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How Nikhat Zareen fought patriarchy, shoulder injury & ‘idol Mary Kom’ to become world champion

The boxer from Telangana defeated Thailand’s Jitpong Jutamas to win a gold in the flyweight category at IBA Women's World Boxing Championships in Istanbul Thursday.

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New Delhi: A quick step forward, a jab while leaning in and a deadly cross — this was Nikhat Zareen’s go-to move in the finals at the IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships in Istanbul, Turkey, where she took home the gold in the flyweight category (50-52kg) Friday. Zareen, 25, defeated Thailand’s Jitpong Jutamas.

Eleven years ago, Zareen, then a teenager, had announced her arrival in the world boxing arena with a gold at the AIBA Women’s Youth and Junior World Championships.

It’s been a long journey, however, between the two golds. On the way, Zareen said she battled injuries, the administration, patriarchy, and even her idol — Olympic medalist Mary Kom.

Born in Nizamabad, in present-day Telangana, Zareen was only 13, when she observed that the ‘World Urban Games’ in 2009 had no women participants in the boxing category. When she asked her father the reason, he reportedly replied that women were not strong enough.

Zareen has said it was then that she decided she wanted to be a boxer, and told her father that she wanted to show people that a girl could box too. Her father Mohammad Jameel Ahmed was supportive of her decision, but there were other naysayers.

The “conservative Muslim community” to which they belonged, castigated both father and daughter, Zareen said in a 2013 interview to The Times of India.

“In a Muslim family, they believe girls should not be given the liberty to go out… Our relatives admonished my father, ‘Jawaan ladki ko kahan bahar bhej rahe ho (where are you sending your young daughter)?'” the boxer said.

This, however, did not stop her from pursuing her dreams.

She was inducted into the Sports Authority of India (in Visakhapatnam) in 2009. A year later, she was declared the ‘golden best boxer’ at the Erode Nationals in 2010.

The following year, she won her first international medal at Antalya, Turkey. But the fight had just started for the young boxer.

Shoulder injuries to denial of play

After her gold medal at the AIBA Women’s Junior Championships, Zareen went on to win a silver medal at the AIBA Women’s Youth World Boxing Championships in Bulgaria in 2013. Two years later, she was judged the ‘best boxer’ in the All India Inter-University Boxing Championship in Jalandhar.

She also won a gold medal at the 16th Senior Women National Boxing Championship in Assam that same year.

In 2018, life threw her a curve ball in the shape of a major shoulder injury — she dislocated her shoulder. A boxer with an orthodox stance (right-handed), Zareen was reportedly told that she would require surgery to fix her condition, scaring the Telangana pugilist.

”I was disturbed because the shoulder is what makes or breaks a boxer. The power of a boxer’s punches comes from their shoulders. It was very difficult for me because it was the first time I had sustained an injury of this magnitude,” Zareen was quoted as saying in First Post.

After the surgery and rehab — which included mental preparation for competing again — Zareen was ready to enter the ring in 2019.

But another battle waited for her — this time with the country’s sports administration and boxer Mary Kom, who Zareen calls her “idol”.

While preparing for the World Championships in 2019, Zareen got to know that the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) would not be holding trials to choose participants for the event, and had already chosen Mary Kom to represent the country.

When Kom won a bronze at the World Championships, she automatically became the choice to represent the country at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Zareen had then written to the then sports minister Kiren Rijiju for a “trial” and “fair chance”.

A furious Mary Kom was then reportedly quoted as saying, “Who is Nikhat Zareen?”

‘Never thought I would compete against my idol’

Though the minister chose not to involve himself in the matter, a trial for the event was finally held. Mary Kom defeated Zareen 9-1. After the match, Kom reportedly did not even participate in the customary handshake between adversaries.

Zareen had then said that she never knew she would have to compete against her idol one day.

With MC Mary Kom talking of retirement following the Tokyo Olympics last year, Zareen appears set to be the country’s sole contender in the flyweight category. Right before this month’s World’s Championships, she defeated her opponent from Thursday’s match at the Thailand Open.

After years of struggle, Zareen’s moment in the spotlight is finally here. She is a world champion.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: When Mary Kom stares down at Narendra Modi


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