LONDON: Katie Taylor will fight for a gold medal Thursday in front an adoring crowd that's ready to hail the coronation of Ireland's sublimely talented boxer.
And her opponent, Sofya Ochigava, feels like she has already lost.
Ochigava and Taylor will meet Thursday in the in the lightweight final, one of three bouts to wrap up the first Olympic women's boxing tournament. US middleweight Claressa Shields fights for a gold medal against Russia's Nadezda Torlopova, and Chinese flyweight Ren Cancan meets Britain's Nicola Adams.
The five-day event has been a smash among fans and even across the Olympics, with the boxers reporting widespread attention from fellow athletes intrigued by both their novelty and skill. Ochigava isn't enjoying it quite as much, because she knows what's waiting for her at ExCel.
Taylor's biggest rival believes the Irish boxer gets much more help than she needs from referees, judges and even the highest levels of the amateur sport. That adoring crowd cheering her every move has an effect on the judges as well, Ochigava believes.
"When you go in to box against her, you begin with minus-10 points," Ochigava said in English.
Taylor is the unofficial best pound-for-pound fighter of the women's sport after winning four straight world championships with an entertaining style. Her two bouts in London have been blowout wins backed by an arena filled with thousands of rowdy, flag-waving Irish fans roaring at her every move.
But Ochigava is fed up with losing to Taylor in international competitions, most recently in the world championships in May. She knows the Irish crowd is a major advantage for Taylor in London, but thinks Taylor has plenty of advantages already.
"It's difficult," Ochigava said. "When you go boxing against Katie Taylor, you're not boxing with her. You're boxing with all judges around the table, and it's difficult boxing against all the system, but I will try like all other girls."
Taylor's crowd-pleasing style is tough to top, but Shields might be able to do it someday soon. The newest American boxing sensation is a cocky teenager with heavy hands, fleet feet and a serious mean streak — and just like Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier and Oscar De La Hoya before her, Shields is about to fight for a gold medal.
The 17-year-old middleweight dominated Kazakhstan's Marina Volnova in the semifinals Wednesday. After pounding away at the slower Volnova for most of the 29-15 fight, Shields pounded her taped right fist against her own left shoulder and screamed with joy.
The London crowd loved Shields' combination of charisma, skill and strength — a familiar formula for so many U.S. Olympic boxers over the years, but not lately.
"I'm still kind of shocked," Shields said. "I'm thinking in my head, 'Is it really true? Am I fighting for a gold medal tomorrow?'"
Shields is the last American boxer left in London after flyweight Marlen Esparza lost 10-8 to Ren an hour earlier, and she could give USA Boxing a much-needed boost. The ebullient teenager from Flint, Mich., is one of the sport's fastest-rising stars.
Less than two years after emerging on the American amateur scene, she won her second bout in three days with punishing right hands and relentless aggression, forcing Volnova to take a standing-eight count in each of the last two rounds after she was stunned by vicious combinations.
Shields laughed with joy at the verdict and raised both arms sky-high as she walked to the tunnel after beating up an opponent that wasn't much trouble for her, just as she predicted Monday.
"I was able to put my combinations together, land a lot of clean shots, punch straight," Shields said. "I took the best of her shots and made her miss a lot. I did what I wanted to do with her."
While Shields punched holes in Volnova's defense, Esparza found Ren impenetrable.
Ren's cautious defensive style in her win over the livelier Esparza got the U.S. off to an inauspicious start. The crowd finally got into it when Adams beat Mary Kom of India 11-6, and the ExCel arena turned raucous for Taylor, the Irish world titleholder and pound-for-pound champion of the women's sport.
Taylor didn't disappoint, dominating Tajikistan's impressive teenager, Mavzuna Chorieva. But Taylor didn't impress Ochigava, her longtime nemesis and gold-medal opponent, who said fighters "begin with minus-10 points" against the wildly popular Irish star.
Esparza gamely tried to force Ren into a fight, but the Chinese champion sat back dispassionately and threw counterpunches that scored just enough points to win. Ren's rigid strategy and Esparza's attempts to wait her out earned warnings for both fighters in each of the first three rounds for not throwing enough punches.
Esparza broke down in the fighters' tunnel after the bout, but soon turned her analytical skills on the only opponent who has ever beaten her in two straight meetings.
"It's as boring to me as it is to you," Esparza said. "Everybody can't stand it, but it works. ... I thought I did everything I could do. We knew she wasn't going to commit — ever — so the game plan was just to not go forward. When I did go forward, that was when I got caught."
Esparza, the 23-year-old veteran, insists she'll follow through on her plan to retire from boxing and go to college, even though she would still be younger than many of the world's current top amateurs when the Rio Games roll around in 2016.
"My body is falling apart already," she said with a grin. "I'm in sports medicine four hours a day."