In the recent history of Indian boxing, there hasn’t been any bout that’s garnered as many headlines as Mary Kom vs Nikhat Zareen.
The two were first pitted against each other in the final of the 2019 India Open. Here, Nikhat Zareen’s inexperience was her undoing as Mary Kom triumphed to take home the title.
The next time they faced off was in the final of the national trials to choose India’s representative at the Asian Olympic Qualifiers to be then held in Amman, Jordan, shifted from Wuhan, China owing to the coronavirus outbreak.
The match was slated after Nikhat Zareen’s appeal to the union sports minister Kiren Rijiju as the Boxing Federation of India’s (BFI) had decided on sending Mary Kom to the Olympic qualifiers.
It came on the back of the BFI earlier deciding to send Mary Kom to the World Championships in September 2019. Nikhat Zareen had demanded a trial, and after it was initially accepted, the decision was overturned citing Mary Kom’s past achievements and her win at the India Open.
However, Nikhat Zareen’s request for a trial bout for the Olympic qualifiers was heeded. It led to a goading response from Mary Kom, who was shocked at the decision. The two were later slated to fight in the Big Bout League, but Mary Kom pulled out citing a back injury. It made their impending meeting even more intense.
Despite the frosty build-up, the Nikhat Zareen vs MC Mary Kom meet turned out to be a one-sided affair.
Clean punches were far and apart with the two clinching often. It didn’t quite impress Raffaele Bergamasco, the India women boxing’s high-performance director, either.
But in the end, it was the six-time world champion who used her experience in the amateur circuit to reign supreme as Mary Kom defeated Nikhat Zareen 9-1 to represent India at the Olympic qualifiers in China, later shifted to Jordan.
For Nikhat Zareen, the split decision was a hard one to take in. “It took a few weeks, I think. But eventually, I realised there’s no point in crying about it,” she told the Olympic Channel in an interview from Hyderabad.
“My only focus since then has been to work even harder and come back strong. That's something that I am focusing on. I am looking forward to the future. I believe everything happens for a good reason.”
It’s this attitude of taking things in her stride that has seen Nikhat Zareen rise through the ranks and challenge Mary Kom in recent years.
Mary Kom: Nikhat Zareen’s childhood hero
Nikhat Zareen was only four years old when Mary Kom won her first state boxing championship in 2000.
By the time the youngster became the ‘golden best boxer’ at the 2010 national championships ten years later, ‘Magnificent Mary’ had already won her fifth world championship title.
And when the Hyderabad boxer came into the limelight by winning the world junior title in the flyweight division, the world was already in awe of Mary Kom who returned to the ring after giving birth to two children.
“I think her presence inspires us all,” Nikhat Zareen said. “For Mary Kom, age is just a number when you have the hunger to achieve more. That’s the one thing that I take away.
“As a young boxer, when you see her struggle and sweat it out in the ring day in and day out just to fulfil her dream of winning an Olympic gold medal for India, you can't ask for better inspiration than that.”
Mary Kom makes her experience count
Apart from the inspiration, Nikhat Zareen believes that Mary Kom, who is 13 years her senior, is a fine example of how much experience matters at the amateur level.
“In Olympic boxing, experience matters a lot and you can see that in the way she approaches her bouts,” Nikhat Zareen pointed out.
“At the amateur level, you don't have much time. You need to defend and score points in a small time frame, you can't wait for your opponent to tire out and then go for the kill.”
Stating that India barely has any dearth of boxing talent, for Nikhat Zareen it’s the exposure to competitive boxing that makes the difference at the highest level.
“After a certain level, you need the experience of fighting at the highest level if you have to push yourself even higher. In Mary Kom's case, her immense talent is backed by the years of experience and that makes the difference,” she says.
While Mary Kom will be keen to bank on her experience in her quest for Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020, there are questions on the future of the flyweight division in India post the Mary Kom era.
But Nikhat Zareen isn’t bothered much. “We don't know if she'll retire post the Olympics next year,” she said.
“But if you look at the talent in the country, there's no lack of it. There are new boxers coming for the juniors and the youth categories and I am looking forward to facing them.
“Going ahead, I don't think the 51kg category will be weak in any sense. We have some really good boxers coming up and that's something I am looking forward to.”