Mary Kom vs Nikhat Zareen: The story so far
“Work hard till your idols become your rivals”
This popular and vastly shared quote has become the 23-year-old Nikhat Zareen’s reality now.
The boxing protégé from Telangana, who took up the sport following the footsteps of her idol, MC Mary Kom, would now need to beat the Manipuri legend in order to enter her first-ever Olympics in Tokyo next year.
But, even before the all-important Tokyo Olympic qualifiers in China next February, Zareen will be seen stepping into the ring for Odisha Warriors to face NCR Punjab Royals representative Mary Kom in the Big Bout Indian Boxing League, a franchise-based boxing competition in India.
The young boxer recognises that the next two months could be a pivotal moment in her entire career.
“Ab toh sabko maloom ho gaya hai, ki ek koi Nikhat Zareen hai jo ek legend Mary Kom ko challenge kiya hai (Everybody knows by now there is a rookie called Nikhat Zareen who has dared to challenge a legend like Mary Kom),” Zareen said in an interview with The Times of India.
Kom and Zareen: a meeting of generations
Zareen was only four years old when Kom won her first State Boxing Championship in 2000.
By the time the youngster became the ‘golden best boxer’ at the 2010 National Championships in Erode ten years later, Kom had already won her fifth AIBA Women's World Boxing Championship title and had the honour of bearing the Queen's Baton at the 2010 Commonwealth Games’s opening ceremony in New Delhi.
By the time Zareen came into the limelight by winning the flyweight gold medal at the Women’s Junior and Youth World Boxing Championships in 2011, the world was already in awe of Mary Kom who returned, after giving birth to two children, to win a gold at the 2009 Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam.
However, soon their paths would be destined to cross.
After after three weight categories were selected for the Olympics - eliminating the lower weight classes - Mary Kom was forced to leave her preferred 48kg category and move up to 51kg, where Nikhat Zareen was the rising star.
Where trouble began for Mary Kom and Nikhat Zareen
The shift didn’t bother ‘Magnificent Mary’ much initially as she became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal with a bronze at the 2012 London Games and then followed it up with a title-winning run at the 2014 Asian Games. However, the toll of plying her trade in what’s been her walking weight soon started taking a toll.
This saw Mary Kom move back to her preferred weight category after she was unable to make the cut for the Rio Olympics 2016.
Meanwhile, a young Nikhat Zareen was slowly turning heads in the 51kg category with wins at the 16th Senior Women National Boxing Championship and then earlier this year at the Thailand Open International Boxing Tournament.
But with another Olympics in her horizon, Mary Kom once again chose to move back to 51kg category with a hope of making her second Olympics. This time, however, she had to face the challenge of Nikhat Zareen before thinking ahead.
Mary Kom, however, once again proved her mettle in the ring once again as she defeated Nikhat Zareen in the weight category at the semifinals of the 2019 India Open early this year.
Nikhat Zareen makes herself heard
The Boxing Federation of India’s (BFI) plumped for Mary Kom ahead of Zareen as their choice in the 51kg category for the 2019 World Championships in Russia last September.
Surprised by the decision, the 23-year-old Nikhat Zareen expressed her desire for the case to be sent to a selection trial. The BFI, in response, finally announced a trial where Nikhat Zareen would take on Mary Kom for a place in the Indian team.
However, just before their bout, BFI sent a notice that they had decided to cancel the trial and select Kom for the World Championships, citing her past achievements and her win against Nikhat Zareen in the India Open.
The veteran boxer duly returned to India with a bronze medal at the World Championships in Ulan-Ude, her eighth world medal.
The federation then chose to go ahead with Mary Kom for the upcoming Olympic qualifiers instead of sticking with their policy of choosing just the gold and the silver medallists from the Worlds.
Realising that she was once again overlooked for her much accomplished compatriot, Nikhat Zareen turned to the Union Sports Minister for her chance.
And to her surprise, not only the ministry but shooter and 2008 Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra also came to her support.
Big Bout so far
Both Kom and Zareen have remained unbeaten so far in the Big Bout League, with the former winning three and the latter four. To top their unbeaten run, both have defeated Colombian star in the 51kg, Ingrit Valencia as well.
Both their franchises are in the top half of the table and a win for either of the boxers won’t have a huge effect on their team’s chances of progression as such.
But, after all that has happened over the last few months and the emotions lying divided, everything could be settled inside the ring once and for all.