“Who’ll be the next Mary Kom?” It was a question that weighed heavy on the minds of Indian boxing coaches.
Earlier this year, Nikhat Zareen announced herself as a major contender when she became only the fifth Indian woman to win the world title, ending a 16-year wait for an Indian not named Mary Kom to win the world championship. Kom has won it a record six times of course, but the last time someone else won it was back in 2006, when Sarita Devi, Jenny RL and Lekha KC all won gold when India hosted the worlds (caveat: taking nothing away from their accomplishments, but in amateur boxing’s universally criticized judging system, host countries always win an unprecedented number of medals).
For Zareen, comparisons with Kom were inevitable. They both fought in the same weight class (51kg), which meant living under the shadow of the greatest amateur woman boxer the world has seen.
Kom is Zareen’s idol too, but that didn’t stop her from publicly challenging Kom, and making a point about the unfair treatment she faced at the hands of India’s boxing body. That was in 2019, when Kom, unlike other boxers, was named for the Tokyo Olympics-bound squad without a trial. Zareen had just come off a great run of results, having won a silver at the prestigious Thailand Open, and gold at the Strandja Memorial, the world’s oldest extant amateur boxing tournament. Caught on the wrong foot, India’s boxing body had little option but to give Zareen her trial. A furious Kom, even after emerging victorious, refused to shake Zareen’s hand. Then the pandemic happened, and Zareen withdrew to her home in Nizamabad, Telangana. There was not much for her to do in terms of competitions for the next year and a half, so she worked on her technique.
“I thought fine, I won’t go to Tokyo, but no one can stop me from training for Paris 2024,” Zareen said. “I got excited just thinking about it and I told myself that I’ll have to work very hard and keep improving, till I become one of the best boxers in the world.”
The Mary Kom incident perfectly captures Zareen’s personality: full of confidence and spunk, and the ability to speak her mind and do what she sets out to do. It was how she got into boxing as well.
Zareen was raised in an orthodox Muslim neighbourhood by her parents Mohammad Jameel Ahmad, a former state-level athlete, and Parveen Sultana. She is one of four sisters, but if the neighbours ever came complaining about one of their daughter’s getting into a fight, or climbing walls and trees, Zareen’s parents did not need to be told who it was. To allow her an outlet for her energy, Ahmad took Zareen to a nearby stadium, where she started training in athletics. Then the boxing bug bit her.
“One morning at the stadium, I realised that there were girls training in every sport, except boxing,” Zareen said. “I asked my father, ‘are girls not allowed in boxing?’ He said, no, but girls usually don’t do it because people think they are not strong enough. I knew then that I had to do it, just to prove that I’m strong enough.”
Strong enough, and good enough. She rose quickly, becoming the junior world champion, winning a silver in the youth world championship next, before becoming the senior national champion. She faced the usual highs and lows: a shoulder injury ruled out boxing for a year in 2017, and 2018 was spent mostly finding her feet again, before a superb 2019, followed by a lonely 2020 spent under lockdowns.
This year began in spectacular fashion, with the world title for Zareen, who is, stylistically, a very different fighter from Kom. The six-time world champion relied on her preternatural speed and relentless aggression in the ring. Zareen is less speedy, but a little more technical, using her range well, and using well-timed counter-attacking combinations.
A CWG gold may be a stroll in the park for Zareen, considering the level of competition is a rung lower than what she is used to facing at the world championships and even in big European meets like the Strandja Memorial. With Lovlina, rising Haryana star Nitu, seasoned fighters like Shiva Thapa, Amit Panghal and Mohammad Hussamuddin all in the fray, expect Indian boxers to bring back a handful of medals from Birmingham.