Jamel Herring says he's feeling 'more mentally strong and tougher' after recovering from COVID-19

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·7 min read

Editor’s note: This feature was published shortly before Herring withdrew from his July 14 bout vs. Jonathon Oquendo due to another positive COVID-19 test result on Monday.

LAS VEGAS — Life has been far from easy, or fair, for Jamel Herring, who has had more than a lifetime full of crises crammed into 34 short years.

He’s been at war overseas and seen countless friends die. He sat helplessly in the waiting room of a hospital, hoping for good news that never came about his 3-month-old daughter, Ariyanah, while doctors worked feverishly to save her life.

They failed.

It was a soul-crushing moment, one he’ll never get over.

He’s been diagnosed with clinical depression, abused alcohol and had another child born with autism. Never did he ask, “Why me?”

The tragedies in his life have buried many very good men, but Herring, a Marine sergeant who captained the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing team, isn’t the kind of guy to give in.

And so when last month Herring was diagnosed with COVID-19 not long before he was to defend his WBO junior lightweight title at the MGM Grand Conference Center on ESPN against Jonathan Oquendo, he reacted as you expected he might: He sought out how to find a solution and reschedule his fight.

Even when Top Rank, his promoter, offered to change the fight from a 12-round title bout to a 10-round non-title bout, he declined. He said he’d defend his championship against Oquendo and on Tuesday, in the main event of an ESPN card in “The Bubble,” he’ll do just that.

“After I recovered, if anything, I have felt more mentally strong and tougher,” Herring told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve been through so much. This is just another notch in the belt that I’ve beaten.”

KISSIMMEE, FL - MAY 25: Jamel Herring celebrates his victory over du Masayuki Ito during the WBO World Title fight at Osceola Heritage Park on May 25, 2019 in Kissimmee, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring said his recovery from COVID-19 has made him even stronger. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

Herring was in training camp in Colorado Springs preparing for Oquendo on the originally scheduled date of July 2. He received a coronavirus test in the middle of camp and, at the time, said he considered himself asymptomatic.

But after he learned of his positive test, he recognized that perhaps there had been signs.

“I was going through the body aches and the fatigue factor, but at the time, I thought that was just me working hard in the gym,” he said. “I was going through my strength and conditioning and my muscles ached. But it was like, OK, that’s supposed to happen. I’m working hard. And when I thought of my fatigue, well, at the time, I was thinking the same thing, that I was working really hard and getting to a point where I was going to start cutting weight. ...

“I remember it being a Friday night and my nutritionist told me to take my temperature. I did and I remember it so clearly, it was 101.5. Even, because I’m always so well hydrated, I didn’t feel my body was burning up. I was cramping and thought maybe I had the 24-hour virus, but [my nutritionist] said, ‘No, I need you to go to the doctor.’”

He was tested Saturday and found out on Sunday he was positive for COVID-19.

The fight was postponed, but Herring attacked the problem like he’s done pretty much everything else in his life. Never did he think of quitting or giving in.

Herring’s military background shaped a champion

The last time that thought entered his mind was when he was a 17-year-old fresh-faced recruit on his second day of Marine boot camp in Paris Island, South Carolina.

“The mental toughness you see in me now, that definitely came from what I learned in the Marine Corps, for sure,” Herring said. “I was 17 years old when I entered boot camp. I was still just a kid. It was Day 2 of boot camp and I’m trying to get through it and I remember asking myself, ‘Man, did I make the smart decision signing up for this? What did I do?’ It was quite a reality check and I had to dig down and find myself.

“Once you’re on that island, Paris Island, there’s no turning back. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I changed my mind. I don’t want to do this. I want to leave.’ Nah, man. You can’t do that. I had to bite down and grow up really fast. I credit all of that to the Marine Corps.”

It was a lesson he learned that has served him well in his career as a boxer. There are many times during a fight — and during camp — when the mind is telling one to quit, that it’s too much, to give up.

Waking up before dawn to run when the bed is comfortable is difficult. Pushing yourself when you’re sore and achy and fatigued and a fresh sparring partner is boring ahead, firing punches that could knock you cold, is all part of the experience.

The best overcome that and go on to be champions, stars and legends. The others go home and history never hears from them.

“When I am at a tough point in a fight, I take that moment sometimes during the fight or in the corner between [rounds] to think back on what I’ve gotten through to get to this point,” he said. “What I’ve been through in my life is 10 times worse than anything that could happen to me in a fight. Even when I get cut or whatever, I keep pushing forward because I have the perspective now to realize it’s not that bad.

“A championship fight, 36 minutes, is tough, but it’s nothing compared to what I have been through in life and so I use that to keep my mind sharp and push forward.”

Herring isn’t looking past Oquendo

Oquendo is a veteran and though he’s not expected to defeat Herring, Herring has come too far to take anything for granted.

So he’s preparing for Oquendo, both before and after the positive COVID-19 test, as if it were the fight of his life.

“If you watch this series Top Rank has been doing since they’ve been back, there have been one or two upsets a week,” Herring said. “It’s just more evidence letting you know you can’t go in there and overlook someone because they have lots of miles on them or because their record on paper doesn’t look all that good. It’s a world title fight and I know Jonathan is a veteran and he probably thinks this could be his last opportunity. I know I’m going to see the best of him, whatever that is.

“So I have to be ready to go out and showcase the best Jamel Herring. You can’t overlook anybody in this business and I definitely am not overlooking Jonathan Oquendo.”

Herring laughs and then a point dawns on him.

“If there is one guy on this planet who understands what it is to face the biggest, most significant problems life can present, it’s me,” he said. “Things happen that will affect you for the rest of your life, but you have to learn how to be a fighter and be prepared and keep moving forward and that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s how I’m built. That’s the way I roll. It’s how I have always been.”

At least it’s how he’s been since Day 2 of boot camp so long ago. Little did he know it then, but that was the making of a champion unfolding before his peers’ eyes.

He’s been a champion for a long time. The belt around his waist just affirms what those who have known him have always understood about him.

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