Boxing Worlds: Nitu's switch in tactics reaps rewards

Nitu beats Kazakhstan's Alua Balkibekova to qualify for the final of the World Championships. BFI

Indian boxer Nitu Ghanghas, whose all-out aggressive approach took her to the semifinals of the IBA Women's World Boxing Championships, switched tactics to suit the situation and, with a display of controlled aggression, won her bout and made the final.

Nitu had needed little more than seven minutes across three bouts to reach the semis: she won all three via RSC (referee stops contest), which occurs when the bout becomes one-sided. But on Thursday, when faced with an opponent equally aggressive, she showed that she could, literally, think on her feet.

Her semifinal opponent, reigning Asian champion and 2022 Worlds silver medallist Alua Balkibekova, put Nitu under pressure from the start and forced her to play catch-up early on.

Balkibekova threw Nitu onto the mat within the opening 20 seconds of the bout and the Indian looked uncertain. She struggled to find rhythm in the first round and could not find her footing as she took numerous punches to the face. The boxer from Kazakhstan took the round 3:2.

Her previous bouts had been one-sided; Nitu dominating her opponents completely. "I wanted to play around and fight all three rounds but RSC ho gayi [but an RSC was awarded]," she had said after her first two wins, and now in this semifinal she was getting more than she bargained for.

A quick gulp of water in the break and Nitu went on the offensive from the start in round 2. She held her own and restrained herself for most parts before unleashing her right-handed straight punch each time she found space. It was this very exact punch that had led the referee to award her the win in her first two bouts.

Nitu needed space to execute her punches but Balkibekova, who had beaten Nitu in the quarterfinals of the same event last year, gave her little room. She stayed in Nitu's face and kept grappling at her and there wasn't a whole lot of boxing going on after a point. But Nitu's final few combination punches were enough for her to win the round 4:1.

Chief coach Bhaskar Bhatt says it is Nitu's long-range punches that set her apart. "What makes her so hard to face is her range punching. We noticed this as her weakness and have been working on it for a year now, especially focussing on it over the last three months. Her game is all about long-range punching -- maintain distance from the opponent, skip around the ring and punch without going too close."

The third round began much like the first, Nitu was dropped on the mat within 15 seconds. But the difference this time around was she was in the ascendancy and she'd found the cracks in Balkibekova's guard. The Kazakh gassed out midway into the round and her tactic of attacking with a right cross was easy to read and Nitu evaded them with ease. She connected a few solid punches before Balkibekova killed the clock with time-wasting manoeuvres.

The decision was reviewed, meaning the decision of the five judges would also be reviewed by the supervisor and observer, and a few nervy moments later Nitu was awarded the win. For the first time in four bouts, she let out two thundering "YES'!"

After the third win, she had spoken about the need to control the aggression in the ring. "If you get angry inside the ring, you'll not be able to concentrate. It's important to remain cool. Winning three bouts via RSC is good. My next opponent will be feeling the pressure," she had said, and that's exactly what worked for her in this tight semifinal.

It was not RSC this time, but she went the full three rounds with an experienced, high-quality boxer and outlasted her. That should give her confidence going into the biggest match of her career so far. Nine minutes and Mongolia's Lutsaikhan Altantsetseg, who won bronze at the 2022 Asian Championships - stand between Nitu and the world championship gold.