Nikhat Zareen is a nine-minute-bout away from realizing her dream of calling herself a world champion. The only Indian pugilist to make it to the final, she faces a familiar opponent in Thailand's Jitpong Jutamas in the 52kg title clash of the IBA Women's World Boxing Championships in Istanbul on Friday.
Talking to ESPN after a dominant semifinal win over Brazil's Caroline De Almeida (that's right, India beat Brazil), she says she's "happy and excited for the final," but is far from done.
"It [how far I have come in the tournament] will sink in only when I have the gold medal in my hand. I've had only the gold medal on my mind and hopefully, I will fulfil my dream of winning gold at the World Championships. I'll be on cloud nine when it happens!" she says.
Nikhat had beaten Jutamas in the Thailand Open back in 2019. It was quite the upset as she beat the local girl on home soil, but she's not relying on her past results.
"That win does give me confidence but it's been a long time and she must have worked hard since, as I have, so I cannot depend on my past performances. She would have worked on her weaknesses as well. I will analyze her semifinal bout and accordingly work on a strategy," she says.
- Boxing Federation (@BFI_official) May 18, 2022
Bhaskar Bhatt, the chief coach of the women's boxing team, says the strategy is simple: attack, attack and attack! Traditionally a back-foot boxer, Nikhat has altered her game to be able to throw a punch and follow it up with another on the counter. Bhatt and Nikhat have been working on this aspect over the last four months in the national camp and it has paid dividends: she won gold at the Strandja Memorial in February and is now in her maiden World Championships final.
Her semifinal win over De Almeida was a reflection of the new Nikhat, where she had all five judges ruling in her favour. "Starting se hi dominate karna tha (our plan was dominate the bout from the start.) We wanted her to remain aggressive throughout and show that ham darpok nahi hain (we are not afraid). The idea was to score until the last second," says Bhatt, referring to how Nikhat continued to throw punches at her Brazilian opponent despite having comfortably sealed the win after pocketing the first two rounds.
Bhatt expects Nikhat to carry the same form into the final against Jutamas. "She's a little taller than Nikhat and her game is slower. Nikhat has started all of her bouts aggressively and we're confident of her continuing in the same vein. And Nikhat has beaten her earlier, so that's a positive."
Nikhat had been in the news more often than not for her tiff with Mary Kom. The squabble almost took the away the sheen from Nikhat, the boxer and instead put her on a negative pedestal as someone who dared to take on Mary.
But her recent performances have brought about a wind of change. She won the nationals last year (where she was also adjudged the best boxer) and then became the first Indian boxer to win two gold medals at the Strandja Memorial earlier this year.
And now she's in the final of the World Championships. The focus, now, is well and truly on Nikhat, the boxer.