No phrase is more pertinent to the life and career of Jamel Herring than semper fidelis, Latin for “always loyal,” and the moral code that the US Marine Corps—the organization in which Herring grew up—adheres to with great honor.
It’s fitting, then, that the other combat discipline that has consumed Herring’s cinematic life, boxing, bears witness to his nickname, “Semper Fi.” Between the ring and the sandy, bleak setting of Iraq, Herring has seen it all.
But it was in boxing that Herring found his calling after thirty-four years filled with agony, elation, and daze. “Boxing came first,” Herring says. “I began boxing when I was fifteen years old. I got into the Marines when I was about seventeen, going on eighteen years old.
“It was a hobby to keep me off the streets, and it was something to do. As time went on and I saw that I was getting better and hanging with the best, I started getting a sense of maybe I can go further with this career. I was always a good kid. [I boxed] to keep fit and . . . to avoid getting into trouble.
“Of course, I had a few fights here and there, but I wasn’t into hanging out with gangs. . . . When your friends get older, they do things you might not agree with, so to avoid those directions I decided to find a gym and stay there.”
Despite his insistence on avoiding trouble, Herring made a decision in 2001 that would change his life. A story of resolve and perseverance followed as the Long-Island-born New Yorker watched his city fall victim to the attacks on September 11 of that year.
“The 9/11 attacks made me want to get into the Marines,” Herring explains. “They basically made me into a man. They made me mature a lot. I was only eighteen years old when I went into boot camp; they made me into an adult.”
“It gave me more of a sense of direction, and it made me appreciate not only boxing but life in general.”
So, despite a respectable amateur career, where he faced future world champions Daniel Jacobs and Jesse Vargas, Herring decided to live a fuller life—with more danger, but perhaps a greater sense of reward.
By 2005, Herring was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, and it quickly became an un awakening for the small-town Long Island boy. Not because of the danger, however. He thrived off the danger.
In the months preceding his excursion to Fallujah, Herring would see his longtime friend Stephen Brown die of cancer before a break-up with his girlfriend added to that pain. But his time in the military helped heal those wounds.
“I appreciate what the military done for me. If it wasn’t for the military, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now,” he admits. “For the most part, I have happiness when I look back at my career in combat. I had some dark times, but I look back with positive memories.”
Following a second, equally harrowing tour of Iraq, Herring left the Marines to focus on boxing. But on July 27, 2009, he faced a battle most parents never have to endure.
His two-month-old daughter, Ariyanah, was found lying lifeless in her crib by her mother, a victim of SIDS. Ariyanah became Herring’s reason to fight on.
“I mean, yeah, each day that she’s gone, it’s an opportunity for me to carry on her memory in a positive light. That’s why I live like I do,” Herring said. “Whenever I feel like I’m heading toward a wrong direction, I always take a step back and think about how she would look at me. Her memory alone keeps my conscience on the right path.”
And three years later, on the anniversary of Ariyanah’s tragic death, Herring led the USA boxing team, composed of future stars Errol Spence Jr. and Claressa Shields, at the London Olympics, before losing against Kazakh prospect Daniyar Yeleussinov in the first round.
“Obviously, I captained the USA [team] at the Olympics, which was such a huge thing for me,” Herring says. “It was an amazing feeling. I was so proud. I was one of the least-experienced boxers on the team, so the fact I had a military career I had to keep up with as well because I was in and out of deployments made it more crazy.”
Herring turned professional and racked up fifteen wins by February 2016. A couple of losses didn’t deter him, though; last May, on what would have been his late daughter’s tenth birthday, Herring competed for his very first world championship against betting-favorite Masayuki Ito.
In front of his fellow Marines in Kissimmee, Florida, the night ended in euphoria for Herring, who outpointed Ito unanimously, winning the WBO super-featherweight title in the process. “Winning that world title was the greatest feeling in the world,” said Herring. “You can’t prepare for it.”
“That night was a special night that will live with me forever. For as long as I live. Even if I win multiple world titles down the line, that very night will be the biggest, most defining night of my entire career.
“It was amazing to have the Marines there, on my daughter’s birthday, and it was also Memorial Day weekend. For the military personnel we’ve lost over the years in combat. It was all for that.
“When I won that title, a lot of weight came off my shoulders because I accomplished something on her birthday, for her. I used my time in the Marines as motivation to push me forward. I never thought about winning a world title or going to the Olympics.”
With Terence Crawford’s trainer, Brian McIntyre, in his corner, Herring defends his WBO belt against Lamont Roach Jr. in Fresno, California, on November 9. But as his pinned tweet says: “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.”
Herring now exudes the maturity he craved as a fifteen-year-old with nothing but fighting on his mind. The most archaic circumstances have led the 130-pound titlist to this point—another opponent, another ring, but on a different night. Win or lose, nothing will truly stop him.
“Expect an exciting fight, I trained a lot harder for this than my last fight,” Herring says.
“When you’re world champion you have more confidence; you think I’ve done this so far, maybe I can do more. You never want to lose your title. I always want to outdo my last performance, and he’s undefeated as well, so I have the opportunity to take his ‘O.’ I can’t wait.”