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?