Picture this: two boxers in a ring - one's career is just taking off, while the other's is in its twilight phase. One's 21 and from Bhiwani in Haryana and the other is 40 and from the Romanian city of Buzau. They're facing off for the first time, but somehow have a thread of a connection - Mary Kom.
Nitu Ghanghas, 21, made her debut at the Women's World Boxing Championships on Tuesday with a thumping win over Romania's Steluta Duta, standing young at 40.
Nitu, a two-time world youth gold-medallist, is India's newest prospect in the 48kg category, one that has been Mary's stomping ground. Mary's last World Championships title came in the flyweight category in 2018. And it's only fitting that Nitu, who will soon go up against Mary for a spot in India's Commonwealth Games team, took on Mary's old-time rival Duta in her first World Championships bout.
Nitu got off to a slow start, trying to figure out her opponent, in what was a southpaw vs southpaw contest. Duta, notorious for knockouts and iron-fisted punches, threw her fists at Nitu but she managed to swerve away. The Romanian grappled with Nitu, went for a few open glove punches (which are illegal and attract warnings), and tried to attack her from close range while Nitu received orders of "door se maar, right side jaa ke maar (punch from a distance, move to your right and attack)" from her camp.
Nitu won the first round comprehensively as all five judges favoured her and that soothed her nerves. She shuffled her feet across the ring, never getting too close to Duta, and landed a fair few punches to pocket the second round too. Duta struggled to match up to her opponent's intensity and Nitu took advantage in the third round as she pushed Duta to the corner and inflicted a five-punch combo. The referee began a standing count and a flummoxed Duta shook her head in dismay - the bout was all but over. And it was Nitu's strength, her long-range game, that did the trick.
"Her original game is long-range - she strikes from a distance and moves away. I told her to just stick to her game. She was a bit puzzled in the first round and it's not very often that a southpaw faces another southpaw. But as we guided her, she found her groove and had the bout completely in her control by the third round," Bhaskar Bhatt, head coach of the women's team, told ESPN.
"What makes her special is that she listens to instructions from the ring corner and acts on them. She will do well if she can perform to her potential," he added. Nitu will next face Spain's Lopez Del Arbol Marta in the Round of 16 on Saturday.
This will be a win to savour for Nitu, considering it was her debut on the World stage. Mary had also shared many a memorable bout with Duta at the Championships. Interestingly, Mary had beaten Duta in three consecutive finals - 2006 in New Delhi, 2008 in China and 2010 in Barbados - to become the first-ever to clinch three titles on the trot. More recently, Mary had beaten Duta in the semifinals of the 2018 Strandja Memorial. Mary chose to skip the World Championships this year to focus on the Commonwealth Games.
Duta's journey is nothing short of remarkable. An orphan, she lived on the streets of Romania before wandering into a boxing club in the south-eastern city of Buzau in 2002. The decision would change her life as she punched her way out of poverty and carved a path for herself.
"I had a strong will. This was my only chance, I think that's what pushed me. I had no option other than to continue with this sport so that I could escape that hell, the misery, the poverty and to be a normal person like everybody else. To change my life for the better. But I never imagined I would get this far," she told AFP.
In a career spanning over 15 years, Duta, whose name means "little star" has won the European Championships four times and bagged three silvers at the World Championships. All of her World Championship silvers are courtesy of her defeats to Mary.
On Tuesday, she was undone by an Indian 19 years her junior. Duta is well past her prime, but Mary is still motoring on and fit as ever. With the trials for the Commonwealth Games fast approaching, Mary will be wary of the fast-rising Nitu. A proper David vs Goliath style bout is in store.