twitter post: "So proud of you on your historic performances and all the best for your future endeavors."
With Mary Kom clearly ready to make way for the younger generation, it's Nikhat Zareen's turn to make India proud. Her immediate focus will be on the Commonwealth Games 2022 and Paris Olympics 2024. After her final win at the World Boxing Championships in Istanbul, Zareen said that "These two years, I focused on my game only and whatever the weaknesses were there in my game, I tried to improve.
"I worked on my strong points and on where I lacked in my game. I worked on the aspects where I needed to work and made myself strong... All those hurdles which I have faced in my career have made me strong. I have become mentally strong after all these and my thought process is that whatever happens, I have to fight and give my best," she added.
... And New Challenges
But there will be new challenges, and the biggest of them will be adjusting to a new weight category and preparing for the Olympics. The International Boxing Association has ratified the weight classes for the Paris Games -- 50kg, 54kg, 57kg, 60kg, 66kg and 75kg for women and 51kg, 57kg, 63.5kg, 71kg, 80kg, 92kg and +92kg for men.
There will be no 52kg, and the 2019 Asian Championships bronze medallist will either have to move to the 54kg class or compete in the 50kg. She has however hinted to drop weight and compete in the 50kg category.
"It's difficult to change a weight category whether you drop down to a weight division or move up to a weight division. It’s more difficult when one moves from a lower weight to a higher weight as you are at a disadvantage with the other boxers being a bit heavy as they come in that weight by dropping their body weight. So one faces more strong boxers," Zareen said after becoming only the fifth Indian woman boxer to win a world championship gold.
"I guess if I play in the 50kg category, it will not make much of a difference. Normally my weight remains 51 to 51.5 kg so my body will work well in the 50kg. So for some time, I will continue in the 50kg weight division."
Be it 50kg or 54kg, her father Mohammad Jameel strongly believes that Nikhat Zareen will be an Olympic champion in Paris. Jameel, a former footballer and cricketer, has seen the ups and downs faced by his daughter since he first introduced her to sports in a conservative Muslim neighbourhood.
"She will definitely return with a medal from the Paris Olympic, I have no doubt about that," Jameel told PTI. "She has momentum on her side. She has defeated good players in 2019 and 2020 before COVID. This has been the motivation for her. She now knows she can beat good, strong players."
And it has a been stellar year for the two-time Strandja Memorial gold medallist, a first for Indian boxing. All she needs to do is remain injury-free.
"The challenge is to keep body at peak level, after Strandja I had to give the World Championship and Asian Games [which has now been postponed indefinitely] trials. It was not easy as there you were playing decorated, experienced boxers in tough bouts. But I kept my body calm and composed and I managed to win both the trials and started the preparation for the world championships.
"Now I will prepare for the Commonwealth Games. My main focus will be to keep the body free from injuries," she added.
Come 2024, she may not face May Kom to make the Indian contingent for the Paris Olympics. Mary Kom will be 41 by the time the Games start, and the boxing’s world governing body (IABA), post-London Olympics 2012, has set an age cap of 40 to compete at the Games.
Now in her twilight years, Mary Kom may well help Nikhat Zareen win an Olympic gold medal and fulfill her own dream. That's what true legends do.
For Zareen, this tweet says it all: "No victory is complete without your idol’s blessings."
Some way to start a new journey!