LONDON — Jamel Herring waited more than 10 years for his chance to get in an Olympic boxing ring. Once he was there, however, his stay proved agonizingly short, as he lasted only three one-sided rounds against Daniyar Yeleussinov of Kazakhstan, who won their opening round light-welterweight bout, 19-9, Tuesday.
But although he may have lost the fight, Herring didn’t lose his perspective. War, it seems, has a way of doing that to a person.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he said, tugging at his dark blue boxing trunks. “No one likes to lose, of course. But I’m glad I was able to come here, put on a USA uniform and represent my country.”
It’s not the first time he has been able to say that — although the previous uniform was the camouflaged one he wore through two tours of duty as a Marine in Iraq, where he dodged snipers and improvised explosive devices, not hooks and uppercuts.
A promising boxer as a teenager growing up outside New York, Herring gave up the sport — and his Olympic aspirations — to enlist in the Marines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“That was the main reason why I went to Iraq; why I enlisted to begin with,” said Herring, who had classmates with parents who worked in the World Trade Center. “I wanted to go defend my country.”
A field electrician who rose to the rank of sergeant, Herring saw friends killed in Iraq — which is why he decided to keep fighting on the battlefield rather than in the boxing ring, deferring his Olympic dream by reenlisting for another deployment when his first one ran out.
And when he finally got home he was greeted by more tragedy, finding his daughter Ariyanah unconscious in her crib. He called 911, but she couldn’t be saved, succumbing to sudden infant death syndrome, when infants inexplicably stop breathing.
“Everyone back at home knows what I’ve been through,” he said. “There’s a lot of ups and downs.”
On Friday, Herring, 26, marked the third anniversary of his daughter’s death by stoically leading the U.S. boxing team around the Olympic Stadium track during the Games’ opening ceremony, part of his duties as team captain. And when he entered the ring Tuesday, he said he took his daughter, his country and his fallen comrades — “everyone in my heart” — with him.
Burdened by such a heavy load, the first Marine to box in the Olympics in two decades was never in the fight, with Yeleussinov taking advantage of Herring’s sparse international experience to land powerful lefts to the American’s head often enough to keep him on his heels. Then, after building a 15-8 lead over two rounds, Yeleussinov, an Asian Games champion and the son of a boxing coach, circled away for most of the final three minutes to preserve his lead.
Despite the setback, Herring remained a leader, burying his personal disappointment for the good of the team.
“I’m not too happy. But I’m going to keep my head up, being captain,” he said. “If I’m down then my team is down.”
Once a Marine, always a Marine.
“I went out there, fought to the best of my abilities and I did everything I possibly could,” he said. “But the better man just won tonight. And that’s all there is to it.”
Well, the better boxer won. But the better man? You’d have to go a bit to beat Herring at that.
“I’m just proud to say I was an Olympian,” he said. “And I’ll be an Olympian forever. No one can take that away from me.”