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Boxer Nikhat Zareen Ready for the World, Mary Kom Notwithstanding

Nikhat Zareen, whose rivalry with Mary Kom took an ugly turn in the build-up and selection trials ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, won gold and the best pugilist award at the Elite Senior Women’s Boxing National Championships, earning a ticket to represent India at the Worlds in December.
Boxer Nikhat Zareen in action

Nikhat Zareen (right) in action at the Elite Senior Women’s Boxing National Championships in Hisar, Haryana (Pic: BFI)

Nikhat Zareen stamped her quality and potential once again by not just winning gold but also taking home the award for the best boxer at the recently concluded Elite Senior Women’s Boxing National Championships in Hisar, Haryana. The victory in the 52kg category -- earned with panache and ease in equal measure -- got the 25-year-old a ticket for the AIBA World Championships scheduled to be held in Istanbul in December. 

Now comes the tricky part. Mary Kom, whose rivalry with Zareen took an ugly turn in the build-up and selection trials ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, skipped the nationals citing she is focusing on the Worlds. The Boxing Federation of India (BFI) has already announced that the gold medallists of the nationals -- except for the one in the category of Lovlina Borgohain who has been given a direct entry for the global meet -- will earn the berth for the Worlds. So will we once again see a showdown between Zareen and Mary?

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Mary Kom represented India in the 51kg division at the Tokyo Olympics. The Worlds -- with more weight categories -- leave the boxers with the option to not cross each others’ paths. Since Mary Kom has boxed at the Worlds in the 48kg division -- her last gold came in the same category in 2018 in New Delhi -- there is a likelihood that she would opt for that. That will create a new headache for BFI. How will they accommodate the veteran boxer? Will it be at the cost of another young boxer’s career trajectory getting jeopardized? That boxer would be Neetu of Haryana, who pulled off an upset unanimous win over World Championships silver medalist Manju Rani of the Railways to win gold in Hisar.

Whatever be the case, the hope is that the country’s boxing governing body, unlike previous occasions, would take a stance keeping the future in mind rather than the past. And, in that future, Zareen, prodigiously talented and who probably (considering how Mary lost in Tokyo) should have represented India in the Japanese capital, looks set to stamp her name. And this time, she is prepared for Mary, if and when she chooses to enter the ring with her.

“This gold in the Elite Nationals also means bigger responsibility,” Zareen told mediapersons after her victory. “I don’t know what category the great Mary Kom would be fighting in the days to come. But, I am more concerned about my own journey to scale the summit.”

Zareen, post her defeat to Mary Kom -- a tight and ill-tempered bout where the judging and result were subjective to say the least -- has been working hard to not just become India’s No. 1 choice in the division, but also to reach where she believes her potential lies. The elite rungs of world boxing.

“With the Worlds scheduled in December this year and which will be my second having lost in the quarters in the 2016 edition (then in 54 kg), I am really determined to keep improving each day. With the national camp likely to start soon, I have to stay focused,” she was quoted as saying by Sportstar.

Her training base ahead of the worlds would be at the national camp but the work she has put in with her coach -- John Warburton from England -- has already pushed her ring-game to another level.  

“Definitely, the result was the culmination of about four months of intensive training under John Warburton in JSW’s Inspire Institute of Sport (Bellary),” she said.

That training incorporated specific tweaks in Zareen’s bout persona. At the nationals no boxer could come on her inside and score. Something Mary Kom would have noted. 

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“I must say John Paul made a lot of difference in training. He made work really hard to punch hard and straight, from different angles and not allowing the opponents to come inside the ring. That is the reason why I won all the bouts with unanimous verdicts,” she added.

Of course, Zareen will not be too worried about Mary by the time the 2024 Paris Olympics come up. The senior boxer, 38 now, would have crossed her age limit to take part in the Games. The boxer from Telangana knows that fact as well and so is focused on international competitions and not a local rivalry. 

Or is she? 

Well, it is boxing, and, in the ring when boxers true to the sweet science cross paths, rematches matter. So, there is this feeling that Zareen secretly wants Mary Kom to challenge her -- be it ahead of this world championship or any other meet in the near future. That would be a treat, provided the bout is judged neutrally, and the craft becomes the highlight, and not aggression or swear words.

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