Fighting spirit comes naturally to boxer Nikhat Zareen. Having fought both inside and outside the ring, over the years, the former Junior World Boxing Champion recently defeated Tokyo Olympics silver-medallist Busenaz Cakiroglu, at the 73rd Strandja Memorial Boxing Tournament, held in Sofia, Bulgaria. And having proven her mettle internationally, the Telangana-born is now eyeing to win laurels for the country in Paris Olympics 2024.
In Delhi, to practise for the upcoming World Boxing Championships, the 25-year-old pugilist, exudes confidence that overpowers all memories of how in 2019 she had then written to the Sports Ministry — asking for a fair trial to select the sportsperson representing India at Tokyo Olympics — thus ruffling feathers in the boxing circuit. Yet Zareen wasn’t rattled even after being riled up in the selection process for Olympics in late 2019, which included a trials bout with the six-time boxing champion MC Mary Kom — who ultimately represented India in the 51kg weight category at Tokyo Olympics. Excerpts from the interview:
Looking back at the 2020 selections controversy, what are your thoughts?
I don’t think about it because I’ve already moved on from that incident. In 2020, I decided that whatever happens, happens for a good reason. I have decided ki Tokyo ab toh gaya toh abhi uske baare mein sochke why should I spoil my future and present. Let’s move on and focus on Paris 2024. Maine khud par bahut kaam kiya hai, on my strengths and my weaknesses. And I don’t look back.
Mary Kom, the six-times champion at AIBA World Women’s Boxing, recently announced in a statement that she is stepping aside from the upcoming World Championships and Asian Games, to give a chance to the younger generation. Your thoughts on this?
If she has given this statement, toh kucch soch samajh kar hi diya hoga. I appreciate ki unhone itna socha hai. If we (young boxers) are getting that opportunity then obviously we have to utilise it and prove ki hum bhi hain. That’s why when I get an opportunity, I don’t want to take it easy. And I try to come back with a medal whenever I can.
Do you feel Kom’s statement should have come sooner?
It’s an individual’s decision. Mujhe agar koi bolega ki Paris ke baad retire ho jao toh unki thodi sunungi. Jab tak meri body mera saath degi, tab tak mein khelungi. Mere andar hard work jhelne ka kitna capacity hai, utna usko dungi. I will not give it a load and hard training it cannot accept. I will decide when I have to step back and kab nahi.
You are touted as a successor to Mary Kom, given your ability to dominate the ring…
I don’t want the tag of next Mary Kom. I want to be Nikhat Zareen only. Jo bhi opportunity ho, I’d give my best and try to come back with a medal!
Your journey until now has been full of punches, even outside the ring. What fuelled your fighting spirit?
I was recognised for athletics at the school level by my teachers. When I was in class XI, we had sports day coming up, and had to prepare for that. We had groups according to colours, and I was in ‘lavender group’, and my class teacher was also the leader of that group. She suggested me to take part in athletics for the sports day. My sister, was in class X then, so I used to wait for about an hour for her till 5.30pm because my school used to get over around 4pm. So, I used to go to the ground and watch one of my friends play. She said, ‘Nikhat tu bhi aaja, join us’. We kept a friendly match, and I won. My PT teacher was very surprised ki kal ki aayi ladki has defeated someone with an experience of two years and running. That teacher started asking about me, which class I studied in and who was my father. When I mentioned his name, it turned out the two were classmates once and my father was crazy about sports! I thus joined athletics and played many tournaments in school. Although I didn’t have a proper coach then and didn’t even take up too much training. But whatever I did, my father used to always come along with me.
What were the challenges when you took up boxing as a sport?
I went to take up boxing professionally in 2009, spurred on by my father and triggered by the society’s disdain towards female boxers. I used to see girls in every sport except boxing. That’s when I asked my father why (is that so). My father had said, ‘Women can do boxing but society thinks girls are not strong enough to take up such a sport’. That, was my trigger to take it up… Since childhood, I was a very stubborn kid. I used to live like a tomboy, had a boy cut, and loved to wear jeans and T-shirt. Nobody used to think that I’m a girl because I looked so much like a boy. And that’s why I chose boxing, and after that never looked back.
Many people criticised me and asked my dad why he allowed me to play this sport. People said ‘Agar kuchh ho gaya ise toh career khatam ho jayega’, ‘She would spoil her face’, ‘Haath pair toot jayenge toh who will marry her’. But my father never let those comments get to me. He told me to keep my focus on boxing, and that one day when I’d succeed, these people will come to take pictures with me.
Was it tough to be a female, Muslim boxer? Tell us if your faced any challenges.
When I grew up, I couldn’t wear jeans and T-shirt. I had to wear suits (at home). But when I joined boxing, I had to wear the costume: sleeveless sando and shorts. I used to wear T-shirt inside that, but people had issues with me wearing shorts. Many Muslims used to come and criticise me saying, ‘Musalman ki ladki ho, apko parde mein rehna chahiye’. But I feel it’s a personal choice. You can’t force anyone to wear or follow anything. I knew hurdles would comes my way, but I was prepared and my focus was only on bettering myself. I want to tell them today that I play for India.
You have your eyes set on representing India at Paris Olympics 2024. What does representing India mean to you?
The first time I represented India, I was happy and excited. I was selected for the national camp at Vizag (Andhra Pradesh). In 2011, I won in the trials for World Championships… After qualifying quarters and semis, I was playing the finals against the host country (Turkey) which was not easy. I gave it my all, and when my hand was raised (as a winner), I was so emotional. Winning gold for my country was very big! I was standing on the podium, crying, when the National Anthem was playing. That was a priceless moment. Aur ab mera ultimate sapna hai India ke liye Olympics mein medal jeetna!
Do you wish for a biopic, to be made on your life?
Abhi itna socha nahi kyunki abhi itna achieve kiya nahi hai maine. Jab Olympic medal haath mein hoga, tab sochenge. It’s still a long way to go for me.
If this does become a reality, who would you want to play Nikhat Zareen on screen?
I like Alia Bhatt! Usko bhi dimple aate hain aur mujhe bhi. Alia is very lovable and fun. Main bhi aisi hi hun. If you ask my friends about me, they would say Nikhat bahut shaitan hai! So my choice would be Alia.
Author tweets @siddhijainn