By Keith Idec, photos by PBC
Jamel Herring couldn’t turn down this opportunity.
The 2012 American Olympian has wanted to test himself against a legitimate lightweight contender for quite some time. Fighting Russian Denis Shafikov in an ESPN main event on Independence Day weekend also means more to Herring than it would to most boxers.
The former United States Marine served two tours in Iraq, seven months apiece in 2005 and 2007. He has endured a real war, literal life-and-death fights outside the boxing ring.
Herring’s hellish experience in Iraq is among the reasons he isn’t at all fearful of what could happen Saturday night against the rugged Shafikov, on paper the best opponent of the Coram, New York, native’s 3½-year pro career.
“I’m just overwhelmed with excitement,” Herring said. “Like I was just saying on social media, everyone’s saying how tough Shafikov is – which I respect. I respect what he brings to the table. But I feel like this is my moment and I want to take full advantage of it. Being on in prime time, on a Saturday night, it’s just a blessing.
“But overall, I’m more happy to get an opportunity to step in the ring with a real fighter. I never wanted to be like other fighters, who are OK with fighting tomato cans here and there. I came up in an era where I saw guys like Oscar De La Hoya, who fought everybody. That’s the path that I’m trying to go down now. Of course you wanna do things the smart way in your career. At the same time, I wanna put on fights that people are gonna remember at the end of my career.”
ESPN will broadcast the Herring-Shafikov fight as the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions show from Santander Arena in Reading, Pennsylvania. The card is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT with a 10-round junior middleweight match that’ll pit Poland’s Patryk Szymanski (15-0, 9 KOs) against Wilky Campfort (21-2, 12 KOs), of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Herring, however, intends to close the show with a performance that solidifies his status as a capable contender within the 135-pound division. Unlike several of his former Olympic teammates – most notably Errol Spence Jr., Joseph Diaz Jr. and Dominic Breazeale – the 5-foot-10 southpaw feels he has been overlooked since representing his country at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
“I had to play a lot of catch-up, dealing with two deployments during my Marine Corps career,” said Herring, who didn’t start boxing as an amateur until he was 15. “And once I did win in the Olympic Trials [in 2012], I still wasn’t getting a lot of credit for anything. People were saying it really was just a fluke. Even when I made the Olympic Team, I still didn’t get that exposure and shine, like my teammates did. I don’t envy them for that. I’m really proud of each and every one of them.
“But opportunities like this, I appreciate it more because I feel like I had to work harder to get where I’m at than some fighters did, when they got it early. This is probably my third or fourth fight just being on TV – period. Most of my Olympic teammates, they were on TV coming straight out of the Olympic Games. It just kept me humble and it kept me hungrier. That’s why I was so motivated when I took this fight. A lot of people don’t know I’ve never turned down a fight. If anything, I was always the fighter that was being turned away because of my awkward style and because I’m so unpredictable. At one point in time, people thought that I would just fade away in the pro game. But I’m still here, fighting better opponents now. And I’m looking forward to proving people wrong once again, that I’m ready for the bigger and better limelight.”
Shafikov figures to push Herring unlike any of his first 15 professional opponents. But Herring, who’ll have to rely largely on his boxing ability to win their 10-round bout, is looking forward to figuring out how to deal with his opponent’s persistent pressure.
Whatever Shafikov brings to the ring, it won’t compare to what Herring encountered in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005 or elsewhere in that war-torn nation during 2007. Nor will it rival what he has overcome outside of the ring to become a promising professional prospect.
Herring’s best friend, Stephen Brown, died of lung cancer when he was just 20. Brown, also a Marine, was Herring’s lifelong friend from Coram and the latter’s inspiration to join that branch of the military once he graduated from high school.
The 30-year-old Herring, a Cincinnati resident, also draws motivation from the July 2009 death of his daughter, Ariyanah, who died from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
“I’ve been through the worst,” said Herring, who has four children, ages 3-10. “In their honor, I try to stay uplifted because I know they would want me to go forward and not be down on myself and moping around. So for them, in their honor, I try to live a positive life not only inside the gym, but outside the gym as well. That’s why I really don’t have no worries about this weekend. That’s actually why I have no worries about boxing. I’ve been through worse.
“What’s the worst that can happen? I’ve been through real wars on the battlefield and in my personal life. What’s the worst that can happen to me? A lot of people didn’t expect me to get where I’m at now. But I’m here and I feel like I’m blessed and grateful. Instead of me being spiteful and throwing my success in the faces of people that doubted me, I just carry myself with dignity and still represent myself as a Marine, in the way I was taught. And that’s how I’m gonna represent this weekend.”
The 31-year-old Shafikov (36-2-1, 19 KOs), also a southpaw, has lost only in IBF lightweight title fights against current champion Rances Barthelemy (25-0, 13 KOs, 1 NC) and former title-holder Miguel Vazquez (36-5, 13 KOs).
“I respect him,” Herring said. “He has far more experience than me. He’s had the opportunities to fight for world titles – where I’m trying to get to now. But those two important fights on his record, he lost. I’ve been studying him every day and I see flaws in his game. I picked out little things from the Vazquez fight and his last fight against Barthalemy [on December 18 in Las Vegas]. I just have to go back to my amateur experience and just box him. He’s gonna come forward and make it a little bit rough, but I just have to stay calm under pressure and, at the end of the day, just fight my fight.
“I can’t worry about what he’s gonna do or what he’s capable of doing. I have to be cautious, of course, but I have to keep a clear mind and fight my fight. And more importantly, just have fun. Because the hard part is already taken care of. Now the fun part comes Saturday night. And I say the fun part because I’ve been through so much as a Marine, dealing with deployments and tragedies. Boxing has always been my outlet, so like I said, this is gonna be the fun part. The hard part was taken care of in the gym and I’m just anxious to test myself against a top-class opponent.”
Keith Idec covers boxing for The Record and Herald News, of Woodland Park, N.J., and BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.