It was, perhaps, just a mere coincidence or destiny, but that moment would turn out to be life-defining for the newly-crowned flyweight world champion.
It all started when Mohammad Jameel, a former footballer and cricketer, decided to take his daughters out to play one summer evening.
“I told them we’ll go and play in the ground so that they learn something. Someone went to play basketball, one played handball etc.,” he told PTI.
“After observing for a couple of days I saw Nikhat’s body language and I knew she’d be a sport person. So, I bought a tracksuit and told her we’ll go train tomorrow.”
Jameel trained Nikhat for 100m and 200m and she had inherited her father’s sporting genes. She was a natural and soon she was the district champion.
Then one day boxing caught her fancy.
𝟐𝟎𝟐𝟐 𝐖𝐎𝐑𝐋𝐃 𝐂𝐇𝐀𝐌𝐏𝐈𝐎𝐍! 🥇It’s finally here. The culmination of years of hardwork and perseverance. India, this one’s… https://t.co/iXbIioJypY
— Nikhat Zareen (@nikhat_zareen) 1653028858000
“Where I used to go to train with my father some Urban Games where going on. And I saw that all sports had girls except for boxing,” Nikhat recalled hours after her gold medal winning feat.
“I asked him ‘why are there no girls playing, is boxing only a men’s sport?”
Jameel was taken aback, but he explained to Nikhat that boxing was the sport of the courageous, irrespective of gender.
“I told her you need to be mentally strong, have power and speed for boxing. You need to have the courage and strength to hit the person in front of you,” he said.
Nikhat’s reply was simple but filled with conviction: “Main khelungi (I will play)”.
Soon after, she was training with boys as girls didn’t take up boxing in Nizamabad.
“She had to train with boys, run with them. Initially, she got hurt a little bit while sparring in the beginning. But she started gaining confidence and started punching the same children who had hit her earlier,” Jameel said.
“We knew she would do well among the girls because of the speed and strength she had developed playing with boys. Girls couldn’t even touch her at the nationals,” he said with pride.
With boxing came vests and training shorts and coming from a Muslim household, Nikhat and her parents were subjected to several taunts and comments.
“This district is a rural one. No one has that much knowledge of sports here. A girl especially form a Muslim community is coming to play people didn’t know about it.
“It was when she won a medal at nationals then people got to know more.
“Many would say kya hai?, kaise kapde hain?, kya figure hai? maar lag jaega toh kaun shaadi karega?, life kharaab ho jaeagi. (What is this? What sort of figure she has? If she gets hurt, who will marry her? Her life will be ruined).
“I used to just listen.”
It didn’t take long for Nikhat to stamp her authority as she won her first sub-junior national title followed by the junior world championship a year later.
Today, she’s only the fifth Indian boxer to have a world championship gold under her belt and only second, apart from MC Mary Kom, to achieve the feat outside India.
She rose the ranks in the senior level as well, winning an array of medals in international events, including two golds at the Strandja Memorial, a bronze in the 2019 Asian Championships, while also winning the nationals multiple times.
“Now the same people ask if Nikhat has been selected in the team, when is she going for the tournament, how was her performance, when is her next match.
“Today’s result has changed them not just people in our community but for entire India, it’s an inspiration. For a girl of Muslim community to do so well, it gives others, not just our community, confidence that our girls can also do this,” Jameel said.
Such has been Nikhat’s influence in her community that Jameel gets calls not only from Telangana, but other states too, to train their children.
“When we came to Hyderabad then also a lot of people not just from here but other states contacted me. Saying ‘if you start an academy we will send her children. Please start a training centre’.”
Nikhat’s family has been extremely supportive of her dreams. When she won the title, she roared ecstatically before breaking down into tears, thinking about her parents.
“I was thinking about my parents. They were the only ones with me during my bad time. I wanted to give them a hug,” Nikhat said.
Her family’s support got her through the career-threatening shoulder injury, which saw her miss the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Championships.
“It was a difficult period but Nikhat was strong. After that she could only win the bronze (at the nationals).
“But we kept motivating her. I told her ‘You have age on your side and you can make a comeback’,” Jameel recalled.
Going ahead, Jameel is confident his daughter will be an Olympic champion in Paris, but for now, he wants her to return home as the best boxer along with the gold medal.
“She will definitely return with a medal from the Paris Olympic, I have no doubt about that.
“She has momentum on her side. She has defeated good players in 2019 and 2020 before COVID. This has been the motivation for her. She now knows she can beat good, strong players.
“She has realised her potential which has made her stronger. She knows she’s number one and she has proved that as well,” he said.