Jamal Herring is boxer shaped by 9/11, two tours of Iraq & his daughter’s death

For Jamel Herring, an impending battle with former two-weight world champion Carl Frampton in the boxing ring is nothing compared to the wounding adversity and devastating tragedy he has been forced to overcome outside it.

This Saturday Herring, 35, will finally defend his WBO super-featherweight title against the Northern Irishman in Dubai, a long-awaited clash postponed three times over the past five months due to injury and Covid-19 difficulties.

Frampton, 16 months his junior and one of Britain's most successful fighters of the last decade, is certain to pose a major threat when they collide at the lavish Caesars Palace on Bluewaters Island. Yet, Herring has already dealt with much fiercer opponents away from the sport.

The American's unique backstory – which covers the horror of the 9/11 terror attacks, two tours of Iraq with the US Marine Corps and the tragic death of his daughter, Ariyanah, at the age of two months – is both heartbreaking and moving in equal measure.

Herring was born in Rockville Centre, New York, on October 30, 1985, and grew up around 45 miles east in Coram's Gordon Heights neighbourhood, where he admits rife gang activity contributed to a "rough" childhood.

Fortunately, an introduction to boxing at the age of 16 through Austin Hendrickson, the father of one of his good friends, offered a welcome escape from the Big Apple's minacious streets. Instead of falling into trouble with the gangs of Gordon Heights, Herring stumbled upon a more productive way to let off steam.

"Corham had a lot of good people, but at times it can get crazy," he tells Daily Star Sport.

"We had rough situations dealing with gang activity and things of that nature. But the sport really kept me away from that negative light when I was growing up in that environment.

"The Hendrickson's invited me to the gym at 16 and I just fell in love with boxing straight away.

"I stuck with it and I'm glad I stuck with it, because boxing has done so many great things for me."

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  • Hendrickson soon became Herring's first full-time trainer in the sport, guiding him through a number of amateur contests while constructing his basic attributes as a fighter and generally showing him the ropes, before a momentous incident proved the catalyst for a life-changing decision to join the Marine Corps following his graduation from high school.

    On September 11, 2001, two planes hijacked by Al Qaeda terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, roughly 10 miles away from Herring's hometown of Coram, bringing its two 1,400ft buildings plummeting to the ground and killing over 2,600 people in the process.

    The earth-shattering events, which remain the deadliest terrorist attacks in human history, galvanised Herring to help prevent a similar nightmare from playing out in the future.

    "Being a New Yorker, the 9/11 attacks were close to home," he says. "So after it happened I wanted to do something with my life and make a change.

    "Again, I also didn't want to just hang out on the streets and get into trouble, so that's why I made the decision to join the Marine Corps at 17 years old.

    "I was about 45 minutes away in Long Island when the attacks happened. But while I was in school I had friends with relatives who were actually in the buildings.

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    "It was a shock to see the emotions of people trying to call their homes and families to make sure they're ok, to see friends not getting return phone calls. It was scary.

    "That played a big factor in joining the Marines. Seeing what I saw made me decide I need to do something that can prevent this from ever happening again in our country."

    After enlisting at Parris Island, South Carolina, Herring initially juggled his endeavours as an aspiring boxer with duties in the Marines, America's ready-reaction force which serves to defend naval bases, guard embassies and protect the country's interests across the world.

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    He completed two tours of duty in Iraq; the first in Fallujah in 2005, before a second deployment came in Al Taqaddum two years later. At the pinnacle of his service, he was even awarded the prestigious rank of Sergeant.

    Upon his return from Fallujah, Herring reignited his pugilistic flame by joining the All Marine Corps boxing team in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. It would later provide the platform for his venture into the US Olympic squad at the 2012 games in London.

    "The most rewarding thing about being in the Marines is the mental toughness, and that's what plays a lot into boxing," he says.

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    "They always say that boxing is 80 per cent mental and 20 per cent physical, so when you've been through two deployments to Iraq and basic training in boot camp, I wouldn't say boxing's a breeze, but when you have hard days in the gym or in the ring you always reflect on where you came from to get here. That gets you through those hard moments.

    "Most of my amateur boxing alone also came from my time there, so I owe a lot to the Marine Corps. They helped me get into the Olympics, it's what got me through rough times in the professional rankings.

    "There's a lot I owe to the Marine Corps and I'm grateful."

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    Herring returned from his second tour of Iraq and promptly resumed training with the All Marine Corps, polishing his skills under the tutelage of Ron Simms, Reuben Woodruff and Narcisco Aleman. Former 1996 USA Olympic Assistant coach Jesse Ravelo soon replaced the former.

    Just over four years later, and having clinched gold and silver medals at the World Military Games, Armed Forces Championships and National Championships, he secured a spot at the 2012 Olympic Games in London as Team USA's boxing captain, leading a squad brimming with raw talent and future world champions.

    However, three years before the boy from Coram captured a childhood dream in the English capital, tragedy struck when his two-month-old daughter Ariyanah passed away from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

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    "I was in here about an hour ago looking at her pictures and thinking about her," Herring says. "She's the reason I fight so hard today.

    "Everything that I've been through plays an intricate role with my life today, not just in boxing but in life as a whole.

    "I've been in moments where the common man would've given up and walked away from things, but it made me stronger and I learned to appreciate things more in life. From my daughter's passing to losing fellow comrades in the military, everything plays a role with me today."

    That the harrowing experience of losing a child so suddenly, so prematurely failed to thwart Herring on his Olympic journey speaks volumes about the mental robustness and unflappable desire he possesses.

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    And it seemed the stars had aligned when the opening ceremony of the 2012 Games fell on the third anniversary of Ariyana's death.

    "Her passing motivated me to go on and do great things in life as a whole," he insists.

    "When I think about everything that I've been through, I say that I've been through this and I've been through that, but yet I'm still here standing strong.

    "If I can go through this kind of tragedy and still be successful, then I believe that I can do anything I put my mind to.

    "I think about her all the time and I remember the opening ceremony clearly.

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    "I remember looking up in the sky and saying, 'This is for you. I made it here and this is your moment, and thank you for always guiding me on the right path.' Because I could've easily fallen on the wrong path and had a downward spiral in life.'"

    While he could undoubtedly take immense pride from being the first active duty marine to qualify for the US boxing team since 1992, along with overcoming unparalleled grief and trauma to simply make it there, Herring was eliminated in the first round of his light-welterweight tournament, coming unstuck against the extremely talented Daniyar Yeleussinov of Kazakhstan.

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    He captained a stellar team at the London Games, consisting of future world champions and title challengers such as Errol Spence Jr, Jose Ramirez, Dominic Breazeale and JoJo Diaz, along with current women's boxing superstar Claressa Shields.

    Somehow, only Shields (gold) and another female fighter in Marlen Esparza (bronze) picked up medals, with the men's team drawing blank.

    "I was team captain, so even to this day I still keep in touch with those guys," Herring adds.

    "I still speak with Errol Spence, JoJo Diaz, Rau'shee Warren, Jose Ramirez, Marcus Browne, Dominic Breazeale, the list goes on.

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    "Boxing is like a small fraternity. I competed against my good friend Josh Taylor in London and I still speak to him, he's a good friend of mine.

    "We didn't pick up many medals at the Olympics, but if you look now a lot of those guys became world champions. So I'm proud that we made up for what we fell back on."

    The end of the 2012 Olympics marked another turning point in Herring's fascinating story. Shortly after returning home to the States, he called time on his indelible stint in the Marines and relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio, to join forces with new trainer Mike Stafford and embark on a professional career in boxing.

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    A run of 15 straight victories ensured a smooth entrance into the pro ranks, but that seamless switch soon became a bumpy ride when his resolve and heart were once again tested by a thorny sequence of two losses in three outings.

    A pair of quick-fire defeats, which came in the space of 13 months against Denis Shafikov and Ladarius Miller, would crush the spirit and confidence of most fighters. Not Herring.

    "In those moments you start to have small doubts," he admits. "But the Shafikov fight in particular was a great lesson.

    "What I mean by that is, I learned that in the sport of boxing there are levels you have to be at to compete with the best at that level. I wasn't there yet, but I took it as a lesson more than just a common defeat.

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    "Anyone that was weaker, it would've broken them down mentally. But for me, I just said, 'Ok, I've got to go and dust myself off and make some adjustments.'

    "I was more upset with the Miller fight, because I thought that I should've got the nod and I wasn't given a fair shake with that fight.

    "But that was a lesson too, because it made me regroup and think that I had to change everything around me.

    "I changed my team, I started training with guys like Terence Crawford and Bryan McIntyre, and I also changed my promoter who was running the ship by joining Top Rank promotions.

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    "When I made that change, things started going uphill."

    Parting company with Stafford to train alongside and spar with Crawford, a three-weight world champion heralded by some as the sport's current pound-for-pound king, and fight under McIntyre's instructions has lifted Herring to the top of the super-featherweight mountain.

    He heads into Saturday's meeting with Frampton on a roll, winning his last six bouts and becoming a world champion in the fourth of them, when he earned a unanimous points victory over Japan's Masayuki Ito.

    Once more the stars had aligned for the ex-marine, as his crowning night against Ito came exactly 10 years on from Ariyanah's birth.

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    This weekend he will bid to add another defining chapter to his touching tale. But standing in his way is Frampton, who is looking to create history of his own by becoming Ireland's first ever three-weight world champion.

    Now in the twilight of his illustrious 12-year career, and with little else to go on and achieve in the sport, the Jackal has accepted this fight could be his last.

    "I think Carl is a good fighter. I am a fan of Carl Frampton. I respect him, he's been in some very good fights," Herring insists.

    "I don't know if I'm catching him at the right time. As a smart fighter, I'm preparing for the best Carl Frampton that you can possibly prepare for.

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    "He's been in a lot of wars. He's been in the [Scott] Quigg fight and stuff like that.

    "He's younger, but some say he's already got one foot out of the door.

    "With me, I started boxing at 16 years old and then I had to take breaks in between because of the Marine Corps. So there's not a lot of wear and tear on my body."

    When I ask him exactly how much higher he plans to climb on his fighting expedition, Herring pauses before declaring: "The end goal for me is to be a unified champion or a two-division champion.

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    "I don't really ask for much, but I'm realistic. That's why when you see me I'm always taking care of my body. You'll never see me out partying hard and doing crazy stuff, I always take care of my body and keep that Marine Corps mentality that drives me to be the best that I can possibly be."

    Whether Herring topples Frampton and goes on to fulfil his last-remaining ambition or not, he has already sealed one of boxing's most poignant success stories.

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