After the 51kg BFI trials final came to an end on Saturday, it was apparent to all that 23-year-old Nikhat Zareen still had a lot to learn from MC Mary Kom, after losing the bout 9-1 to her idol-turned-rival.
The rivalry that was brewing between the two had been making headlines ever since Zareen challenged Kom to a trial to decide who would go to February’s Olympic qualifiers for Tokyo 2020.
Magnificent Mary and the rise of Nikhat Zareen
By the time Zareen had come into the limelight by winning the flyweight gold medal at the Women’s Junior and Youth World Boxing Championships in 2011, the world was still in awe of Mary Kom, who, after giving birth to two children, returned to win a gold at the 2009 Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam.
‘Magnificent Mary’ became the first Indian woman to bag an Olympic medal, with a bronze at the 2012 London Games, and then went on to follow it up with a title-winning run at the 2014 Asian Games.
However, plying her trade in what had been her walking weight soon started taking a toll and made Kom go back to her preferred weight category after she was unable to make the cut for the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Bumping heads with the rising star
With another Olympics (Tokyo 2020) on the horizon, Mary Kom once again chose to return to the 51kg category with a hope of making her second Olympic foray. This time, however, she had the challenge of Nikhat Zareen to contend with.
Kom proved her mettle in the ring, defeating Nikhat Zareen at the 2019 India Open semifinals early in 2019.
The tipping point for Zareen
The bad blood between the two started to bubble when the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) picked Kom ahead of Zareen as their choice in the 51kg category for the 2019 World Championships in Russia last September.
Taken aback by the decision, the 23-year-old Zareen expressed her desire for the case to be sent to a selection trial. The BFI, in response, finally announced a trial where Zareen would take on Mary Kom for a place in the Indian team.
However, just before their bout, the BFI notified that they had decided to cancel the trial and select Kom for the World Championships, citing her past achievements and her win against Zareen in the India Open.
The veteran boxer duly returned to India having clinched a bronze medal at the World Championships in Ulan-Ude, her eighth world medal.
The federation then chose to go ahead with Kom for the upcoming Olympic qualifiers in February, 2020, instead of sticking with their policy of choosing just the gold and the silver medallists from the Worlds.
The highly anticipated face-off
Realising that she was overlooked for her much accomplished compatriot, Zareen turned to tweeting to the Union Sports Minister for her chance.
Zareen criticised the BFI's selection policy for February's Olympic qualifiers and demanded a fair trial against six-time world champion Kom.
The BFI eventually decided to conduct trials for each weight category to decide who would go to the Olympic qualifers. While Kom stated that she would abide by whatever selection policy the BFI goes with, she didn’t quite agree with it entirely either, explaining to News18, “Even in other games like badminton, who gives trial? Have you seen Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu appearing for trials? But in our case it is different.”
As the talk continued, a showdown between the two was eagerly anticipated.
It was supposed to come during the inaugural Big Bout League season. Zareen, representing Odisha Warriors, and NCR Punjab Royals' Kom had both won all their matches in the league till that point and were scheduled to face each other on Tuesday (December 17). However, just before the bout, Kom pulled out of the fight due to a back injury.
After that, it was the BFI trials where the two were pegged to finally meet. On Friday, December 27, both women handily beat their rivals 10-0 to set up the final the following day.
The much-anticipated showdown was a largely one-sided affair, with Kom defeating Zareen in a split-verdict trial.
Once the verdict was announced, there were reportedly some representatives from Telangana (Zareen's home state) who cried foul and BFI president Ajay Singh had to step in to pacify the situation.
Regardless of the backdrop, there is no doubt that Kom has once again proven herself when it counts, and until Zareen or the next young challenger can beat her in the ring, ‘Magnificent Mary’ will continue to be India’s leading lady of boxing.