Nikhat’s Istanbul run: Enters maiden Boxing World Championship finalMay 19, 2022
Nikhat Zareen stepped into the ring smiling, punching the air, and a spring in her step. She left the same way. The Indian boxer leaped in joy and hugged her opponent, Caroline Almeida, as she was declared the unanimous winner of the flyweight semifinals of the World Championship in Istanbul on Wednesday.
The win meant Zareen, eye her maiden World Championship gold medal, will get a chance to stamp her mark in the weight category that has been rejigged in the lead up to the Paris Olympics – at 52kg, it is 1 kg more than her usual flyweight 51kg and 2 kg lesser than the newly-introduced 54kg division for Paris 2024.
Zareen had outclassed Charley Davison, a much taller opponent, in the quarterfinals. On Wednesday, she had to face off against a boxer who was almost the same height as her. The 25-year-old Indian said her plan was to not let her opponent, a southpaw, her natural game. “(I) was successful in that. She was of the same height so I had to counter her to let her fall in my trap,” she said. “It’s my first world championship final and I have played once against the Thai boxer (Jitpong Jutamas). I will sit with coaches and prepare a strategy to return home with the gold medal.”
The Brazilian would try to lunge forward and make her attacks in the first few seconds of the semifinal but Zareen ducked the punches and unleashed her counter-attacks, surprising Almeida with a flurry of punches.
The first two rounds saw Zareen impressing the judges with her uppercuts and hook combinations. After securing a healthy lead, she did not force the issue in the final round, simply staying away from trouble to secure her maiden final appearance.
“Our planning was to dominate from the first round and Almeida was trying to attack from the start. So, Nikhat dodged her initial attacks and launched her counters. Her straight punches, coupled with the hook and uppercuts, helped her dominate the first round and it was the same in the second round,” Bhaskar Chandra Bhatt, Indian women’s national chief coach, said. “Charley Davison, Nikhat’s opponent in the quarterfinal, was a southpaw as well and it helped Nikhat iron out some flaws in facing such boxers. Both the wins will motivate Nikhat ahead of the final.”
For a major part of her senior career, the 2011 World Youth champion had to take a back seat in the weight category, with multiple-time world champion and London Olympics bronze medallist Mary Kom making the flyweight division her own.
Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics qualifier, too, Zareen had written to the then sports minister Kiren Rijuju, demanding trials. Zareen eventually lost to Mary in acrimonious circumstances. However, with Mary touching 40 this year, rendering her ineligible for international competitions, Zareen has a chance to assert her dominance.
Last year, the Hyderabad boxer had won the bronze medal in the Bosphorus Boxing tournament in Istanbul, where she had scored wins over former light-flyweight world champion Ekaterina Paltceva of Russia and two-time former light flyweight world champion Nazym Kyzaibay of Kazakhstan before suffering a loss in the semi-finals against eventual Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Busenaz Cakiroglu of Turkey.
Earlier this year, she won the Strandja Memorial title in Bulgaria, where she avenged her loss against the Cakiroglu before scoring a win over former world championship medallist Tetiana Kob in the final.
“There were times when Nikhat would get disappointed on not getting opportunities, or when trials did not go her way. But then that’s the past. She understands that and thinks only about the future now,” Bhatt said. “Earlier, sometimes she would chase the opponent and in that, would get a bit closer in their range. We worked on her deceptions and ability to launch counterattacks when the opponent came close. She is a mature boxer and the wins over boxers like Paltceva and Cakiroglu show that she is starting to dominate.
At the World Championships, each of Zareen’s four wins has been unanimous 5-0 verdicts. This will boost her confidence against Thailand’s Jitpong Jutamas, who outclassed Kazakh boxer Zhaina Shekerbekova 4-1 in the other semifinal.
Zareen has faced Jutamas once before and had emerged victorious, recording a 4-1 split decision win at the Thailand Invitational. Bhatt said they would take confidence from that bout. “The Thai boxer, too, uses her long reach and the fact that Nikhat has defeated her once is a positive sign for us. Yet, we cannot take her lightly and Nikhat will have to carry on playing her natural game of counter punches and combinations to unsettle the Thai. She is a bit taller than Nikhat but we are sure that Nikhat will tackle her strongly,” said Bhatt.