Strandja Memorial Boxing: Nikhat Zareen, Nitu strike gold for India

Indian boxers Nikhat Zareen (52kg) and Neetu (48kg) clinched gold medals by registering comprehensive victories in their respective finals at the 73rd Strandja Memorial Tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria on Sunday.

Neetu defeated former Youth World Championship bronze medalist Erica Priciandaro of Italy 5-0. On the other hand, Zarin defeated Tatiana Kob of Ukraine, who is a three-time European Championships medalist.

While Neetu took full advantage of her long reach and tall frame to put up an amazing counter-attacking performance, Zareen engaged in a sizzling and tumultuous fight that involved trying to get something in the ring, getting caught and even trying to get away with it. There was also its fair share of some tumbling.

National women’s team coach Bhaskar Bhatt told PTI over phone, “Both displayed completely different styles but both performed well.

“Nikhat had to fight from close range the entire time and he did well to hit clear punches even though his opponent was not giving him clear shots,” he said.

Thus India finished the tournament with three medals this time, with Nandini (+81kg) being the third podium finisher with bronze.

Hyderabad’s Zareen, who is a multiple-time national medalist, also won a gold medal at the 2019 edition of Strandja Memorial. This time with another player, she became the first Indian boxer to win two gold medals in the tournament.

“You can call me the Queen of Strandja. I’m so happy right now,” laughed the 25-year-old enjoying the snowfall after her win.

“It’s the more special of the two because I beat an Olympic medalist (Turkey’s Bus Naz Kakiroglu, who won a silver medal at the Tokyo Games) in the semifinals. It’s an absolute confidence booster when the three major events (World Championships, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games) are ready.”

Neetu is a two-time former youth world champion and also a former gold medalist at the Asian Youth Championships.

The 21-year-old hails from Dhanana village in Bhiwani, the famous Indian boxing cradle of Haryana.

The youngster was introduced to boxing by his father, who had taken a three-year leave without pay from his state government job in his early days to help him get coaching.

Eventually he started working again in Chandigarh when he started doing well at the international level.

Bhatt said, “She works in the Haryana Secretariat and she had a huge role in shaping it. She is a very hardworking girl.”

India won two medals in the previous edition of the tournament with Deepak Kumar and Naveen Bura securing silver and bronze respectively.

The performance of the men’s team this time was very poor, with none of the seven able to enter the medal round.

In all, more than 450 boxers from 36 countries participated in the tournament, including traditional powerhouses such as Kazakhstan, Italy, Russia, France and Ukraine, where Russia launched a military campaign on Thursday despite global appeals for restraint.

The Strandja Memorial is one of the oldest boxing competitions in Europe and features high quality boxers from around the world.

India’s best ever performance in the prestigious tournament came in 2019, when world silver medalists Amit Panghal, Zareen and Meena Kumari Devi claimed gold medals for the country apart from one silver and three bronze medals.

In 2018, India came back with a high tally of medals – 11 in all – but the gold count was lower than in 2019.

That year the country won two gold, three silver and six bronze medals, with men contributing five.

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