Boxer Claressa Shields Advances to Gold Medal Round

Her teammate Marlen Esparza will take bronze in the flyweight division after losing her semifinal bout

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A gold medal is just a fight away for America's youngest Olympic boxer, Claressa Shields, who defeated her opponent from Kazakhstan Wednesday to the chants of "USA" echoing through London's Excel Center.

After getting pummeled in the corner during a shaky start, Shields advanced her lead over Marina Volnova and exited the ring with a 29-15 victory.

Now she's one step closer to winning the Olympic middleweight title and to pleasing an idol who offered her unexpected words of encouragement ahead of her bout.

"Your Jab is so solid use it more!" boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard tweeted at the 17-year-old. "Your Hook, wow (just like mine) win every round and bring home the Gold Claressa!!!!!!!!"

She replied to the message just hours before she was set to step into the ring. "Thanks!" she wrote. "Wow! Ur one of my idols."

Her coach echoed Leonard's message from the sidelines: "Your jab's your bread and butter!"

Shields will face off against Russia's Nadezda Torlopova for the gold medal Thursday. If she loses the fight she claims silver, which the U.S. boxing team would add to the bronze it already notched in the women's flyweight division.

Marlen Esparza, the Cover Girl model from Houston, secured the bronze by making it to the semifinal round. She lost her shot at the gold after losing to China's world champion, 10-8, in her final bout Wednesday. In women's Olympic boxing, losers of the two semifinal bouts take a bronze, while the winners compete for the gold.

Still, the bronze is not what she wanted.

"In the U.S., if it's not gold, it's not good enough," Esparza told The Associated Press ahead of her fight.

The final member of the USA women's boxing trio, Quanitta "Queen" Underwood, was eliminated after losing her first bout of the Games, 21-13, to the U.K.'s Natasha Jonas.

"I just wanted a medal," she said on NBC after the fight. "I know I had a tough draw from the beginning."

Her draw put her up against a world championship bronze medalist from Liverpool who had the deafening support of the sold-out Excel Center. If she had won the bout, she would have had to face off against the pound-for-pound world champion, Katie Taylor, who is on pace for a gold.

Ireland's champion lightweight took out Jonas 26-15 in the quarterfinals and easily won her semifinal bout 17-9 against Tajikistan's Mavzuna Chorieva to the chants and cheers of a Irish-heavy crowd. She fights for gold Thursday against Russia's Sofya Ochigava.

India's five-time world champion Mary Kom, who was expected to advance to the gold in the lightweight division, lost in a surprising bout Wednesday to Great Britain's Nicola Adams, 6-11. Adams will take on China's champion, Cancan Ren, for the gold.

The finals begin Thursday at 11 a.m. ET. All fights will be streamed live on NBC Olympics.

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