Nikhat Zareen is running rings around the rest, says Rudraneil Sengupta

ByRudraneil Sengupta
Mar 19, 2023 12:31 AM IST

With her effortless blows and death stare, the 26-year-old boxer is aiming for a second world title in two years, and a lot else, in 2023.

She stands in front of a wall-sized mirror, dressed in black, except for the red-tape bandages on her hands. Her hair is pulled down hard. She looks straight ahead, at nothing really, but there’s something intimidating about the blank stare. It’s the way Robert De Niro looks at people he knows he will have to kill in Goodfellas. Then, as if to wake herself from some reverie, she rapidly slaps her own face, splits her stance, and brings her hands up, fists balled, ready for whatever is to come.

‘She does not like to lose,’ says India’s boxing high-performance director Bernard Dunne, grinning, after a friendly game of badminton with Zareen turned into a slugfest. (HT Archives) PREMIUM
‘She does not like to lose,’ says India’s boxing high-performance director Bernard Dunne, grinning, after a friendly game of badminton with Zareen turned into a slugfest. (HT Archives)

Watching Nikhat Zareen train, a few days before the ongoing IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships began in New Delhi, I was hit by a strong sense of déjà vu. Who was it I had seen in training before who had this sense of fiery menace, determination written all over her; who did not crack jokes, did not even speak; and who fixed you in a death stare that made the knees quiver?

It was MC Mary Kom, on a hot April morning more than a decade ago, in the slightly rundown boxing hall at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, preparing for her long-awaited Olympic debut. “When someone is in the ring with me, I hate them,” Mary Kom had told me then.

Some things have changed since. The boxing hall in Patiala finally has world-class equipment; instead of struggling to find good boxers to groom, India’s chief coach Bhaskar Bhatt tells me the institute is spoilt for choice as waves of young girls and women take to the sport. And it’s not Mary Kom but Zareen, the 26-year-old phenomenon from Nizamabad, who is the top boxer in the country.

There’s one thing that seems unchanged: The woman at the top is a fast-punching, no-talking embodiment of power.

“Everything is a competition for her,” India’s high-performance director Bernard Dunne said, after a friendly, light game of badminton post-training between him and Zareen turned into a teeth-clenching, haranguing slugfest. “She does not like to lose.”

Zareen is quick in the ring, light on her toes, switching stance from right-handed to southpaw to back, in a final sparring session before the Worlds. She works on her opponent with a fierce precision, landing almost everything she throws — a feinted jab followed by a half-hook with the same hand, a smashing overhead punch with her right hand following a left-handed jab, a lightning change of level as she aims for the midriff with the left hand, only to follow it up with a right hook to the head. It’s another trait we saw in Mary Kom, this flurry of technique and gift of movement.

Zareen will tell you that she is “Nikhat, a different person, a different boxer, there is no reason to compare.” She’s right, of course.

But if you had to pick someone to take the torch from India’s first Olympic-medalling woman in this sport, you could hardly do better the tight-lipped, tenacious Zareen. You can see in her eyes that she is ready for a second world title in two years (which would make her the only Indian boxer apart from Mary Kom to win more than one world title). In a few months, she will fight at the Asian Games. Then her dream bout: the Olympics. This year and next, expect to hear her name a lot.

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