"Who is Nikhat Zareen?" Boxer lets everyone know who she is in a golden year

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Three gold medals. Two weight categories. One Nikhat Zareen.

There was a time when Nikhat's request for a fair Olympic trial against Mary Kom led the latter to comment "Who is Nikhat Zareen?"

Fast forward three years and the world knows who Nikhat is - the world champion, the Commonwealth Games champion.

The way Nikhat has bossed the year, going undefeated in every major event and winning all three titles via unanimous verdicts makes her ESPN India's female Athlete of the Year (2022).

For long, Nikhat had plied her trade under Mary Kom's shadows. But 2022 was the year it all changed, when Nikhat commanded the spotlight that she rightfully deserved.

First competition of the year: the Strandja Memorial, among Europe's oldest boxing tournaments. Nikhat beat Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Buse Naz Cakiroglu and Tetiana Bob, a three-time European champion, to the 52kg crown. It made her the first Indian boxer to clinch two medals at the event.

"You can call me the queen of Strandja. I am just so happy right now," Nikhat had said after her victory. She was just getting started.

Three months later, the biggest event of the boxing calendar: the World Championships.

This was the stage where Mary had cut her teeth and crafted her legacy. Nikhat, with an all-new attacking approach, blazed through the field. Her scorecard from the World Championships read 5-0, 5-0, 5-0, 5-0 - every judge in every bout of hers thought she was the better boxer.

She'd become only the fifth Indian woman to win gold at the World Championships and the first Indian boxer in 14 years, other than Mary, to win the event. "I always believed in myself, and that's why I am where I am today," she would go on to say.

'Small changes make a big difference' - How Nikhat Zareen became a world champion

Another couple of months passed and Nikhat was back in the ring for the Commonwealth Games: her third major event of 2022. There was a twist this time though...it was in a lower weight division - 50kg.

She'd lost weight but none of her strength. The former World junior champion moved into the quarterfinal via an RSC - a term used when the referee stops a bout to protect a boxer from a knockout. By now you'd have guessed it...she won her next three bouts - the quarterfinal, semifinal and final - by unanimous 5-0 decisions. The undisputed champion.

"I had to work so much, so differently, to lose those two kilos while maintaining my strength and speed. They say to gain something you have to give up something else. Well for this gold, I gave up sweets and anything fatty. Just high protein stuff, fruits, and salads!" she'd say after winning gold, her third of the year, which she dedicated to her mother.

That brings us to the question - what made her so effective in 2022?

It was the tiny tweaks she made to her craft: she traded her defensive style for a more aggressive approach.

"People used to say I am not really aggressive, but I have worked very hard on my attack and re-attack," Nikhat said.

The changes were there to see: she made the most of her reach and transitioned from boxing on the back foot to now leading with her front foot. It was a process that began in 2021 - the year when Nikhat missed going to the Tokyo Olympics. A miss that hurt her, but also fuelled her to work doubly harder.

Nikhat Zareen is a champion: World, CWG and of her own space

John Warburton, the English coach who coached Nikhat at the Inspire Institute of Sport, broke down her new boxing style.

"She worked a lot on her attack, but now it was about how she attacked. She did a lot of preparation to punch...a lot of using her feet to prepare for punches - getting into range, going out of range and back in and playing with her front foot. She also changed her line of attack. She did not just go in straight lines, not straight in and out. We made lots of subtle angle changes - not big, subtle," he said.

Nikhat had all the firepower, it just needed to be channelled properly. "Now she is aggressive, but with control, not blind aggression," Bhaskar Bhatt, chief coach of the Indian women's boxing team, had noted during the World Championships. "Her experience helps her greatly in this aspect. Aggression with control - that's the key aspect."

At the end of 2022, looking back at the year Nikhat has had - the three golds, fulfilling her dream of trending on Twitter and cementing her place in Indian boxing's history, she's done it all.

More importantly, the "Who is Nikhat Zareen" question won't pop up ever again. The world knows who Nikhat Zareen is, and she's just getting started.