Queen Underwood and Marlen Esparza could only chuckle and cheer for their irrepressible 16-year-old teammate. All three fighters made a bit of history Saturday night, and they’re on a path toward even bigger landmarks in London.
“They’re going to have to say Claressa Shields, No. 1,” said Shields, the breakout star of the trials after charging through the middleweight division.
Esparza captured the flyweight title with a 32-17 victory over Tyrieshia Douglas, and Underwood beat Mikaela Mayer 22-19 to win the lightweight division. Shields ended the trials with a 23-18 victory over Tika Hemingway at the Pend Oreille Pavilion in the Northern Quest resort-casino just outside Spokane.
“I’ve been waiting for this day forever,” Esparza said. “This is where all that hard work pays off.”
While Esparza and Underwood posted decisive victories, Shields sweated through a difficult bout after powering past her first three opponents in the first U.S. team trials since women’s boxing was added to the Olympic program nearly three years ago.
The three Americans still must finish in the top eight in their weight classes at the world championships in China in May to earn a spot in the first Olympic women’s boxing tournament. The winners weren’t thinking that far ahead while they posed for the first of innumerable photo sessions and public events over the next three months — along with plenty of training together in Colorado Springs.
“It hurts. I’m happy. All in one,” Underwood said. “I’ve been national champion since 2007 and waiting for this opportunity, and it’s finally here, and it’s over at once, but it feels great.”
The 27-year-old Underwood finished the tournament with her best performance, a fitting cap to a resilient week for the best-known American boxer. Underwood is a five-time national champion who put her life on hold to pursue her sport, working construction to pay bills during periods when she wasn’t immersed in 12-hour training sessions.
The sellout crowd was behind the Seattle native, stomping on the floor and chanting “Queen! Queen! Queen!” while Underwood took apart Mayer with brutally effective shots from all angles. The final margin was smaller than expected, but Underwood had little doubt, raising one finger in anticipation of the verdict.
Even with extensive international experience, Underwood acknowledged a huge case of jitters all week. Dozens of family and friends traveled across the state from Seattle and Underwood worried she had let them down on Thursday before she barely escaped with a 25-24 win over 19-year-old N’yteeyah Sherman.
“I don’t believe in losing,” Underwood said. “I don’t want to lose, ever. I knew I had the opportunity to come back tomorrow if things didn’t go right, but that wasn’t in my rulebook. My rulebook is coming out with a win all days. I came here planning to have four fights, and I fought exactly the way I thought.”
Shields beat Hemingway on Thursday night in a bout that left both boxers complaining about the score. Hemingway started furiously in their rematch, stalking Shields into the corners to unload long barrages of punches.
Shields fought back with equal vigor, but Hemingway twice knocked out Shields’ mouthpiece, forcing the referee to take a point from Shields in the second round. Hemingway backed Shields against the ropes for a long stretch of the fourth round, mauling and shoving amid the punches — but Shields patiently waited for openings for her ferocious counterpunches, scoring enough points to win.
“I feel like I did way better the first fight,” Shields said. “I still got tired, letting her wrestle me, but it felt good when it was over.”
Esparza is a 22-year-old from Houston with six national championships in two weight classes. She moved up in weight two years ago to meet the 112-pound Olympic flyweight standard, but the change hasn’t stopped her relentless roll toward London.
Thanks to an opening-round walkover, the top-seeded Esparza had to fight just three times to win the trials, while the title bout was the second-seeded Douglas’ sixth fight in six days.
Esparza stuck to a meticulous game plan, allowing the aggressive Douglas to tire in each round before picking apart her defense with well-timed shots. Esparza, who fights with an American flag do-rag underneath her headgear, raised one glove in victory after the final bell.
“She tries to knock you out or something in the first part of every round,” Esparza said. “She really does scare me, because she’s intimidating and she looks fearless, but I’ve watched her over and over, and the first 30 seconds of every round are like the best 30 seconds of your life, but she gets tired.”