Esparza, Underwood, Shields reach finals

Flyweight Marlen Esparza, lightweight Queen Underwood and middleweight Claressa Shields advanced to the finals of the US Olympic women’s boxing team trials with victories in the winners’ bracket Thursday night.

Underwood won the most thrilling bout of the landmark tournament, weathering hundreds of punches from 19-year-old N’yteeyah Sherman before pulling out a 25-24 victory with a strong fourth round.

Esparza, a six-time national champion, meticulously stuck to her game plan in a 13-10 win over longtime rival Christina Cruz, while the 16-year-old Shields survived a physical fight from Tika Hemingway for a 23-15 win.

The three winners must win again Saturday in the double-elimination tournament to advance to the world championships in May. If they finish in the top eight in China, they’ll head to London for the first Olympic women’s boxing tournament.

The level of competition clearly rose on the fourth day of the first US women’s trials, with the nation’s best amateur boxers fighting for prime position or to avoid elimination.

”This tournament does take a toll on your body, but I’m experienced, and getting better and better,” said Underwood, the five-time national champion.

Underwood and Sherman were in a brawl from the opening bell, with the 6-foot Sherman throwing wide-angled punches as Underwood replied with more powerful shots. Underwood knocked out Sherman’s mouthpiece in the first round, but Sherman replied with a vicious combination after the break.

Although Sherman is an impressive volume puncher whose major height advantage invites comparison to Paul Williams fighting at 147 pounds, Underwood was stunned only once by a shot near the end of the first round. Underwood blocked many punches and ducked around others while connecting on the inside.

With neither fighter completely certain who was ahead, the bout culminated with relentless action exchanges in the fourth round. Underwood sighed in dismay when her cornermen told her she trailed by a point, but responded with a tenacious round that kept her on track for China.

When the announcer read the verdict, Sherman yanked her wrist away from the referee and shook her head vigorously.

”There’s things I can review and improve for the Saturday competition,” Underwood said. ”I’m sure we’ll fight again.”

Sherman, a Barberton, Ohio, boxer and a straight-A student at Kent State, could earn a rematch with Underwood on Friday by beating Mikaela Mayer, who eliminated Tiara Brown with a 23-18 victory.

Shields earned her third straight victory and moved to the brink of an impressive title, but the teenage slugger was left sullen and sulking after the fight, disappointed in the judging and refereeing — and possibly rattled by Hemingway’s physical game plan.

Although she claimed Hemingway hadn’t been inside her head, Shields repeatedly had to be reminded by her coach, Jason Crutchfield, that she had just moved one step away from a trip to China.

”I don’t know what they’re talking about, 23,” Shields said, referring to her score. ”I never scored 23 in my life. She gave me a hard fight, (but) I wanted to stop her. … And she kept head-butting me, and the ref didn’t say nothing.”

Shields came out much more cautiously than in her first two fights, when she aggressively tore through two elite opponents. Hemingway cagily tied up the teenager inside and eventually angered Shields, who returned to her usual ferocious game plan in the third round.

The referee had to separate the fighters after the third-round bell, and he cautioned them against trash talk before the fourth.

Hemingway’s next bout is against San Francisco’s Raquel Miller, who eliminated five-time national champion Franchon Crews 26-15 in the final fight of the night.

While Underwood and Shields won emotional fights, Esparza was clinical in her dissection of a longtime rival. Esparza was more aggressive from the opening round, frequently engaging Cruz and then ducking away before Cruz could counterpunch.

Esparza also largely stuck to her plan to keep her left hand up near her head, negating Cruz’s dangerous straight right.

”She throws the same thing over and over, the right hand and the left hook,” Esparza said. ”It’s really basic. I think this was the first time she ever threw an uppercut, right now.”

After three rounds in which few of Cruz’s punches landed, the Manhattan native picked up her attack in the fourth round, but Esparza’s impressive conditioning usually kept her out of trouble.

Cruz is still in the tournament, and will have a rematch Friday night with Tyrieshia Douglas, who eliminated Virginia Fuchs 31-19.

”I love that win, and I could win a million times against her and it would never get old, because she’s my only loss,” Esparza said. ”You can’t change your past, but it feels good making a statement over and over. That’s always the best for me when I beat her, because she took a lot out of me when she beat me.”