Nikhat Zareen became the only Indian boxer to reach a final at the 2022 Women's World Championships and is a win away from the gold medal.
She will take on Thailand's Jitpong Jutamas in the 52kg final on Thursday after utterly dominating the semifinal against Brazil's Caroline De Almeida, winning 5-0. The 25-year-old has won all her bouts at the worlds so far with a 5-0 unanimous decision and is in superb form heading into the final.
Six-time champion MC Mary Kom, Sarita Devi, Jenny RL and Lekha C are the only Indian women boxers who have won the world title and now Nikhat has the opportunity to join the elite list. Interestingly, Nikhat has a contentious rivalry with Mary Kom, who is the most successful boxer in the world championship history. They fight in the same weight category and have clashed often in the past, on and off the ring.
Who is Nikhat Zareen?
Nikhat is a flyweight boxer (52kg), from Nizamabad, Telangana. The 25-year-old has been in stellar form this year. In February, she became the first Indian woman boxer to claim two gold medals at the Strandja Memorial. She is also a former junior world champion and won bronze at the 2019 Asian Championship. She is also now a World Championships finalist.
"My strategy today was to not let her play her natural game, and instead, make her adjust to my game. That was the strategy, and I adopted it successfully. I'm now looking forward to returning home with the gold medal," Nikhat said after her victory.
Where have we heard the name before?
Nikhat was prominently in the news just before the 2019 Worlds when the selection trials for the flyweight category had been cancelled (on the morning of the event), to give Mary Kom an automatic selection. Nikhat had raised a complaint, writing to the Boxing Federation of India to ask for a fair trial.
At the time, BFI chairman of selectors Rajesh Bhandari had said "carefully thought-out decision" to pick Mary Kom was taken keeping India's medal prospects in mind. "We have to give priority to India's medal chances and it is our unanimous belief that at this point Mary Kom is our strongest bet in this category," he said. Mary Kom went on to win bronze at the Worlds. It was then suggested by the BFI that Kom wouldn't have to take part in the trials for the Tokyo Olympics either. When Nikhat demanded a "fair chance", Kom had responded with a caustic "Who is Nikhat Zareen?"
Nikhat wrote to the Sports Ministry asking for trials to be conducted. "Sir, the very basis of sport is fair play and need to keep proving oneself each and every time. Even Olympic gold medallists have to fight again to qualify to represent the country," she had written.
Trials were subsequently held and Mary Kom won, but it was a fight that left a bitter aftertaste. This year, Mary Kom, now 39, decided miss the World Championship and the now cancelled Asian Games to focus on the Commonwealth Games.