Nikhat Zareen emerges as India's biggest star in a year

As Nikhat rose from the ranks, the defining force in Indian boxing for well over a decade, the timeless Mary Kom decided it was time for the next generation to make its mark.
Nikhat Zareen
Nikhat Zareen Twitter@BFI

NEW DELHI: In Nikhat Zareen, a new star emerged on the horizon while veteran MC Mary Kom, standing in the twilight of her career, was left heartbroken in what was an eventful year for Indian boxing.

As India enjoyed good results in the ring, they were also awarded the hosting rights of next year's women's World Championships but on the global front, the sport's Olympic future continued to remain under scrutiny.

Nikhat's golden run

After spending her formative years in the shadows of the legendary Mary Kom, Nikhat grabbed the opportunity with both hands when time came to make the flyweight division, which was dominated by the six-time champion, her own. Nikhat claimed a hat-trick of gold medals in 2022. She started the year by etching her name in the history books as she became the first Indian boxer to win a second gold medal at the prestigious Strandja Memorial tournament.

Once requesting a ''fair trial'' for a shot at the Olympics, the Telangana boxer replicated her idol Mary Kom's world championship-winning feat. It was India's first Worlds title in four years and only the second (after Mary) outside the country.

Her slew of wins as a teenager had led people to hail her as a possible heir to Mary Kom's throne and her gold-winning triumph, India's first yellow metal in four years at the World Championship, consolidated the view. The 26-year-old boxer then entered the Commonwealth Games as a strong medal contender and she didn't disappoint, clinching the 50kg title.

Each bout was a testament to her evolution as a boxer, who is technically sound and knows when to use her power.

Mary's heartbreak

As Nikhat rose from the ranks, the defining force in Indian boxing for well over a decade, the timeless Mary Kom decided it was time for the next generation to make its mark.

The London Olympic bronze medallist opted to skip the World Championships and the now-postponed Asian Games to concentrate on the Birmingham CWG.

But fate had other plans -- cruel ones. The six-time world champion missed out on the opportunity to defend her CWG title after suffering a knee injury in the middle of her bout against eventual gold medallist Nitu Ghanghas during the trials. At 40, time is not on her side as according to IBA rules pugilists between the ages of 19 to 40 are categorised as Elite Boxers. The Asian Games, now pushed to September next year, could be her swansong should she get fit and decide to participate. She has always maintained ''I can play till 40.'' But if her body doesn't permit it, the Manipuri has nothing left to prove, for she has inspired innumerable youngsters to take up the sport. And the new crop of boxers comprising the likes of Nikhat, Nitu, world championship bronze medal-winning duo of Parveen Hooda and Manisha Moun and Jaismine Lamboria are trying to follow her lead.

Amit's redemption and Shiva's tryst with history

Unlike Mary Kom, Amit Panghal had a lot on the line this year. He had been a strong medal contender at the Tokyo Olympics, having won an unprecedented world championship silver and rising to the number one rank. But the Games proved to be a disaster as he crashed out in the first round.

However, the Rohtak boxer redeemed his hard-earned reputation by bettering the colour of his 2018 CWG Gold Coast silver. The signature salute and his little smile after winning the title at Birmingham Games showed the satisfaction he felt. Veteran Shiva Thapa also sparkled in the men's circuit. While he made a quiet exit at the CWG, the 29-year-old became the first-ever male boxer in the history of the Asian Championships to win six medals. The climax was bittersweet though as he was forced to withdraw midway through his final bout due to an injury, settling for a silver.

Lovlina's rollercoaster

Lovlina Borgohain had saved the boxing contingent the blushes in Tokyo, winning the sole medal. But shoved into the limelight and burdened with endless felicitation functions and other commitments after her bronze medal in Tokyo, the Assam boxer lost her focus, resulting in an underwhelming show at the World Championships this year. At the CWG she was the protagonist of the Indian contingent's biggest and only controversy at the Games as she raised a hue and cry over her personal coach Sandhya Gurung's accreditation. In a Twitter post, Lovlina alleged that her preparation was getting affected due to the ''continuous harassment'' of her coaches. After everything was sorted, Lovlina ended up making a shock quarterfinal exit. However, the 25-year-old was able to put behind the underwhelming year with a gold in her maiden appearance in the middle-weight category (75kg) at the Asian Championships. Her previous 69kg weight class was scrapped from the Paris Olympics.

Olympics future

In a massive blow to the sport, boxing has been left out of the initial roster list for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, a decision made due to a number of governance issues. While the International Boxing Association (IBA) claims to be doing everything to get the sport back, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) continues to express concerns with the world body's current leadership under Umar Kremlev, the President from Russia.

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