MC Mary Kom had once angrily asked, “Who Nikhat Zareen?”
Having responded to the query once in 2022, the trailblazer Nikhat answered one more time on Sunday by winning a second world championship title, that too in front of a roaring home crowd, to become only the second Indian to do so.
With that, she has emerged as the heir apparent to the iconic six-time world champion boxer Mary Kom.
“I am delighted to become a world champion for the second time, especially in an Olympic category and at home,” Nikhat, who won the 50kg title, said after her bout on Sunday.
“This medal is for all the supporters,” she added.
For someone who had faced taunts and tribulation, twists and turns, societal prejudice and sarcasm on a very difficult road to glory, the 26-year-old was caught in a whirlpool of emotions after her triumph in New Delhi on Sunday.
As far as Mary is concerned, little did she know that in four years’ time, Nikhat would end up following in her footsteps and become only the second Indian pugilist after the Manipuri to claim more than one world championship title.
Nikhat’s father wanted her to become a sprinter but his daughter took up boxing — to prove women can excel in the sport too.
With boxing came vests and training shorts and coming from a Muslim household in Telangana’s Nizamabad, Nikhat and her parents were subjected to taunts and comments. But she didn’t pay attention to the “outside noise”.
After the high of the junior world championship title a decade back, tragedy struck as Nikhat snapped her shoulder during a bout, forcing her to stay away from the ring for nearly a year.
But the plucky boxer was determined to establish herself at the elite level and made a resounding comeback.
The pugilist made her mark by winning gold at the prestigious Strandja Memorial and silver at the Thailand Open in 2019 but she couldn’t get the better of Mary, arguably the greatest woman boxer in history, in the India Open.
Ahead of the 2019 World Championship, she was refused a trial by the Boxing Federation of India (BFI), which decided to go by Mary’s consistent performances and the Manipuri claimed her eighth world championship medal.
When the BFI decided to send Mary for the Tokyo Olympics qualifiers on the back of her bronze-winning show at the World Championships, Nikhat famously wrote to then Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju demanding a “fair trial”.
Nikhat’s request was heeded and a trial was announced, but the young pugilist ended up losing to the veteran in a one-sided bout fought under acrimonious circumstances.
But that episode could not deter Nikhat from gunning for accolades, as the gutsy boxer grabbed her opportunities with both hands, punching her way past disappointments and hurdles to glory.
Nikhat’s slew of wins as a teenager had led people to hail her as a possible heir to Mary’s throne and her recent victories have strengthened the view.
She has been in indomitable form and enjoying a purple patch since October 2021. She hasn’t lost a single bout, winning two National Championships titles, the 2022 Strandja Memorial, 2022 World Championships, all the selection trials and the Commonwealth Games.
Last year in Istanbul, she gave India its first gold in four years at the World Championships. Apart from Mary, Nikhat is the only other Indian pugilist to win the title abroad.
At the World Championships in New Delhi, Nikhat has moved down from her preferred 52kg weight class to the light flyweight division (50kg), which is an Olympic category.
She had to go through six exhausting bouts, including three back-to-back ones to clinch the gold.
The opponents she had beaten en route to the gold included the reigning Africa champion and top seed Roumaysa Boualam and Ingrit Valencia, the Rio Olympics bronze medallist.
Her latest triumph is a testament to Nikhat’s mental resolve and physical fitness as fighting three bouts, including the quarterfinals and semifinals, in as many days with the burden of expectation of winning at home, isn’t an easy task.
More so as Nikhat had to lose over 3-4kgs to make the 50kg cut.
“This title was tougher than last one as I did not have to put in a lot of effort for weight management then. This time I had to follow a strict diet and I had to be disciplined. And after the Nationals, we did not get much time to prepare for the competition.”
Nikhat’s form augurs well for India with the Olympics coming up next year. She has already qualified for the Asian Games and a medal there will see her make the cut for the Paris Games.