Nikhat Zareen becomes world champion after defeating Thai Jitpong Jutamas

Nikhat Zareen becomes world champion after defeating Thai Jitpong Jutamas
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Nikhat Zareen became the first boxer in 14 years, other than Mary Kom, to win the IBA Women’s World Boxing Championship by defeating Thailand’s Jutamas Jitpong in the 52kg final in Istanbul on Thursday. She is now only the fifth Indian woman to win the world championships in any weight class.

The medal ends a harrowing period for Nikhat, who missed the Tokyo Olympics last year after losing to Mary Kom in a rather controversial Olympic trial. And her dominance in the ring in Istanbul was clear – she won each of her four fights by a 5-0 unanimous decision, meaning each of the five judges rated her as the best boxer in the ring.

As she did throughout the competition, Nikhat started the first round with phenomenal aggression and delivered some sublime combo attacks to put Jitpong out of breath. With 1:35 to go on the clock, Nikhat launched into a flurry of punches to stun the Thai boxer, who struggled to keep up with Nikhat’s intensity. Nikhat won the first round 5-0.

Jitpong, who lost to Nikhat last time out at the 2019 Thailand Open, got off to a strong start in the second round. She bullied Nikhat around the ring, caught her with a series of left hand punches and kept her distance from the Indian boxer. What turned the tables on Jitpong was how she pulled her feet away from Nikhat and stayed away from her reach, meaning the latter didn’t land her shots. Nikhat was left punching the air at Sinan Erdem Dome, while Jitpong hopped around. She did just about enough to win the second round 3-2.

The third round was all or nothing for Jitpong. She needed all five judges to award her the round to seal a comeback victory, while Nikhat only needed one. Jitpong was reading Nikhat’s game better and continued to walk away as Nikhat reached out to make contact. Nikhat’s feet refused to bring her closer to Jitpong as she continued to sting the air.

With a minute and a half remaining, Nikhat fired up the afterburners to combine a bunch of power hooks with some body shots to tip the tide in his favor. She sealed the round with a monstrous right hand with 13 seconds on the clock.

Nikhat knew she had it in the bag, but Jitpong reacted like her too. She flashed a wide smile, punched the air and was very certain she had won the gold. Seconds later, the referee raised Nikhat’s hand as the winner.

Tears streamed down Nikhat’s face. It was a victory she dreamed of, as she told ESPN on the eve of the final. Her dream had finally come true – she had claimed the ultimate prize.

Path to gold

The victory also continued her unbeaten streak in 2022. She won the Strandja Memorial, Europe’s oldest boxing tournament in February and became the first Indian boxer to win two gold medals at the event. What made it more enjoyable, by her own admission, was that she had beaten two big names in the process: Buse Naz Cakiroglu, who won silver at the Tokyo Olympics, and Tetiana Bob, triple European champion.

What has marked her performance since missing Tokyo is her new style of boxing, abandoning her defensive game to transform into an all-out offensive boxer. “People were saying I wasn’t really aggressive, but I worked really hard on my offense and my re-attack,” Nikhat told ESPN on Wednesday.

The change meant she had to transition from boxing on the back foot to now leading with her front foot. She had to attack, retreat, dodge the opponent’s punch and then start the counterattack.

“Now she is aggressive but with control, not blind aggression,” Bhaskar Bhatt, head coach of India’s women’s boxing team, told ESPN ahead of the final. “His background helps him greatly in that aspect. Aggression with control – that’s the key aspect.”

Nikhat had been kept in the shadows for a long time. Hardships had been a constant companion – a shoulder injury that required surgery, a lockdown that rendered her without equipment and a long-running duel with a senior boxer that tarnished her name. The shadows now fade. The spotlight is firmly on India’s new world champion – Nikhat Zareen. Surely you have heard of her.

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