Nikhat Zareen and Co: The 'Fab Four' of Indian sport

Is India finally emerging as a sporting nation out of the shadows of cricket?

Nikhat Zareen, Lovlina Borgohain,  Nitu Ghanghas and Saweety Boora
Nikhat Zareen, Lovlina Borgohain, Nitu Ghanghas and Saweety Boora

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Is India finally emerging as a sporting nation out of the shadows of cricket? If the euphoria over the ‘Fab Four,’ the boxing quartet of Nikhat Zareen, Lovlina Borgohain, Nitu Ghanghas and Saweety Boora – who made it a golden weekend for the hosts at the IBF World Championships – is anything to go by, then it certainly it is.

The likes of Abhinav Bindra, the Paes-Bhupathi combination or the mighty Vishwanathan Anand have given the country enough to cheer about over the last 25 years or so, but the remarkable departure had been the emerging role of women in terms of putting India in the global sports map for more than a decade. If M.C.Mary Kom and Sania Mirza had been the flagbearers of such a movement since the beginning of the new millennium, the likes of Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu took it to a different level, till the boxers, wrestlers and shooters started taking the winning habit to a different level despite the odds.

The comparison between Nikhat, the spunky customer from Hyderabad and only the second Indian boxer after the ‘Magnificent Mary’ to win two golds at the World Championships (Mary has six) and her much-decorated predecessor had already begun, with the media seeking to spice it up from an episode when Nikhat pitched for a trial against the Manipuri legend ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for a place in the team.

It’s odious at this point, for Mary Kom was a pioneer in the sport who was ahead of her times and finished with a bronze medal in London 2012 Olympics – the first Summer Games itself which introduced women’s boxing. It’s a matter of conjecture but if women’s boxing was a part of Olympics in Beijing 2008 or Athens 2004, then an in-form Mary could have possibly finished with multiple Olympics medals.

Nikhat, on the other hand, has been more like a product of her times – who was candid enough to admit that she wanted to ‘trend’ on the social media after becoming a world champion in Turkey last year. Well, she certainly did and again was basking in the limelight ever since she defeated Nguyen Thi Tam of Vietnam in 50kg class – a new one for her (she earlier belonged to 52 kg category) – with an eye on the Asian Games in Hangzhou later this year and Paris 2024. A barrier-breaker in more ways than one, she is now arguably the biggest brand in women’s sport in the country after Sindhu, with 10 endorsements under her wings and more certainly to follow.

‘’India Inc has been very supportive towards Nikhat - not only when she became the world champion last year but even a couple of years back. However, things have certainly changed since her world title last year and she is currently endorsing around 10 brands in various categories,’’ revealed Tuhin Mishra, Managing Director & Co-Founder of Baseline Ventures, a leading sports management company which handles the portfolios of Nikhat as well as Sindhu.

Speaking to National Herald during a telephonic interview, Mishra was all praise for his celebrity client. ‘’Nikhat is not just a boxer, but phenomenon in Indian sport. She has endured so many things in life – only some of which are in public domain while some are not. She is a champion and is surely on her way to become a legend of Indian boxing,’’ he said.

The fame and adulation over the past year, during which the 26-year-old also added the Commonwealth Games gold in Birmingham in 2022, has made her only more focused – infusing a level of confidence which may make the difference in crunch moments in bigger stages like the Olympics.

‘’I am actually a multi-tasker as I can sing, dance also,’’ an uninhibited Nikhat said during a group interview with NDTV along with the other medallists - ending the show with a shayiri (couplet) composed by herself. Nikhat’s poise and ease was also unmissable during a reality show last year when she swayed with Salman Khan on one of his ageless Bollywood hit numbers.

John Warburton, boxing head of Inspire Institute of Sport who worked with Nikhat, had been quick enough to see the champion’s DNA in here. In an interview with Indian Express, Warburton said: ‘’She’s going to be world champion two years running. She will likely be the Asian champion. She will qualify for Olympics, and in my opinion, she will win gold. I have worked with lots of people who have won Olympic medals, gold medals, silvers, bronzes and world medals. She has all the same characteristics that they have. The attitude, the willpower, and the technical and tactical abilities – she’s got a lot.’’

Interestingly enough, the sports management companies have shown a welcome foresight in recent times – not to speak of business sense – to sign up aspiring champions from non-cricket disciplines like boxing, athletics, weightlifting, table tennis and the like. IOS Sports & Entertainment, a Delhi-based company, had invested in the lanky Lovlina Borgohain from Assam to look after her endorsements and commercial interest in 2019 – much before her bronze medal in Tokyo Olympics. It was an extremely welcome change of scenario when Lovlina figured on the cover of Vogue India shortly after Olympics bronze. What’s more? a multi-purpose stadium is coming up in the remote Balagarh town in Assam where the boxer hails from while there is a ‘Lovlina Lane’ already in place.

While the gold rush at the K.D.Jadav Indoor Hall last weekend has captured the imagination of Indian fans, it was no flash in the pan as there had been a process involved behind it. Lovlina, who was considered a medal prospect ahead of Tokyo, had actually shown her mettle in the 2018 and 2019 World Championships where she ended with bronze on both occasions. It was hence a big relief for her to finally ‘’change the colour of the medal.’’

The spotlight may have been trained over the past few days on Nikhat and Lovlina as they are being touted as medal hopefuls for next year’s Olympics, but the story of Nitu Ghanghas, who had been a Commonwealth Games medallist and a three-time Asian medallist, Saweety Boora are also of resilience and a never-say-die spirit to break the gender stereotypes. Nitu, a protégé of London 2012 silver medallist Vijender Singh, is now an inspirational figure in the Bhiwani village of Haryana where more and more girls are taking to the sport. For Saweety, who had to endure a nine-year wait between her first Worlds medal, a silver, and the gold in front of the home crowd this time, it was worth the wait.

Looking at the bigger picture, four golds at a single World Championship is not exactly a first for India as in 2006, Mary Kom, Sarita Devi, Jenny Lalremliani and Lekha K.C had won gold for the country together. However, Ajay Singh, the BFI supremo said that women’s boxing has grown in stature tremendously over the last decade since it’s inclusion in Olympics.

‘’To put things in perspective, the competition has become a lot tougher. From an IBF world ranking of 44, Indian women has climbed to world ranking of No.3. Today, we are a boxing powerhouse. In each weight category, we have world class boxers and that shows the depth we have created,’’ Singh said.

It’s Hangzhou next stop then – for the Nikhats & Nitus.

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