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Jamel Herring: ‘I’m stronger, I’m bigger and I know when to bite down and fight’

Jamel Herring’s story is so outré, so replete with the timeless Hellenistic (for those of culture)/Hollywood (for those without) dramas of tragedy, redemption, struggle, triumph and conquering that any conversation with the WBO featherweight world champion cannot help but attend to and be lit by the solemnity of its weighty backdrop. The story is so potent that Herring shall always be the inextricable icon of it, and in (perhaps) breaking with my editorial instincts, and indeed the industry’s outward code of ethics, or the omerta that exists between journalists toward sensitivities such as this, it is beholden unto me to suggest that the story has been covered in such rich detail, by so many distinguished, and indeed undistinguished pens, that any spectacular new angle on it remains improbable, if not impossible.

Not to diminish this piece, however, in readers’ minds, especially not at the outset, I deign to offer a fresh perspective on Herring as he is today, informed and moulded by these experiences, though not in obvious conversation on them. I accept that they inspire and influence the man, that in talking to him on any other topic, he will unwaveringly answer through a psychological and cognitive prism contoured and shaped by them – so in many ways render each conversation with him as one of their thematic continuity, and thus this conversation merely as a further extension of the form. But this is a conversation where Herring’s contemporary digressions, divagations, and discursions are celebrated on merit with the more remarkable themes that he is familiarly known. Enjoy.

Only the other day, my recently divorced and now actively dating brother was expounding on his perfected first date routine. Between the many outpourings of new age nonsense, the cod psychology, the warped ‘bro’ humour, the deluded bravado, and such soundbites as ‘You must act as a crucible for their sensitivity and their capacity for love’, he happened upon something demonstratively useful and concrete: The opening salvos, in both location and conversation, should be as reassuring and non-threatening as possible. They are neither the place for physical affection nor for advancing through the gears of courtship; no, they exist in preparation. Here, you are simply lowering the initial anxiety of your companion. You feed them familiarity and security, leaving clear and prominent psychic guideposts which all lead unmistakably to the conclusion that you are friend (in the non-malignant sense of the word, rather than anything which could position you forgetfully within the friend zone) not foe, gallant not discourteous, and to be trusted, rather than rakish and dishonest. It was with these rules of amour still rattling at the forefront of my reflections, that I lead Jamel, gently, with the welcoming alley-oop of ‘How is training going?’

‘Training camp has been going great, going to plan. This is actually the first time in a long time that I’ve had a training camp without any postponements or delays. I’m flying and I’m happy for that. I’m actually close to my fight weight right now [fight night is over a week away], so my strength and conditioning coach has even instructed me to eat a little bit more now. I’ve been losing weight too fast. But I look slim, I’m slimming down.’

The reason Jamel is in the cycle of training and slimming is because he will be defending his super featherweight world title against Shakur Stevenson, in Atlanta, on Saturday 23rd October, a fight which lends itself to categorisation within many of the archetypal narratives, the most prominent of which, however, is of a brash, bold, trash-talking younger man attempting to take the place of an experienced, popular, decorous champion, who at 11 years the younger man’s senior still believes that he has the talent and experience to prevail. ‘It’s Rocky V!’ is the sort of thing you’d hope to swerve but be unable to avoid hearing Steve Bunce say. These narratives put to Jamel, who received them in the good nature that they were intended, were accompanied by the query – a personal wonderment – which was as fight night approaches, and thus each fighter’s focus shifts in heightened acumination, how does he envisage this particular fight developing and concluding:

‘I always expect a tough fight, wherever I am, but especially against a guy like Shakur. You know, he is young and hungry and wants to prove himself, but I just believe in myself, and I have a great team behind me. I just plan on taking one round at a time… but every fight is different. And me and my team approach every fight with a different plan. We know that Shakur is great at defence, so we need to create openings for shots. You know, if you sit back, he’s gonna pick you apart all day, so sometimes you’ve gotta make fighters uncomfortable and you have to make them fight when they do not want to fight. And that is how I look at this one.’

Herring and Stevenson facing off before their October 23rd clash

Warming to each other, with all early indications of uncertainty dissipating, I reach for one final opening token of geniality, and return Jamel to the familiarity of his last success, our last acquaintance with him, his 6 round KO victory over Carl Frampton in Dubai, earlier this year. Such was the dominance of that victory, the complete outclassing of a former-champion opponent, that I ask Jamel whether the reality of accomplishing this win was easier than he had been expected:

‘It definitely was. I was actually expecting a long, gruelling 12 rounds, just because of Carl’s strength and his determination. With Carl, we knew we had to use the distance and spacing – keep him on the outside until we softened him up.

‘I wasn’t so much thinking of fighting, even, but more on using my reach, as we knew that Carl would have to get on the inside to let his hands go, but when he did get on the inside we had a plan for that also, and it cost him. So we had a plan for everything which we thought Carl Frampton would do. And I have watched a lot of Carl Frampton and I saw that he needed to get close to let off that famous left hook to the body, which is why you see me with my right elbow firmly tucked in by my side, because I knew that that hook was gonna come. But the moment that I felt that punch, I had to shoot the uppercut. Boom, boom. It ended just like that.

‘Also, by the time the [Frampton] fight came around I had prepared differently. I had had a chance to rest during the pandemic and after getting Covid. With all the postponements in moving the venue to Dubai from London, with Carl injuring his hand, I got a chance to rest. My team knew what to do in terms of preparation, so that by then [by the time they fought] my body was fully healed, and I put on one of the best performances of my career.’

Herring defeated Carl Frampton in April 2021 to retain the WBO super featherweight title

Grigg Junior’s seduction toolbox also extends to conversation manipulation, to subliminal cues and games and the kind of calculated philological gamesmanship that emplaces one in a position of control and subtle dominance and guides the other to the coaxed arrival at any preconceived conclusion. An essential composite facet of this method is ensuring that the subject spends significant time talking about themselves, an easy dynamic to establish during an interview, given it is the expected standard and thus requires no contrivance. Not wishing to influence Jamel’s answer, rather, but looking to encourage his comfort in discussing his own life, and approaching a continuation on the themes of armed combat and disarmed pugilism, but cojoining them and looking to examine them collectively within a psychoanalytical context, the pertinencies remained:why would someone purposefully choose to situate themselves in harm’s way and what do they consider inherent within their psyches which keeps ongoingly driving them towards such evidently perilous endeavours?

‘Firstly, it is for the love of the sport. I always say when you do not love something anymore then that is the time for you to walk away because then you are just going through the motions. For me, I always think about my past and where I came from to where I am now. That is why I am the same Jamel Herring that I was 10 to 15 years ago, just a down to earth guy and grateful.

‘I’ve been to Iraq twice; I’ve served with men and women who suffered depression as I did in the past and they are not here anymore. They, they, they couldn’t take it anymore and they lost their lives and gave up, period. I always look back at that and think I could have been stuck in that rut, but I chose to continue fighting and pushing. That is why even now I do not get too big headed. I don’t get big headed at all. I’m very grateful.

‘Boxing is a sport where when you lose and you fall off, no one wants to bother or speak to you, really. That’s why I always give respect to everyone who takes time to sit and speak to me. Otherwise, I could be off somewhere else and my name would be floating in the wind. I’m just enjoying every day and moment while I’m here, especially as a world champion. I’m just happy and I’m in a good space right now.’

One manifest overlap between the facilitation of a competent date and that of the interview process is that one must be a custodian of energy. Forget being a crucible for one’s capacity to love, rather, in both instances, one must instead have the capability to hold and manage mood. The accepted wisdom to achieve this, in each case, is to foster an environment which is both open and receptive; however, whilst in the dating arena, energy over an evening must be held taut and brought to a rapturous crescendo – once one increases the pace it should never revert and become either slackened or diminished – in the boxing media milieu, energy exists on a comparatively uniform plane, with the controlled means to achieve this unwavering regularity being to not broach any subject matter which is controversial or contentious, or in any way open to dispute or individualised thinking. It was therefore in contrast to this rationale, and not without risk, that, aware of the fact that Jamel has endured the Covid virus twice, and backdropped by the ongoing anti-vaxx sentiment and vaccine hesitancy amongst athletes (indeed, at the time of writing only 49% of Premier League footballers had been fully vaccinated, and Kyrie Irving, point guard for the New York Nets, was not expected to start the regular NBA season, deemed ineligible to do so for refusing at least one dose of the requisite two, required for one to be categorised as fully Covid vaccinated), I solicited his overall views regarding vaccination, whether, as a world-class athlete he himself had been vaccinated; and, if so, whether he had suffered any adverse effects as a result.

‘I was supposed to fight [Jonathan] Oquendo in July. I started training camp in April but then I caught Covid and Covid had such an effect of me that I didn’t even know if I was gonna fight again. After that fight, I thought I wasn’t even gonna box no more. Nothing was the same. My body wasn’t taking punches the way I usually take punches. My stamina… you know, everybody who knows me knows that I’m a workhorse, but my conditioning wasn’t the greatest and it just took a toll on me.

‘I’ve been vaccinated because I do not want any more delays or postponements. I understand people’s stance on not wanting to get it. I respect that, respect everyone’s decision, especially as it is what they are gonna do with their body, but for me it wasn’t a good thing when I caught Covid and I don’t ever want to potentially go through that again, especially at this stage of my career. I do not want any more setbacks. I did what was right for me, at least.’

Herring retained his WBO title in September 2020 against Jonathan Oquendo, the challenger disqualified in round 8 for repeated illegal use of the head

Comfortable with the shift in tenor and ambience, our discussion digresses towards the potency of a perhaps more personalised threat: CTE. Jamel has spoken with great eloquence on the effects he experienced following the Lamont Roach fight. He has discussed the alterations in approach he has taken toward both recovery and preparation; still, in a sport as physically traumatic as boxing, where the intention is to contact the head as well as the body, though not popular, the contemplation of future neurodegenerative disease inspired by repeated blows to the head today can surely be never too far from the forefront of a discerning fighter’s mind.

’Look, after the Roach fight, I had a lot of swelling from the rabbit punches. I took a lot of rabbit punches in that fight, and you can see, when I get hit in the 11th round, I have a delayed reaction, and that is because of the swelling at the back of my head and the resulting effects that that was already causing. [After that fight] my nutritionist was great, she put me on a diet to aid recovery, a special diet, and then the pandemic was also great for me as it gave me proper time to rest. You know, medicine can only do so much, you have to rest your body.

‘I definitely think about it, and this is why I take more time when I am not fighting to basically treat myself, to treat my body a lot better, especially now I am getting older. I just want to be here for a long time, for the long term with my family, more importantly. You know, I want to have my senses together, so it is definitely something that I take into consideration now. Especially when you look at boxing alone, how many bad instances we’ve had in recent memory just from head injuries, so this is something that I take very seriously, and I actually try to help others around me in terms of how to take care of themselves.’

Herring outclassing Lamont Roach, though experienced some ill effects in doing so due to the visible swelling at the rear of his head

Yet is in unlost irony that Jamel declares himself fighting today for a better tomorrow. A father of six children, two with autism, it is with consideration for their teaching and care and development that he continues to strive, continues to work, continues to find the fire necessary to endure the exacting demands of a life given to fighting.

‘From where I’ve been to where I am now, when I was once in the house all day, only leaving to train, I am now back out with my children, back out having fun again and my children are able to enjoy me being around… They appreciate what I had to go through to even get to this point and things are much better than they were, say four years ago.

‘I have two children who are autistic, and their personalities are completely different. So my wife and I, we are growing with them. My autistic daughters, they are the reason why I am still fighting. I want to make sure that they get every bit of treatment and help that they could possibly have to still live a fair and honest life. My 8-year-old, she struggles to express her feelings, but as she calms down she is able to process things better and understand what she did wrong, if she lashes out, for example, but she is very smart and always into her work. My youngest daughter, she was born 2-to-3 months prematurely, so she had to basically fight for her life in the hospital for 3-to-4 months. At the moment her development process is slower, so she is catching up. She’s in school and she is learning how to speak, and she is doing a great job.

‘As a parent it takes a lot of patience. I’m just happy to see their development and growth and I know that they are on the right path.’

Though at 35, equally, one must acknowledge that the body simply cannot endure the ritual physical involvements demanded by boxing forever. Tyson Fury recently declared his expectation to be ‘sad and lonely’ once he is forced to retire from boxing. Given Jamel’s obvious attraction to competition and all-or-nothing thrills, is this a concern which also visits him in the quietude of his pondering?

‘My plan is to always be involved with boxing, even when I’m done fighting myself. I admire the things like what Carl Frampton is doing, you know commentating, which I do some of myself. You know, you always want to be involved with something that you love. Even now, I’m managing fighters, commentating, as I said, and other things. Some people think I might even be a trainer one day… I don’t think I have the patience, but I’m working slowly on patience. But the point is I do have things set in my mind that I want to do, so I don’t wake up one day when I’m done fighting and just say ‘ok what am I gonna do next?’ No, I want to put things in motion now, so when I stop fighting, I can quickly jump into something already set up.’

Proud champion, proud father: WBO super featherweight champion, Jamel Herring

In the many interviews I have conducted within boxing, again to break character, it is often the case that the higher the level of the interviewee, the more disarming and genuine and truthful they are. This axiom was no less betrayed by Jamel, who as a world champion conducts himself with endearing dignity and honesty and sincerity. On Saturday 23rd October he will defend his title against an opponent who is comparatively bolshy and impudent and irreverent. This interviewer, of commensurate age (with Jamel), wishes both men well.

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