Tuesday , July 16 2024

‘Face of Indian boxing’ defied taunts to dream of Olympic glory

Nikhat Zareen defied taunts to succeed Mary Kom as the face of Indian boxing and now wants to add an Olympic medal to her growing list of achievements.

Already a two-time world champion and Commonwealth Games gold medalist, Zareen is among the favorites in the women’s 50kg category in Paris.

“I am blessed and grateful to have achieved my dream of becoming a world champion,” the 28-year-old said in the build-up to the Games.

“Now I want to fulfill my second dream of winning an Olympic medal.”

Zareen’s route to the top has not been easy.

Born into a conservative Muslim family in the south-central state of Telangana, Zareen first came across boxing when her father took her for running training.

“Once, when we were at the stadium, there were girls participating in every sport apart from boxing,” Zareen told the Olympics.com website.

“I asked my father why there were no girls competing in boxing. Is boxing only for boys?”

Aged 12, her first sparring session ended up with a black eye and a bloody nose. That only inspired her.

“How did she beat me up so badly?” she recalled saying of her first time in the ring.

“I will return the favor the next time,” Zareen vowed.

Many Indian families frown on women choosing sport as a career, and her mother tried to stop her from pursuing her boxing dreams.

The third of four sisters, Zareen ploughed on despite the family opposition and the taunts of neighbors.

Zareen said that as a girl, and a Muslim, she became acutely aware that societal rules imposed “limits” on what she was supposed to do, she told the Times of India newspaper.

“Often girls don’t try to come out of that comfort zone,” she added. “Their dreams remain just dreams.”

Expectations and pressure

The path to the top in women’s boxing is a difficult one, pioneered in India by Kom who rose to global recognition for her exploits in the ring over two decades.

Now 41 years old, Kom overcame poverty, and an initially disapproving father, to win six world championships between 2002 and 2018, Olympic bronze in 2012 and both Asian and Commonwealth Games golds.

Her life story was made into a Bollywood movie in 2014, where Kom was played by superstar actor Priyanka Chopra.

But for all her achievements in the ring, Kom never managed to win Olympic gold.

Zareen first showed her promise when she won a junior world cup event aged 15.

She then lost an ill-tempered and controversial showdown with Kom in 2019 which led to Zareen missing out on a chance to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

Zareen put the disappointment behind her to win back-to-back world titles in 2022 and 2023.

Zareen knows those achievements will add to the pressure on her to deliver in Paris.

She said she was “excited” about the Paris Olympics but nervous “because people have lots of expectations from me”.

Before competing she calms herself by chatting with family and close friends.

“Before going to the venue I listen to music, I pray and I play games which get me distracted from the nervousness,” she said.

Zareen has to pinch herself when she thinks of herself as a double world champion and role model for aspiring women boxers.

“I never thought a girl who was once a challenger could be the face of Indian boxing,” she said.

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