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What is the secret sauce of world champ Zareen’s success: Clean punches, measured footwork, a ticking brain


Far too often when fighting from the inside, Nikhat Zareen would get her right arm in one tangled interlock. It skidded her momentum. It creased what were otherwise clean, crisp well-defined straight punches. On a good day and throwing them in a bunch while circling from the outside, these were clear combinations that would imprint themselves on judges’ retinas and help them make up their minds about a round.

But if her right arm got yanked in by a clinch, it cramped her style, literally.

Three judges gave Round 2 of the World Championship 52 kg final to Nikhat’s opponent – Thailand’s Jitpong Jutamas after the Indian had started off fantastically for a 5-0 clean cut on all five cards.

The 3-2 was a bit of a new situation this week, with the Indian coasting through 5-0 or 4-1 at most. It also meant, things were about to get scrappy, and the unwanted embrace with confining arm-locks was on its way in the third.

What has stood out for anyone who’s followed Nikhat box all these years, is this clear silhouette of the clean punch. (BFI)

It was early in that Round 3, where the Thai was looking for ascendancy and looking to make things too grapplesome, that Nikhat Zareen employed her classic counter. Defending as first step, then came the feint, and another range-adjusting step back before she decluttered the space around her for one of the crispest 1-2 combinations that would set her apart and set her up for the rest of the round, which she eventually won 5-0.

What has stood out for anyone who’s followed Nikhat box all these years, is this clear silhouette of the clean punch. One that registers the pressing of the button or picking of the pen on the scoring chairs. It is expected that opponents with their backs to the wall will go swinging wildly or get her into locks, looking for that defining 10-8 in the final round. But Nikhat keeps her punching lines neat; bold and very geometric so judges don’t chew on thoughts of a split verdict.

“She was economical and classy in her punching,” Nikhat’s coach at Inspire Institute of Sport, John Warburton says of her punches through the week, and in her career on the whole. “She’s just good technically and tactically and doesn’t get stuck into comfort zones,” he asserts. There’s always a Plan B as they say in sport.

On Thursday at Turkey, she extricated herself from the compulsive clincher Jitpong with remarkable agility, and kept the speed going enough to make her mark, and announce her intent for the Paris Games. (BFI)

In Nikhat’s case, she’s quick to switch to Plan C and Plan D. But much like a strikethrough past opponents’ names, Nikhat’s clean punches, and fade-away moves right next moment, further define the punches, and have been the central image of her technique.

It’s what they call a clean fighter – strike and move on, then return to ping once more, sting like a ray and move away.

“She’s always been technically sound,” says Manisha Malhotra of JSW who believed the Hyderabadi had the raw material to build upon. The left was rather OK to start with, the right used to bend a tad. “It’s a good bunch of punches – the straight ones are clean and have clarity, the uppercut is good.” You barely see the hook these days, but she doesn’t need it as she creates her chances to score with the agile strikes.

On Thursday at Turkey, she extricated herself from the compulsive clincher Jitpong with remarkable agility, and kept the speed going enough to make her mark, and announce her intent for the Paris Games.

Hardworking, coachable

Nikhat’s expansive personality also seeps into how she views boxing: endless number of possibilities.

“She’s dedicated and very coachable,” Warburton says, adding, “she’s just very open to new ideas, and though she’s done well with her straight punches, she’ll happily weld herself into any other gameplan her coaches devise for her. She adapts in the ring, thinks on her feet,” he says.

Nikhat’s expansive personality also seeps into how she views boxing: endless number of possibilities. (BFI)

Speaking to Express late last year, Nikhat had talked of her enthusiasm for outwitting opponents at every turn, and constantly churning out surprises. Not only does she not get cloyingly attached to comfort zones herself, she won’t allow her opponents to settle into one rhythm either. “She reads opponents first up, takes her time to gauge them and isn’t stuck on only attacking mindlessly. The defense and feints bring the counter and she finds her moments to strike,” says former women’s coach Md Ali Qamar, who is impressed with how she’s negotiated a string of southpaws this week.

“Her movement around the ring is so good and measured that she also keeps stamina for the third round. She’s not running around wildly or throwing punches in vain. It’s very precise,” he adds.

All this week she’s led on the back of a strong opening 3 minutes to set the tone. But throw in some mid-match blinders like the Thai’s though Nikhat still held the upper hand on the cumulative card, and she can adapt. “She’ll make her own decisions, and not go into a cocoon just because she’s leading.”

Both in semis when she wasn’t required to, and in finals when she needed to break away and was tested, Nikhat played Round 3 smart. She didn’t withdraw on Wednesday, or run around in time-chomping defense. (BFI)

Proactive boxer

Both in semis when she wasn’t required to, and in finals when she needed to break away and was tested, Nikhat played Round 3 smart. She didn’t withdraw on Wednesday, or run around in time-chomping defense. “She had guts in the final round in the semis and still threw her punches,” Malhotra says. “She didn’t let her opponent get comfortable in the third,” says Warburton of the Brazilian, “kept it long (range), but stayed competitive.”

Not a punch-shy boxer in the last 3 minutes this one, once the lead is grabbed. Young and self-confident, Malhotra says Nikhat had the X-factor in that she always wanted to do well since she was young and got herself into a position to improve. “She doesn’t just train hard. She trains smart,” Ali Qamar attests.

She’s also been a lot more poised since the trials against Mary Kom where the seasoned boxer got into her head and drew out some wild overzealous scrapping of punches in vain.

Nikhat’s third rounds now are far more sophisticated, and precise. “She’s still not a complete boxer. And her footwork, fitness and strength can all improve,” Malhotra says, adding that next year’s World Championship which also serves as qualifiers for Olympics will bring out the full force of her challengers. China, North Korea and Russia aren’t in Turkey. “But she’s still India’s strongest bet for a Paris medal,” Malhotra stresses.

The weight conundrum

While the World’s this year saw Nikhat fight in the 50-52 kg class, she’ll need to decide on whether she wants to stick to her natural 54 kg category or cut weight and go into 50 kg.
“I’d leave it to her to make that decision,” Warburton says, adding it’s not a call to be taken lightly. “We’ll use all our sports science at our disposal to help her make that decision. It depends on body composition and if it’ll be safe to drop down to 50,” he adds. Her regular weight is 53-54 and 50 might be a cut 4 kgs too many, to keep her strength in the ring, though the boxer herself said she would fight in 50kg at the Commonwealth Games.

Marykom spent all her life at the top level parrying off women taller and stronger than her when she stepped up from 48kg her ideal classification to 51. Cutting weight is tougher if not as challenging. Yet, the adapting mind will take this in her stride as well.





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