Nikhat Zareen walked into Birmingham a world champion. She punched her way through the field like a world champion. She swept the final like a world champion. She now walks out a world champion and a Commonwealth Games gold medalist. Thing is, though, there was never any doubt. Least of all in her mind.
Ahead of the Games, her first for India, she'd picked a new colour scheme for her nail polish - four fingers on each hand painted in the Indian tricolour, the middle finger on both painted gold. "I'd promised my mom that I'd bring back gold," she laughed.
Entering the competition, she had told herself, 'look, you're world champion, play like one. And so she had.
'Whenever I look at these nails, it reminds me of gifting a gold medal to my mom"
The story of Nikhat Zareen's painted fingernails ❤️ pic.twitter.com/Xmwrw5ZfaX
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) August 7, 2022
None of her bouts had raised any concerns. She won all of them by unanimous decision, just like at the Worlds a few months back. "The thing with boxing," she said without a hint of arrogance, "when you keep it close, the decision [from the judges] can always go either way. So I just wanted to win everything by unanimous decision."
Her boxing, especially in the final, left no one in any doubt what the decision was going to be. From the first punch to her last she controlled everything that happened in the ring. Lithe and streamlined, Zareen floated in and out of punches effortlessly, making boxing footwork look the easiest, most peaceful thing in the world. A quick shuffle here and she was landing an uppercut inside her opponent's defence, a sidestep there and she was evading a right cross like she could see it in slow motion. In-out, in-out, hit-evade, hit-evade: her combination of pace and power unstoppable.
In the first round she forced the pace, attacking her opponent, telling her and any judges who were on the fence that any resistance was futile. In the second she toyed with her, inviting her forward before nailing her on the counter. In the third, she just did what she wanted to. As the final bell rang, her opponent didn't even bother raising her hand like most boxers do, trying to convince the judges that they felt they had landed some punches -- she knew she wasn't going to fool anyone. This is how a World Champion boxes. This is how a gold medalist boxes.
If anything, her biggest opponent was herself. In May, when she won the Worlds, she had competed in the 52 kg category. In August, at the Games, she was in the 50kg one. "I had to work so much, so differently, to lose those two kilos while maintaining my strength and speed," she said. Before adding with a laugh, "they say to gain something you have to give up something else? Well for this gold, I gave up sweets and anything fatty. Just high protein stuff, fruits, and salads!"
She had just a few months to get in shape; in fact after attending various felicitation ceremonies she had had only five proper days to prepare for the CWG trials at this weight. "That was such a big challenge," she sighed. "The competition here was easier than the Worlds," she said, just stating an obvious fact, "but it was a new experience in a new category, and that gives me great confidence." She then added diplomatically, "You never know what might happen in the ring, so I didn't take anyone lightly." The result of not taking anyone lightly was utter and complete dominance.
"The Worlds gold had set a lot of expectation among people," she said, "but it's good to have that pressure. When I come into the ring... I don't want to take it easy. I want to know that people are watching me, expecting success. If anything, I put more pressure on myself than anyone else. I need it to do well, I thrive under it."
For an athlete who has lived under it for more than a decade, she's certainly learned to embrace it. She had first burst onto the scene in 2011, when she swept to the world junior championship. Great things were expected, but she happened to be fighting in the same category as one of the sports' all-time greats, a certain MC Mary Kom. A combination of the GOAT and injury (Zareen had a major shoulder surgery in 2017) meant Zareen could not make a big impact on the senior stage. It got to a stage, in 2019, when her requests for a trials ahead of the Tokyo Olympics irritated Mary Kom into asking, caustically, "Who is Nikhat Zareen?"
She knows now. Everyone does.
"It was not easy for me," Zareen said about her transition to the senior level . "My boxing career has been like a rollercoaster, but after winning these two back-to-back golds, I think it was worth it. All those struggles have made me stronger, not just physically but mentally too." Before she takes a philosophical approach. "I always believe that whatever happens, happens for a good reason. I kept working hard, never gave up, and finally look..." she says, looking at the gold hanging around her neck.
"All that [the controversy with Mary Kom], is in the past. It's done and dusted for me now. I have moved on. Now, I'm simply looking forward to the Paris Olympics."
In a perverse way, that's probably Mary Kom's greatest legacy: that someone who was so inspired by her has now stepped up to fill her giant shoes. Mary Kom the athlete will be missed, of course, but Mary Kom the medal-winning-machine won't. Nikhat Zareen is here to make sure of it. World champion. Commonwealth Games gold medallist. And she's just getting started.