World champion Nikhat Zareen began her Asian Games campaign against world silver medallist Thi Tam Nguyen on Sunday. While Nikhat won the bout, a match-up of this quality - between the two best boxers of the 50kg category - should have never been in the opening round.
Consider this: When's the last time you heard of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal clashing in the first round of a major tournament? Never, right? The Nikhat vs Nguyen bout was just as bizarre.
The draw made little sense:
Athletes in the 50kg weight category: 18
Brackets drawn: 16
Byes awarded: 14 byes
Bouts in the opening round: Two. And the two world medallists featured in one of them.
The reason is that the draws were made by an IOC-OCA task force since the IBA has been de-recognized by the International Olympic Council (IOC). The fact that the Asian Games is also a qualifying event for the Paris Olympics further highlights the outlandish nature of the draw.
However, it made little difference to Nikhat as she made lightwork of Nguyen. After a cagey opening minute, Nikhat sprung into action by landing a couple of solid jabs on Nguyen. The Vietnamese came under pressure and Nikhat capitalized with a thundering five-punch combo that left Nguyen dazed. The referee began the standing eight count...allowed Nguyen to fight...only for Nikhat to land a stinging left hook that inflicted another eight count.
With the first round in her pocket, Nikhat gave her opponent no time to breathe as she smothered her with yet another flurry of punches that resulted in yet another standing count which prompted the referee to ask Nguyen "You okay?"
Nguyen wanted to fight, but despite her best efforts the judges awarded the second round as well to Nikhat. The final quarter was a mere formality as Nguyen swung wildly, desperately hoping a punch or two would land, but Nikhat danced around the ring and listened to the brief from her corner, "maarke nikal [punch and move]" to claim her second win over Nguyen this year.
Nikhat has been an unstoppable force in the 50kg weight category: she has not been beaten in two years and won the World Championships twice as well as the Commonwealth Games.
After the bout, Nikhat revealed her strategy, saying ""I had not expected it (to be a one-sided bout) but my plan was to make it one because it's happening in another country and I didn't want to give any chance to her. My plan was to win the first two rounds unanimously and then relax in the third. I am focussing on qualification first. Then step by step I'll think of final and gold."
Earlier in the day, Pooja got Indian boxing off to a winning start as she beat Jordan's Silina Alhasanat via RSC [Referee Stops Contest]. She will next face Kazakhstan's Zhaina Shekerbekova, a three-time World Championship medallist, in the quarterfinals. The Kazakh boxer won bronze at the 2022 Worlds and is also a two-time Asian champion.