The prospect of writing the introduction to a feature, with a subject as compelling as Jamel Herring could initially appear quite daunting. The glaring go-to technique would be to roll out a prolonged hyperbolic prose, praising the US pugilist. That, however, wouldn’t offer the same, insightful snapshot that is rather efficiently documented by his own pinned Tweet, which reads “Went to war overseas, lost a child, suffered from PTSD, clinical depression and a parent of autistic children. An opponent across the ring is the least of my worries. Boxing is therapeutic.”
Despite offering insight, it doesn’t encapsulate the full extent of his incredible story. A tale of agony and ecstasy that started when he enlisted in the US Marine Corps in October 2003. Herring served 2 tours of duty in Iraq and worked his way to the exalted rank of sergeant. He balanced his duties with training as a boxer and took a gold medal at the 2011 and 2012, armed forces championship. He also won a gold at the 2012 Olympic trials and went on to captain a US squad that boasted precocious talents such as Errol Spence, Jo Jo Diaz, Rau’Shee Warren, Jose Ramirez, Marcus Browne, and Claressa Shields.
The games may not have yielded the success (in terms of medals) that such a team had the potential to achieve, but those fighters are now, retrospectively showing their prowess on the world scene with no fewer than five current world champions and a host of former world champions and title challengers from that 2012 talent pool.
Herring recalls the fond memories he had from the occasion. “We loved it, we actually had a great time over there, especially for me being from New York, London just reminded me so much of New York, so I felt at home.
“The warm welcome we received meant a lot.” On captaining the talented group, he added. “We definitely had a talented group of individuals, especially the likes of Errol Spence, Marcus Browne, Rau’Shee Warren being a three-time Olympian, females like Claressa Shields, Marlen Esparza. Like I say guys like Jo Jo Diaz and Jose Ramirez being number one, if you look at it now, we’re doing pretty, pretty well as professionals, we just didn’t get the recognition then, but we don’t complain about it, we’re getting our credit now.”
Of course, Herring himself is a current world champion, holding the WBO super featherweight title and is expecting a showdown with former featherweight world champion Carl Frampton, with Windsor Park mooted as the venue to host the exciting match-up.
A proposal welcomed by the current champ who would be surrendering home advantage to the Belfast man. He declared. “Who wouldn’t want to say that they headlined into a stadium if possible and you know, I jumped at the opportunity because you see a lot of these champions, they’re still fighting in smaller venues, even, in the states, but here I am having the opportunity to fight in a football stadium, so I’m all for it, if I can get 20,000 people in one venue, I’m happy, even if most of the attendance is pulling for Frampton of course, but just to be part of history is a big deal for me.”
It would be a huge occasion for both fighters and whilst there is an obvious respect between the two, Herring believes that their similar age dynamic doesn’t quite tell the whole story. The former Marine lays claim to be the ‘fresher’ fighter of the pair. He said. “Even though I’m slightly older than Carl, I don’t have as much wear and tear because, you know Carl’s been in a lot of battles, even the Irish fans are putting out there, you know Carl’s been in a lot of battles, there’s been a lot of wear and tear on his body over the years and here I am basically still fresh on the world title scene, whereas Carl, he’s been here numerous times, he has the experience but at the same time, we’ve all seen he’s contemplated retiring because of all of the hard battles he’s taken over the years.”
Jamel Herring only turned professional at the age of 27, which explains his relative freshness, a notion solidified by the fact that he has moved down in weight through his career. Most ‘ageing’ boxers move up in weight as a result of the strenuous cycle of cutting weight.
As always, the political landscape in boxing precludes unification fights from taking place straightforwardly, which meant that a bout with Ireland’s Frampton was always Herring’s preferred option. Admitting that a fight with another belt holder was near impossible, he said. “If you look around the super featherweight landscape, I’ve seen that, you know, I’ve seen and heard that Valdez and Berchelt, they came to a roadblock and I believe that’s because of money and other issues, but as far as me and Carl, we wanted this fight before Carl even got into the ring against McCreary in his last fight, we’ve basically been trying to promote and push for this fight and here we are now and he’s basically the only guy who’s stepped up and is willing to face me".
"As you see in the past I couldn’t get Valdez or Berchelt in the ring but Carl Frampton is a true gentleman and is willing to step in the ring with me, that’s part of the reason why I have no issue going over to Windsor Park in Belfast.”
The WBO champion’s willingness to take on big fights away from home will come as little surprise to those who are acutely aware of the ‘thick skin’ he has developed, a quality he believes is a necessity when you’re at the top of your game. A quality that owes much to his experiences as a US Marine. He told me. “I think my experiences as a Marine alone have made me tougher in terms of mentally, you know like especially when you’re on top, the level I’m at now as a world champion, you’ve gotta have a thick skin.
“I get people that still criticise me, but you never see me get outta character, you may see me correct people on social media but I never get ugly where I’m trying to bully somebody or take things to heart. You gotta have thick skin and focus on what’s important.”
Plenty of boxers who have understandably become disenchanted with social media as a result of the faceless criticism and trolling from certain areas would do well to learn from his pragmatic and measured approach.
It’s only when you assemble and document the super featherweight’s lifetime achievements that you realise and appreciate that Jamel Herring has faced and overcome adversity time and time again. Continuing to box throughout his military career, turning professional later than most, losing twice in his pro career, only to persistently climb the seemingly insurmountable title tree as he did, culminating in a victory over Masayuki Ito to claim the WBO title.
As well as professional obstacles, personal tragedy has also required a real display of strength of character as he withstood the horrific experiences of war and the terrible loss of his daughter Ariyanah due to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). He offered his own mechanisms on how he managed to cope with adversity.
“All I would say is, never give up, I’ve been counted out plenty of times, especially with the losses alone and the setbacks. If something is not working, it takes a lot for a person to get up and make a change ’cos a lot of people either quit or stay where they’re at because they don’t want to be out of their comfort zone, but me, I had to make a change within my career, within my team, my promoter and from there I’ve been at my lowest, the only way to go was up and here I am now, I’m humble and grateful because basically, I’m one of the best junior lightweights in the world and I get the opportunity now to fight in one of the most anticipated fights of the year. That tells you a lot of who I am as a man, and where I’ve come from.
One of the reasons Herring is so confident in his ability and sees plenty of longevity in the sport is his discipline and resistance to the superstar lifestyle that many boxers seem to succumb to. You don’t have to look too far to see evidence of party-goers and fighters who fluctuate massively in weight in between bouts.
The man nicknamed ‘Semper Fi’ (the motto of the US Marine Corps which translates as Latin for always loyal or always faithful) lives the life, shirks the party scene and is an extremely young and fresh 34-year-old.
“I’m proof that I’m getting older, but I actually went down a weight class and I stayed strong. It’s all about fitness and taking care of your body, you never see me out here partying and doing crazy stuff in my off time, I just spend my time at home, healing up with my family and things of that nature.
“Even with my fight with Lamont Roach, he had literally ten years younger than me, but there were times I had to keep pushing and pressing him and my output was greater in terms of punches thrown and landed so it’s all about how you take care of yourself.”
With the conversation moving towards his stature as a former sergeant, US Olympic captain and all-around influence as a positive role model, Herring-a self-confessed boxing historian-took the opportunity to express his love for the underdog, citing ‘Winky Wright’ and Britain’s own Joe Calzaghe (among others) as people who influenced him. He said.
“For a long time, Winky Wright wasn’t given the opportunity to get in the door, before he fought Shane Mosley I think he had a loss on his record, I think he lost to Fernando Vargas, I think he had two losses but once he broke through, even as a world champion, he was still having a hard time getting fights.”
Speaking about Calzaghe he added. “I was watching the other night Joe Calzaghe fights. I look at everything from every great champion, it doesn’t matter if they’re my countrymen or not, if they’re a great champion, why not pick up and study from the greats and add it to your arsenal?”
In reference to Calzaghe’s bout with American Jeff Lacy he also added. “He was injured in that fight but you know, they kept slandering Joe so much, thinking he wasn’t a real champion because he stayed at home for the majority of his career at that time and no one over here in the states, they never really heard of Calzaghe, so they just figured Lacy was just gonna go over there and run right through him, it was the opposite.
“Even though Lacy was a fellow Olympian, I took what Joe did and put that in my arsenal in terms of the mental aspect.”
Something else that Herring has apparently added to his arsenal or rather repertoire, is acting. A man who could plausibly expect his life to be portrayed on the big screen himself when asked modestly confessed to an encounter with Steven Spielberg on the set of ‘West Side Story’.
“I went for a small role, just to get my feet wet and I had a great time and it happened to be a boxing gym so I was right in my element, so there was not much I had to like, pick up on, but they loved it, they loved my energy, my presence and I actually sat down with Steven a little bit on set, it was a good time and a real learning experience.”
Aside from an already remarkable career that threatens to become even more successful, Jamel Herring has likeability and an affinity that people can’t help but want to subscribe to. In a sport that has its fair share of arrogance and self-importance in abundance, he manages to retain a single-mindedness and confidence which is underpinned by respect, rather than a loathing contempt for others. The essence of that can be found in a quote he gave me whilst summarising his impending clash with Frampton. He said. “I just hope that in the end, me and Carl come out of the fight unharmed because, you know, at the end of the day we just want to go home in one piece to our families and be able to fight another day.”