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Claressa Shields just one victory away from Olympic boxing gold

LONDON -- Three thoughts from Wednesday's women's boxing semifinals:

1. The dominance of Claressa Shields. In a dismal year for USA Boxing, the emergence of Shields -- a 17-year-old from Flint, Mich. -- has given everyone in the program something to smile about.

After chopping down 6-foot-1 Swedish middleweight Anna Laurell in the quarterfinals, Shields demolished Marina Volnova in the semis, overwhelming the Kazakh with a barrage of straight jabs and power shots. Shields picked up a standing eight count on Volnova in the second round and another in the third, her blurring speed just too much for Volnova to contend with.

After looking a little wild against Laurell, Shields spent Tuesday night working with her personal coach, Jason Crutchfield, and looked much sharper against an opponent more her size. She had a little extra motivation, too: According to Crutchfield, Sugar Ray Leonard sent Shields a message on Facebook, telling her to work her jab and stay focused.

Finally: On Tuesday I awoke to a series of Twitter direct messages from Shields, who took issue with my comparing her to Rocky Balboa in a recent column. "When I throw short, crisp punches in my next fight, I'd like to be called Sugar Ray Robinson," Shields said. She said it, then she backed it up: Wednesday's performance was one that a cagey warrior like Robinson have would be proud of.

Shields will face Nadeza Torlopova for the gold medal on Thursday.

2. The end comes for Marlen Esparza. Coming in, Esparza knew she was in for a tough semifinals matchup with China's Ren Cancan. At the World Championships in May, Esparza dropped a 16-8 decision to Ren. This fight was much closer.

Giving up three inches to the 5-foot-6 Ren, Esparza fought cautiously, picking her spots, tactically avoiding a firefight. Neither fighter connected on much -- neither threw much, either, prompting the referee to twice warn them to stop standing around -- but the experienced Ren appeared to land cleaner counterpunches off the clenches. She also scored well the few times Esparza came forward, enough to seal a narrow 10-8 decision.

Esparza will go home with a medal -- the third and fourth place fighters both get a bronze -- but was visibly shaken by the loss. "I should have put my brakes on but she was frustrating," Esparza said. "I can't be angry about getting any medal at all, but [bronze] wasn't my goal."

The 5-foot-3 Esparza, who had to bulk up just to reach the 112-pound minimum, is one of many fighters who could have benefited from a few more weight classes.

3. Katie Taylor, rock star. If you have not been to a Taylor fight, you're missing out. Ireland's Taylor is wildly popular with the largely heavy drinking, wildly screaming pro-Irish crowd and brings a hard-hitting style to back it up. Taylor dismantled Tajikistan's Mavzuna Chorieva in the lightweight semifinals, much to the delight of the thousands of Irish fans in the audience who chanted her name and waved hundreds of Irish flags throughout.

Taylor, who will face Russia's Sofya Ochigava in a rematch of the 2012 World Championships for the gold medal on Thursday, is considered by many the best women's boxer, pound-for-pound, in the sport.

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