Nikhat Zareen became the first Indian boxer in 14 years, other than Mary Kom, to win the IBA Women's World Boxing Championship as she defeated Thailand's Jutamas Jitpong in the 52kg final in Istanbul on Thursday. She is now only the fifth Indian woman to win the world championships in any weight category.
The medal ends a distressing period for Nikhat, who missed out on last year's Tokyo Olympics after losing to Mary Kom in a rather contentious Olympic trial. And her dominance in the ring in Istanbul was clear - she won each of her four bouts by a 5-0 unanimous decision, meaning each of the five judges felt she was the better boxer in the ring.
As she has throughout the competition, Nikhat began the first round with phenomenal aggression and laid out a few sublime combination attacks to have Jitpong gasping for air. With 1:35 left on the clock, Nikhat launched into a flurry of punches to stun the Thai boxer, who struggled to keep up with Nikhat's intensity. Nikhat took the opening round 5-0.
Jitpong, who had lost to Nikhat when they last competed at the 2019 Thailand Open, made a strong start to the second round. She bullied Nikhat around the ring, caught her with a series of left-handed punches and maintained her distance from the Indian boxer. What turned it around for Jitpong was how she pulled her feet away from Nikhat and stayed away from her range, meaning the latter fell short on her punches. Nikhat was left punching the air at the Sinan Erdem Dome, while Jitpong skipped around. She did just about enough to win the second round 3-2.
The third round was all or nothing for Jitpong. She needed all five judges to award her the round to seal a comeback win, while Nikhat needed just one. Jitpong was reading Nikhat's game better and continued to pull away as Nikhat reached in to make contact. Nikhat's feet refused to take her closer to Jitpong as she continued to jab the air.
With a minute and a half left, Nikhat turned on the afterburners to combine a bunch of powerful hooks with a few body blows to swing the tide in her favour. She sealed the round with a monstrous right hand with 13 seconds on the clock.
Nikhat knew she had it in the bag, but Jitpong reacted like she did too. She flashed a wide smile, punched the air and was very certain she'd won gold. Seconds later, the referee raised Nikhat's hand as the winner.
The tears streamed down Nikhat's face. It was a win she'd dreamt of, as she'd told ESPN on the eve of the final. Her dream had finally come true - she'd claimed the ultimate prize.
Path to gold
The win also continued her unbeaten streak in 2022. She won the Strandja Memorial, Europe's oldest boxing tournament in February and became the first Indian boxer to win two golds at the event. What made it sweeter, by her own admission, was that she'd beaten two big names in the process: Buse Naz Cakiroglu, who won silver at the Tokyo Olympics, and Tetiana Bob, a three-time European champion.
What has marked her performance since missing out on Tokyo is her new boxing style, shedding her defensive game to transform into an all-out attacking boxer. "People used to say I am not really aggressive but I have worked very hard on my attack and re-attack," Nikhat told ESPN on Wednesday.
The change meant she had to make the transition from boxing on the back foot to now leading with her front foot. She had to attack, step back, evade the opponent's punch and then begin the counterattack.
"Now she is aggressive, but with control, not blind aggression," Bhaskar Bhatt, chief coach of the Indian women's boxing team, told ESPN before the final. "Her experience helps her greatly in this aspect. Aggression with control - that's the key aspect."
Nikhat had been restrained to the shadows for long. Hardships had been a constant companion - a shoulder injury that commanded a surgery, a lockdown that rendered her with no equipment, and a foul long-standing duel with a senior boxer that had tarnished her name. The shadows, now, are fading. The spotlight is firmly focused on India's newest world champion - Nikhat Zareen. You've surely heard of her.