Because locating the exact point at which homage ends and gratuitous pandering begins, we have boxing. Plot a path starting from “vaguely uncomfortable undertones,“ remove all forms of tact and discretion, and you’ll find yourself just a short DeLorean ride away from “ham-fisted stereotypes, flag-humping nationalism and ‘Cats’-meets-snuff-film aberrancy.” Welcome, freaks!
In the past week alone, we’ve watched 1) Deontay Wilder takes a method approach to the God of Many Faces (serial killer, homespun country boy, and Evil Queen); 2) Gary Russell Jr. audition for the role of Mufasa in “The Lion King” reboot; and 3) Japan’s Masayuki Ito grab his gavel and embrace that quintessentially American nickname “The Judge.”
But here’s what I say: Respect the hustle. Why not? It’s the least any of us can do. Now, normally I’m not one to stand on pretense. I called in sick on Day 1 of my first job. I’ve attended a wake wearing shorts and flip-flops. So I’m unlikely to be dazzled by the bagpipers or Li’l McWeezy dragged out for the ring walk of boxing’s flavor of the month. Still, fighters walk through fire — roadwork, diet, sparring, sacrifice, isolation, pain — for our entertainment. Is it too much to ask me to humor them? It’s because of my appreciation for the substance that I can, without a second thought, bite down and swallow the style. Even if that style translates to a three-act Werner Herzog tribute to Pokémon cosplay.
All of which is to say that Saturday on ESPN in Kissimmee, Florida, Jamel Herring got on my level.
Herring (20-2, 10 KO), you might have heard, has a story — and it’s as gauzy-lensed and made-for-TV as any you’ll find in the sport: Grew up in the shadow of the World Trade Center. Enlisted after the Twin Towers fell, before turning 18. Served two tours in Iraq. Became team captain of the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing team. Tragically lost his infant daughter to SIDS. Lost his best friend to cancer. Kept fighting in their honor, turned pro, stayed on his grind until Saturday — his first title shot, at 130 pounds, against belt-holder Masayuki Ito (25-2-1, 13 KO).
If that description feels a bit too tidy, it’s because boxing has a tendency to bullet-point fighter narratives for public consumption, ever so thoughtfully cutting off the crusts of our PBJs. Production schedules and corporate tendencies, as it turns out, aren’t sympathetic to unvarnished truths. Prefer your origin stories painted in appropriate shades of grey? Blame it on ESPN or “All Access” or “24/7.” Just be sure to pack a lunch: Writers, radiomen, and talking heads have been packaging fighter stories for decades, and rarely has a flash of color or a camera-friendly flourish been spared in their tellings.
For Herring, though, the story felt unscripted. The usual TV trimmings were there — a contingent of Marines lining the ring walk and a Navy JROTC Colorguard in the ring surrounding “Semper Fi” upon introduction, cast against the backdrop of Old Glory. But in the middle of it all stood Herring, plainly, at 33, facing perhaps his one and only shot at a professional world title and inhabiting a lifetime’s worth of duty and loss and expectation in understated quiet. The authenticity in his poise and sense of purpose on Saturday rang as true as his right-handed jab.
From the jump, Herring began setting the tone for his sort of fight, flicking that lead as both a range-finder and a stinging warning to Ito — an aggressive, heavy-handed 28-year-old from Tokyo. Ito had won his title in Kissimmee almost a year ago, upsetting Christopher Diaz, and most predictions going into Saturday night favored the younger, more powerful man over Herring. The difference in class was immediately evident, though, as Herring’s 100-plus amateur bouts were reflected in his balance, footwork, and patience. Ito, who turned pro in 2009 without a single amateur contest under his belt, wasn’t just an oil rigger trying his hand in a Texarkana toughman contest. But by the fourth round, with the southpaw Herring now putting his left hand behind the jab and side-stepping every desperate Ito haymaker, the champion knew he was on the wrong side of a boxing clinic.
That’s when shit got Greco-Roman. In the fifth, Ito (wisely) began clutching Herring at every turn: lunge, grab, potshot, repeat. It was a measure of how overmatched Ito understood himself to be less than halfway through the fight that he chose to muck it up — even as his left eye, shading an ever-deeper crimson since the second round, was put at greater risk to a head-bashing in the orthodox-southpaw matchup.
Oddly, Herring obliged. Rather than remain on the outside, lashing Ito with the jabs, quick counters and occasional sharp lead lefts that piled up rounds for him early, Herring hopped knee-deep in the mud. Maybe he was just gassed — Herring’s legs did seem to lose some bounce in the fight’s second half. But the effort he spent dancing away from Ito in the opening rounds was required in equal measure for their battle of the bearhugs that followed. Possibly more.
By the ninth, Herring came to his senses — or perhaps came to the sensibilities of trainer Bomac McIntyre, who repeatedly urged his fighter to avoid tussling with Ito inside. The needling jab returned, Herring’s quick counters and pivots away from Ito’s charges were back on the dance card, and the champion again looked as flummoxed as a club fighter. Herring, whose chin was doubted after a stoppage loss to Denis Shafikov in 2016, held up to the random landed right hand from Ito. In fact, the closest thing the fight saw to a knockdown was a looping right hand from Herring in Round 11, which caught and tossed Ito into the corner, where he briefly planted a glove to the canvas. Referee Frank Gentile waved it off, and Herring coasted to a 118-110 (twice), 116-112 unanimous decision.
Herring has no time to waste, and it should help that top junior lightweight and titlist Miguel Berchelt, who made an appearance in Kissimmee, seems eager to unify belts and has all the right promotional and network ties. Berchelt is an entirely different animal than Ito, but Herring doesn’t seem the type to dick around with stepping stones and gatekeepers. If the fight is there for him, and if the terms are anything resembling fair, I’d expect him to sign on, show up and see if he’s got the sand.
(Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank via)