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Ireland's Taylor may be most popular athlete at London Olympics

LONDON -- Katie Taylor popped out of the tunnel and, suddenly, you couldn't hear your mother if she was standing in front of you with a bullhorn.

Looking for the most popular athlete at the Olympics? Any list has to include Taylor, an attractive, brown haired, dark eyed 26-year-old Irish woman who happens to be, pound-for-pound, the best women's boxer in the world. On Wednesday, Taylor cemented her place at the top, pummeling Tajikistan's Mavzuna Chorieva 17-9 to punch her ticket to the gold medal round.

When the decision was announced, the flag waving Irish crowd inside the ExCeL Centre was so rowdy you started to wonder whether there was anyone left in Ireland.

At 132 pounds, Taylor is virtually unbeatable. She is a five-time world champion, a four-time European champion with around 150-plus amateur fights. "All international fights, too," says her coach and father, Peter Taylor. "No club fights."

Taylor loves to fight. As a teenager, she would tuck her hair under her headgear and pretend to be a boy to sneak into a match or two. Even as her soccer career took off -- she has competed as a midfielder for the national team in UEFA and World Cup qualifying tournaments -- Taylor never stopped boxing. She won a European amateur championship at 18 and her first world title a year later. When women's boxing started to spread, Taylor entered tournaments all over the globe. If you had a medal, she was coming to get it.

Taylor is the ultimate competitor. When American Queen Underwood -- who Taylor narrowly beat in a back-and-forth fight at the 2010 World Championships -- failed to automatically qualify for the Olympics, Taylor publicly lobbied AIBA to give Underwood an at-large bid.

"That says a lot about her character," says USA Boxing coach Basheer Abdullah. "She's a true champion. When you look back at the great ones in boxing, the Ali's, they wanted to compete against the best. And that's the same mentality Katie Taylor has."

In London, Taylor, Ireland's flag-bearer at the Opening Ceremony, has mowed through the competition. On Monday, Great Britain's Natasha Jonas entered the ring with Taylor brimming with confidence after dispatching Underwood in the opening round. Taylor battered her, 26-15.

"I could have thrown the kitchen sink [at her], maybe drove a bus into her," Jonas said. "It didn't work. She's the best."

Chorieva didn't have much of a chance, either. Attacking early, Taylor backed Chorieva up with hard combinations; when Chorieva came in, Taylor used flawless footwork to sidestep most of the power shots, while connecting thudding counterpunches to Chorieva's padded head. When Chorieva started actively avoiding Taylor's right hand, Taylor picked her apart with stiff lefts.

"She is going to go down as one of the best boxers in history," Abdullah said. "Not just female boxers, the best boxers. She can do it all. She can box, she can fight, she is a true world champion."

On Thursday, Taylor will look to cap her storied career with a gold medal by beating Russia's Sofya Ochigava. It would be Ireland's second medal in London and its first gold since '96. Peter Taylor hopes his daughter quits boxing after this and goes back to soccer. "It's a little bit safer," Peter said. "She has sacrificed her life for boxing." Thousands of Irish fans will gather around specially erected screens in Taylor's seaside hometown of Bray to watch. The rest will probably be in the building.

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