In 2018, Nikhat Zareen came to watch the World Women's Boxing Championships in New Delhi as a spectator. Half a decade later, she won her second World Championships gold, at the very same venue, with her family seated ringside.
On Sunday, she beat Vietnam's Thi Tham Nguyen in the 50kg final, taking home gold. It had been her toughest bout of the tournament yet.
Nikhat's approach was the same as her semifinal bout, to play on the counter and attack with punches from range. It was a bit of a hit-and-miss strategy and while it appeared to be a close first round, all five judges awarded the round to her. Tham made a comeback in the second and caught Nikhat with a bunch of well-placed hooks to win the round 3-2. With everything to play for in the third, the two boxers gave it their all.
"This was my last match and what will I do by saving energy? I wanted to leave everything out there in this bout. I tried to attack as much as possible," Nikhat would say after the bout.
She struck Tham square in the face and the referee initiated a count, while the Vietnamese came up with an incredible hook of her own to have a count inflicted on Nikhat as well. The two traded blow after blow until Nikhat wrapped up the round with a late combination of punches.
A nervy few minutes later, Nikhat was announced the winner of the bout. A second World Championship gold within a year. Her unbeaten streak intact. Nikhat, the undisputed world champion.
But this campaign had been far from easy. Nikhat had dropped weight from the 52kg to the 50kg category since the latter is part of the 2024 Olympics roster, and that had come with a host of challenges. For starters, she had to cut weight again. And secondly, the draw was anything but favourable to her.
Despite winning gold in 2022 (in the 52kg category), Nikhat went unseeded at the Worlds and wasn't awarded a first-round bye. She did it the hard way, battling past six boxers to clinch her second Worlds gold medal. In fact, Nikhat's six bouts were the most among the entire Indian contingent of 12 boxers.
"This was a tougher win [than the last Worlds]. In the last World Championships, it was not that tough to cut weight. To get into this category, I had to follow a strict diet and I had to be very disciplined," she said after her win.
The going has never been easy for Nikhat: she had a major shoulder surgery in 2017 and on her comeback, she had to go up against the behemoth that is Mary Kom. She had to fight for her chance at a fair trial for the Olympics, and when she lost the bout, Mary wasn't exactly nice to her. Nikhat watched from home as the Indian contingent competed at the Tokyo Olympics.
Then came the switch: on August 8, 2021, the day after the Tokyo Olympics, she put up a picture looking at a digital board that read 1082 days, 18 hours, 11 minutes, 44 seconds. It was a countdown for the 2024 Paris Olympics. The caption? "The road to Paris begins. One aim: gold medal."
She wasn't kidding...Nikhat has been India's premier boxer since the turn of 2022. She's won four golds, including two at the Worlds [in two weight categories] and has been undefeated for over a year. Her rise to the top has been phenomenal, but what sets her apart is her consistency. To not only be the best but to continue being the best.
She's achieved many firsts along the way, from trending on Twitter to meeting her favourite actor Salman Khan to becoming the poster girl of Indian boxing. She's an Adidas athlete now and is the face of a wide host of brands. But nothing has changed on the boxing front: she's still the queen in the ring.
That's Nikhat Zareen - a two-time World Champion and India's #1 boxer on the day. She knows all she has to do is put her head down and perfect what is in her control: to be the best in the ring on any given day.