Marine Turned Top Boxing Prospect Battling for Glory After Fighting in Iraq

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterFebruary 9, 2016

CINCINNATI, OHIO - OCTOBER 3: Jamel Herring, left, swings at Yakubu Amidu during a fight at U.S. Bank Arena on October 3, 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Fighting comes complete with a collection of military metaphors. Fighters don't engage in a back-and-forth contest—they go to war. They don't do their best to land concussive punches—they throw bombs. And they aren't brave and competent athletes—they are warriors.

Former Olympian Jamel Herring, who fights Luis Eduardo Flores on Tuesday night at 11 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1/Fox Deportes for Premier Boxing Champions, doesn't tend to use that kind of descriptive language. Because, while it may feel right to compare the visceral action in the ring to actual combat, Herring knows better.

When he was 19 years old, the United States Marine Corps threw him into the midst of the fiercest combat zone in modern military history. Compared to what he saw in Fallujah, Iraq, from his first day there to his last, everything in the ring is easy.

"It was a hell hole. Most of the city was destroyed. The power was out, so when we drove through in convoys it was pitch black in some areas. I can laugh about it now, but it wasn't too funny then," Herring said. "I saw an RPG fly right over the building I was outside of. I was like 19 at the time and hadn't seen anything yet. I thought, 'that's not what I thought it was.' That only happens in movies.

"But a few seconds later I heard an explosion. It hit the building behind me, and there were Marines inside the building. The impact was so hard, it bounced Marines from one side of a room to the other."

Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005.
Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005.ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/Associated Press/Associated Press

Boxing and fighting for your life are not quite the same thing. When action is picking up in the ring, noise tends to rise as the punches come in bunches. In Iraq, it was just the opposite. The worst violence, all too often, is preceded by a deadly calm. 

"I remember being out with the grunts in a convoy and you go through these towns and people on the street would just start running," Herring said. "One day the marketplace was packed, and the next day nothing. It was dead quiet out there. They'd clear out, so we knew something was up. You'd see a sandbag in the middle of the street with wires sticking out. It was crazy times, man."

While Herring began his military career as a field electrician, eventually his boxing prowess took him on a different path. The Marine Corps boxing team was based out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, which happened to be where Herring was stationed. He tried out for the team and suddenly found himself competing with the military's best.

"Once I made the All-Marine Corps team, that became my job," he said. "I did boxing training daily. But they could always call me back to my unit if they needed me. Which they did. I was called again, for a second deployment, this time as part of a security detail.

"When my first enlistment was up, they guaranteed me that I could come back as a boxer. And that's what I did in my second enlistment. I concentrated on boxing right up until 2012."

That was when Herring became the first Marine to represent the nation in the Olympic Games since 1992. He had come on strong in 2010, finishing second at the World Military Games as a prelude to winning the Armed Forces Championships in 2011. Later that year, incredibly, he shocked the amateur boxing community by winning the Olympic trials. 

Herring wins Olympic trials.
Herring wins Olympic trials.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

"I was deployed so much, I missed a lot of the national tournaments and other events," Herring said. "The guys I was competing with, they went to all these tournaments from the time they were just kids. Six, seven, eight years old. It was still new to me. I was this unknown guy. I hadn't won a major national title until the Olympic trials. You're not supposed to do that before you win your first U.S. Nationals."

Herring had a disappointing performance at the Olympics.
Herring had a disappointing performance at the Olympics.Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press

While he was upset in the first round at the Olympics, Herring showed enough potential to make a professional career a possibility. After nine years, he hung up his boots and left the Corps in his past. He now trains with Mike Stafford and boxing superstar Adrien Broner in Cincinnati, where he won four fights in 2015, including a bout with Yakubu Amidu, to bring his professional record to 14-0. 

But while Herring has left active duty, no one ever fully leaves the Marine Corps behind them. It was an experience that still influences him, even as he prepares for his stiffest professional test against Flores.  

"The one thing from my time on active duty that carries over is being strong mentally. I use that in the ring. It made me mature and made me appreciate things more in life," Herring said. "You go through so much, from basic training to deployment. I look at it like I've seen the worst already. Training, the toughest fights—it can't get any worse than what I've already been through."


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.