Why Nikhat Zareen has the attention of the boxing world
Many international coaches feel Nikhat is a shoo-in for an Olympic medal
As Nikhat Zareen began her round-of-16 against Alvarez Fatima Patricia, she could feel the fatigue and her muscles tightening up. Her body was yet to fully recover from the intense bout against top seed Roumaysa Boualam of Algeria. That was also the start of a run of three successive bouts for Nikhat in her quest to win her second world title.
It was at this critical juncture that Nikhat had to draw strength from her mental reserves. The hunger to win another world title is a big motivating factor for her and she knew that she had to go with the flow. Gradually her body responded, the punches started flowing, the feet started moving and she cruised to a 5-0 victory. In the next two rounds, she brought out her best; edging past Thailand's Raksat Chuthamat in the quarterfinal and then giving a masterclass in technical boxing against the favourite and Rio Olympics medallist Ingrit Valencia Victoria.
In a week’s time, Nikhat has overcome boxers of different styles, negotiated tough moments and displayed a rare maturity that comes as a direct consequence of the grind she has gone through in life.
The boxing world has been a witness to Nikhat’s talent for years now – she became a junior world champion in 2011—and therefore it came as no surprise when she backed it up with a world title in flyweight (52kg) last year.
In the past 10 months, Nikhat has levelled up. There is power and speed in her punches, and she has improved from a technical perspective too. She is moving faster, maintaining a more attacking tempo and adapting to different styles. After coming down to the 50 kg weight category for Paris Olympics, Nikhat first won the Commonwealth Games gold title in Birmingham and she is now a step away from winning her second world title.
“She has earned the respect of trainers around the world, she is so good,” admits Colombian coach Rafael Hernandez Iznaga. “She has a lot of power. In 50kg, a boxer must know how to move, how to look for a fight and Nikhat is good at it.”
Coaches are in awe of Nikhat for the way she is going about her task at the world championships here. Russian coach Mutalibov Albert has followed her performances and finds her the best in her category.
“I think she has all the chances to become a world champion here. She is smart. She could be attacking, she could be counter-attacking. She is athletic and her punches are stronger, more powerful and on target. Nikhat is a very strong athlete,” he says.
Nikhat knew she needed to prepare well for the world championships. Many top boxers in lower weight categories have moved to 50kg as it is the new Olympic weight. In fact, the draw was packed with 35 boxers that included world championships, and Olympic medallists. Having changed her weight class, Nikhat was not seeded in the draw which meant that she had to feature in six fights. By her own admission, she has never boxed so much in one competition.
“I think all the matches were tough because they are experienced boxers. They are all preparing for the Paris Olympics. They know I am the world champion and they have also come prepared for me so I knew I had to play better than last year,” says Nikhat.
On her part, Nikhat feels she has improved with each round and reserved her best for the toughest fight against the Colombian. In the semi-final, Nikhat was technically brilliant, dancing around the ring confidently and landing clean punches.
Brazil head coach Macedo Leonardo feels she has added more variety to her game.
“She has good mobility and control of distance, which is very important in boxing. I think she has added combination punches. From Turkey last year, she has changed her category but her physical conditioning has been good. I think she is a potential Olympic medallist,” observes Leonardo.
From being a boxer who relied on sidestepping and took time to usually find her range, Nikhat is now busier in the ring. She is combining lethal straights with her left hook.
Her defence has improved too, feels Japan coach Ida Takeshi: “She is good at attacking and defending and when you have an all-round boxer like her, it gets difficult for the opponent.”
The world championships are a starting point for boxers aiming to make it to the Paris Olympics. To make her maiden Games, Nikhat will have to first seal qualification at the Asian Games.
“Everybody counts on her to win a medal at the Olympics,” says French coach Stephen Cottalorda. “She is a very tough opponent. She stays aggressive in a bout.”
Russian coach Mutalibov puts things in perspective when discussing Nikhat’s chances in the Olympics. “There is huge pressure on athletes for the Olympics because it comes once in four years and even very experienced, strong athletes sometimes cannot make it. You need an element of luck too. This is the only issue that can stand in front of Nikhat and an Olympic gold.”
With her sheer determination and steady progress, Nikhat has made the boxing world sit up and acknowledge her talent. Come Sunday, she will be ready to charm and rule the world in her inimitable style once again.