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

Nikhat Zareen BFI

August 8, 2021. A day after the Tokyo Olympics, Nikhat Zareen put up a picture looking at a digital board counting down the time to the 2024 Olympics - 1082 days, 18 hours, 11 minutes, 44 seconds.

Nikhat did not board the plane that took the Indian boxers to Tokyo - she lost to Mary Kom in a rather contentious Olympic trial. It took a toll on her, but she moved on and set her sights on the prize - Paris 2024.

Paris 2024 is still 798 days away, but Nikhat has become a world champion. Extra emphasis on those last two words: World Champion.

"The challenges and hurdles I have faced in my journey have made me strong. I knew after my injury I have become more mentally strong and have decided that no matter what comes in the way I will fight and not give up. These things made me strong," Nikhat said after Thursday's final.

The injury she mentions happened in 2017 when she dislocated her shoulder at the All India University championships. It required surgery and threatened to cut short her fledgling career.

"I was away from boxing throughout 2017 and made a comeback at the nationals next year and won bronze. I was still recovering then and hence skipped all the major events that year like the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Championships," she says.

"I did not give up after that. I made a proper comeback in 2019 and have never looked back since. I took each competition as an opportunity and have been proving myself. I always believed in myself, and that's why I am where I am today."

In the nine months since that picture she put up in August, Nikhat has quietly gone about perfecting her craft, mentally and physically. She made no big changes to her game, it was the small, subtle ones that made the difference. A change of angle here, a foot shuffle there, a change in stance and she combined it with a renewed mindset. From a back-foot defensive boxer, she'd transformed into a front-footed all-out attacking boxer.

John Warburton, who worked with Nikhat at the Inspire Institute of Sport, says, "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 stresses on the importance of subtle changes. "The small changes make a big difference because if you make a big angle - you become predictable and easy to read. You don't want to make big angle changes or big changes, just small changes like a change in direction using your feet and trunk."

Albeit tiny in quantitative terms, the tweaks saw her soar to the top of the boxing world. She won the Strandja Memorial, Europe's oldest boxing tournament, in February. She beat a Tokyo Olympics silver medallist [Buse Naz Cakiroglu] and a three-time European champion [Tetiana Bob] to the title.

It set her up well for the World Championships, where she was the undisputed winner in each bout. Her scorecard from the World Championships read 5-0, 5-0, 5-0, 5-0. It underlined how her proactive approach was working for her. But the key here was not to simply throw blind punches, it was about picking the right instance for the jab.

"What I did was make her think about how she goes about her boxing. I gave her a different perspective about when to engage and when not to. Something I noticed in India was that boxers wanted to engage all the time and throw the first punch and sometimes it's not the right time, they need to throw the second punch," says Warburton.

It's an aspect that Bhaskar Bhatt, chief coach of the Indian women's boxing team, had also spoken about. "The difference between the old Nikhat and now is that she is aggressive, but with control, not blind aggression. Her experience helped her greatly in this aspect. Aggression with control - that's the key."

It's not that Nikhat lacked the skills, she just needed to be nudged in the right direction. "It's easy for me to say we used a set of drills and worked hard, but that's not it. She's at that level anyway, she's a former youth World Champion. She had the skill set, all I did was maybe reorder them and talk about the best time to use her skills than just do it. She's very committed, so I hope she gets what she deserves," says Warburton.

Nikhat had sat at home and watched her close friends, Neeraj Chopra and Vinesh Phogat, compete at the Olympics. The feeling of being left out would have stung her for sure, especially with how things turned sour during her trial with Mary Kom. But if there's anything Nikhat has learnt in life - from overcoming a career-threatening injury to fighting for her right to a fair trial - is to never throw in the towel.