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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Six-time champ Esparza comes through

Queen Underwood, left, glances Mikaela Mayer in a lightweight semifinal on Tuesday. Underwood won 27-20. (Kathy Plonka)

If Marlen Esparza didn’t fully grasp before that she wears a big target, she did Tuesday night.

The six-time national champion won her first actual bout at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Women’s Boxing, and decisively. But she did it in retreat, as a heavy underdog with just a couple of steady years of boxing behind her forced the issue for all four rounds.

If Esparza expected more of a chess match, what she got from Alex Love was “more throw-and-hope-your-instincts-tell-you-to-do-the-right-thing fight,” she said.

The chess match comes next.

Esparza’s 22-12 decision over the former basketball guard from Monroe, Wash., led off the second night of the week-long trials at Northern Quest Casino – a night that included a little bit of everything.

Top-seeded lightweight Queen Underwood had to rally from behind with a blistering second round to top Mikaela Mayer and set up a Thursday showdown with teenager N’yteeyah Sherman – a willowy 6-footer who used every inch to keep No. 2 seed Tiara Brown at bay in the other championship bracket semifinal.

And another teen, unseeded 16-year-old Claressa Shields, continued her march through the middleweight division with a 31-12 wipeout of Andrecia Wasson.

The next boxer who’ll try to solve Shields is No. 2 seed Tika Hemingway, who outlasted another former collegiate hoopster, Tiffanie Hearn, 19-15.

But the contrasts were most apparent in the 112-pound flyweight division, where Esparza’s win was followed by a predictable performance by No. 3 seed Christina Cruz of New York, whose straight right hand and elusive running frustrated second-seeded Tyrieshia Douglas.

Esparza’s first-round win was a walk-over after Cynthia Moreno withdrew because of injury. So she admitted to feeling rusty when Love just kept coming and coming – and she acknowledged that she senses the extra pressure as a trials favorite.

“I know these girls – I’ve been doing this longer than any of them,” said Esparza, a Houston resident who took up the sport in 2002. “The only other (flyweight) who’s been doing it longer is the one who dropped out. Tyrieshia Douglas took two years off. Alex Love didn’t start until like two or three years ago. Christina didn’t start boxing until 22. I’m 22 now.

“I gave up everything. I’ve been doing it the longest. And I feel like I have more on the line than the majority of these girls.”

With all that experience, she’s confident she knows different ways to get it done. Her opponent Thursday night seems to know one way.

Cruz is both fluid and patient, and when Douglas lost composure a bit in the final round – she led 10-9 after three – the New Yorker popped her time and again with right-hand leads and counters to pull out a 20-15 win.

“She was a sucker for the right hand,” Cruz agreed. “That’s how I fight – I try to counter, or counter the counter. Timing is one thing that I’m good at.”

Watching from the wings, Esparza found some amusement in the spectacle.

“Christina does the same thing over and over and you’d think Tyrieshia would figure it out,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong – it looks easier when you’re on the outside. But you can go watch (Cruz) fight and it’s always the same thing: it’s 1-2 or a right hand and she runs half the ring, every time.”

Esparza had been similarly frustrated her first two cracks at Cruz, but the last time the two met she was more patient and punched out a decision.

So Esparza said she would “watch the straight right and let everything come out after that. Don’t try to be first. She doesn’t know what to do without her right hand.”

Noted Cruz, “When I have beaten her, she has come forward at me; when she beat me, she used her movement.

“It’s probably going to be more like a chess match.”

It’ll also be notable in that the Olympic decision to stage just three weights forced Esparza to move up from the 106-pound class to compete, while Cruz moved down from 119.

One of the night’s better fights was Sherman’s win over Brown – but it was one of the bitter fights, too, as Brown disputed the judges’ decision (“I don’t think she was turning her punches over, so I don’t think a lot of them should have been counted”) and insisted being dropped into the challenger’s bracket will only be further motivation.

“I’m tired of being pushed to the back,” Brown said.

“They already know who they want to win – their ‘Queen of the ring.’ But I’m here to tell them that’s not how it’s going to go down. I’m going to make them remember me.”