By Ronnie Ruff
IT WAS supposed to be the grudge match of the year. Two bickering boxers battling it out for one qualifying spot at next year’s Olympics. Young pretender Nikhat Zareen against future Hall of Famer Mary Kom. India was most definitely watching.
Unfortunately, like most hyped-up big Vegas heavyweight clashes, the action in the ring failed to match the bravado out of it. But controversy was created again as soon as Kom’s hand was raised in victory, leading to more claims, counter-claims and accusations that have caused a stir in national boxing circles.
The background to the bout wasn’t financially fuelled or box office-based though – just the seemingly simple matter of who would get a chance to represent India in Tokyo on the world’s biggest stage this summer.
Zareen’s fight for a fair trial began before last October’s Women’s World Championships in Russia. She travelled from Hyderabad to New Delhi for the 51kg test competition, only to find out it had been cancelled and Kom, 36, had been selected in that weight category instead.
It was then decided that the boxers who won gold or silver at the Worlds would get an automatic place in the Indian squad for the Olympic qualifiers in China. Kom won a bronze, but then-BFI president Ajay Singh changed the rules and said the six-time world champion can go anyway. This is where the trouble started.
“I didn’t even imagine this would happen,” Zareen, 23, said after the December 28 bout. “I never expected her to be so angry with me for going to Twitter and writing a letter to the sports minister. If she’s taking all that personally, that’s her choice.
“I was fighting for a fair trial. I was fighting the system, not Mary Kom or the federation. I was saying there should be a proper trial before each competition. That’s all.”
After Singh’s announcement, Zareen took up the issue with the powers that be, saying her ranking and achievements entitled her to at least a shot at qualification, which Kom took issue too.
Three months of campaigning eventually led to a trial between the rivals to decide who went to China, a meeting which Kom won the verdict of nine of the ten ringside judges in a scrappy encounter.
An angry Kom pushed Zareen’s hand away as she went in for a hug after the verdict and hit out at her conduct in post-fight interviews. Zareen’s camp protested against the decision, calling the result a fix.
“What hurt the most was the way she behaved after the match. I did not like how she behaved,” Zareen said. “When the decision was announced, I tried to hug her but she did not hug me back. I respect her because she is my senior and also a legend. No doubt I will always respect her.”
Kom, who had kept quiet in the build-up to the trials, fumed: “How many times do I need to prove myself? I have beaten Zareen many times. You saw today. I don’t like controversy. My focus is on big competitions and to win medals for my country.
“She has been saying that I am her idol, then this is the way she behaves. You have no humility. If you have respect, you should not talk and make such controversy. Game spirit is shown inside the ring, not outside. Prove yourself inside the ring.”
Kom added: “I have not created any controversy. I followed whatever the BFI said after the World Championships. They make the rules and regulations. Even I was surprised that I would not have to have a trial.”
Indian officials insisted they was happy with the way the situation was handled despite the fact their rule-bending created the fuss.
“We have done the trials in a fair and democratic manner. There were ten judges and we also invited the media,” BFI chief Singh said.
Sports minister Kiren Rijiju later tweeted: “Mary Kom is a legend who has achieved what no other boxer has in world amateur boxing. Nikhat Zareen is an amazing boxer who has the potential to follow the footsteps of Kom. India is proud of both of them. Period.
“Passions and emotions are the souls of sports! The only point to bear in mind is, in professional sports, the players and money matter more, whereas in amateur sports it’s the nation. The ugly spat shouldn’t have adverse effects on players while representing India.”
So as Kom now turns her attention to the Wuhan qualifiers from February 3-14, Zareen just wants to draw a line under the issue, ruling out an appeal, and concentrate on her future goals.
“Now she has defeated me, everyone is happy, which would not have been the case if she had gone directly without giving anyone else the opportunity to evaluate themselves against her. This is not the end for me. I can’t lose hope after this.
“I’ll have to prove that I am worth a place. After Mary Kom I am seen as the main contender right now, and I want to keep it that way”.