Jamel Herring thought someone was playing a colossal trick on him. Herring, a 2012 Olympian in boxing for Team USA, received a call to announce that his next big fight would be on May 25.
It wasn’t just that he’d be fighting for a world championship that surprised Herring; what he really couldn’t believe was that he’d be doing it on what would be the 10th birthday of his daughter, Ariyanah, who died from SIDS just two months after she was born in 2009.
And, as a Marine veteran who served two tours in Iraq, he would be fighting on Memorial Day weekend.
“That date is kind of touchy to me, so there’s a lot riding on this weekend,” Herring said. “Winning a world title on her birthday would be a huge honor. Now I also get to represent other veterans we have lost in American wars.”
Herring, 33, will fight Japan’s Masayuki Ito for the World Boxing Organization super featherweight title Saturday night in Kissimmee, Florida. Herring’s professional record is 19-2 with 10 knockouts.
The paths to boxing and military service for Herring both started taking shape in 2001. Growing up in the town of Coram, New York, a small hamlet on Long Island, Herring was 15 on Sept. 11, 2001, when the twin towers fell after jetliners were hijacked and flown into them. The impact shook him immensely.
“I had friends who had relatives that were in those buildings, so it impacted me hard,” Herring said. “I knew I wanted to do something with my life, so then I decided to join the Marines.”
He turned 18 while in boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, in October 2003.
By that point he had already been boxing for two years. His first venture into a boxing gym was with Austin Hendrickson, who later became Herring’s trainer.
Herring boxed as a junior amateur up until his military service, and then kept up his hobby until he was deployed in 2005 to Fallujah, Iraq — where some of the heaviest and deadliest fighting took place.
Upon his return home, he made the All-Marine Boxing Team in 2006, and Herring kept working his craft until 2007, when he was called for another tour of duty in Iraq, this time in Al Taqaddum.
Herring said witnessing war firsthand “was crazy,” and that it opened his eyes to a different lifestyle of the people in Iraq.
“I definitely appreciated life a lot more when I got back home,” Herring said. “I don’t take anything for granted because of what I have seen.”
Herring reenlisted and became a basic field electrician, which allowed him more time to box. In 2011, he won the Armed Forces tournament in San Antonio that qualified him for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Boxing, where he won the top spot in his weight category to qualify for the Olympic Games London 2012.
Sgt. Herring became the captain of the U.S. boxing team in London. He made it a mission to march in the Opening Ceremony on July 27, which happened to be the three-year anniversary of Ariyanah’s death.
Herring lost his first fight there, but he kept his focus in being the team leader — a trait learned in the military.
“I was just a kid when I was in boot camp, so I learned how to be a leader in the Marine Corps,” Herring said. “I lost my first fight there, but I had to stay strong and be a leader, and keep pulling for my teammates.”
Herring retired from the Marines in 2012 after nine years of service, something he said was a difficult choice, but necessary to focus on becoming a professional boxer.
Since losing his second professional bout in August 2017 as a lightweight boxer, he has won three consecutive fights as a super featherweight (130 lbs.). Now he’s set to tussle with Ito, who is 25-1-1 with 12 knockouts.
After this weekend, Herring said he would continue to work as a professional boxer and work to help others in boxing, especially his service brethren.
“I just want to be an ambassador to the sport, especially for veterans,” Herring said. “I want to let people know my ups and and downs, and just bring good vibes to everyone around me.”