Some of us fight for our country. Some of us fight for our families. Some of us fight for sport.
I’ve fought for all of these things.
I fight again on Friday. This time, my opponent is Oscar Cortes. As a professional boxer, I’m 11-0 with seven knockouts. Undefeated — but believe me, I’ve lost plenty.
I was a track runner in high school — a good one, too — but my junior year, my grades were slipping, so I couldn’t run track anymore, which meant I’d have to spend my days after school on the streets of New York doing whatever kids on the streets were doing. And whatever that was, I knew it wasn’t good. But that was the path I was set to go down until a friend asked me if I wanted to try something new: boxing.
I didn’t know anything about it. When I thought about boxing, I thought about Rocky Balboa. That’s all I knew. I never aspired to be a boxer. It wasn’t my childhood dream. But it seemed like a good alternative to hitting the streets, so I started boxing as a hobby. It was just something to do.
It’s 2003. High school graduation. And I don’t have a plan. Nothing. School really wasn’t for me, and I didn’t have anything I was truly passionate about to pursue.
But I had a friend, Stephen Brown, who I’d known since I was seven years old, and he graduated a year before me and went straight into the Marines after high school. When I graduated, he was visiting home from boot camp, and he told me straight up: You need to do something with your life.
So I did. I followed his lead and enlisted in the Marines.
I spent my summer vacation preparing for basic training. I was still a kid — just a few weeks away from my 18th birthday when I enlisted — but suddenly, I had a purpose. I had a direction. I had a goal that was bigger than myself.
You know the sacrifices and risks. When you’re in the military, sometimes you miss out on things — your friends and family and different life milestones. The military requires time. It takes commitment. When you leave home, there’s a chance you might never come back. You might die. You might see your friends die. What you might not realize, though, is that these are risks you face in your everyday life. In the military, they’re just magnified.
It’s 2004. December. I’ve been in the Marines for a little over a year, but Stephen isn’t with me anymore. He’s back home battling lung cancer. Twenty years old, never smoked a day in his life. Lung cancer.
I’m just a couple of months away from being deployed to Fallujah for my first tour in Iraq. Stephen was the reason I became a Marine, and now he can’t even be with me. I’m a 19-year-old kid from New York who barely even left the state before being stationed in the Carolinas. You couldn’t pick a place on earth more different than the places I’d been than the Iraqi desert.
December 12. I get a phone call. Stephen’s mom.
I really thought Stephen was gonna beat it. He just had such great spirit. When she told me, I broke down. I was heartbroken. But more than anything, it just ate me up inside because I wasn’t even there to say goodbye. When you’re in the military, sometimes you miss out on things.
It’s 2005. February. I’m on my way to Iraq.
I was an electrician working with a Recon unit that was tasked with arresting insurgents that were planting roadside bombs. The war in Iraq is a lot different than past American wars. There isn’t a lot of head-to-head field battle. There aren’t many gunfights. There are snipers trying to pick people off and there are roadside bombs and car bombs. They use explosives to take out our troops. Surprise attacks. It’s much more random.
One time, an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) flew right over our unit and hit the building behind us. Close call. I was fortunate to not have any closer calls.
Within seven months, I was back home in the states with a newfound appreciation for American values and our way of life. I had great friends around me in the Marines that I served with that helped me get through that first tour. We had a great team. Family — that’s what we call each other over there.
I never stopped boxing. When you’re on the ground overseas, it’s all business. But back at camp, you need a hobby. Mine was boxing. I boxed with the All-Marine Corps team in national tournaments and trained hard when I wasn’t busy fulfilling my military duties. Fellow Marines and some of my trainers started telling me I had talent and that I should take boxing more seriously, maybe even pursue it as a possible career, but I never really thought about it that way.
It’s 2007. February. Iraq is calling again. A second tour. This time, the city of Al Taqaddum.
This one will be much more difficult than my first. On my first tour, I was still a kid. No girlfriend. No family. No responsibilities back home. This second tour will be more physically challenging. It’ll be more dangerous because instead of going as an electrician, I’ll be working security detail. And it will be more mentally draining as well, because my girl is pregnant, and I know there’s a good chance I won’t make it back in time to witness the birth of my first child.
This tour was more of a patrol, so we were doing more traveling with convoys, and you never know what to expect. Roadside bombs. Car bombs. Surprise attacks.
Knowing that I’d be going home to a child this time — and knowing that if I didn’t make it home, I’d be leaving a family behind — weighed heavily on me. And I wasn’t alone. I met a Sergeant who was in the same position. I remember talking with him about it, sharing our excitement — and our fears.
He never made it home. He never got to meet his son.
When I found out he died, the reality of what I already knew hit me even harder — the reality that anything can happen out here. When you have a family at home, it’s even tougher because you can only communicate so much. Social media wasn’t very big yet, so you’re either emailing or talking on the phone, and the cell service isn’t always great, so it’s mostly email. Every day, I wondered if my girl was okay. I thought about my child. I thought about home. I was lucky to have the guys around me over there to help me get through it.
I remember the day my baby was born. I was sitting in a tent at the computer waiting for emails with pictures and updates on the baby’s weight and health. It was a great moment, even though I couldn’t be there. When you’re in the military, sometimes you miss out on things.
I got back three weeks after he was born. I stepped off the bus, and I was still in uniform when I first held him.
That’s right. A boy. His name is Stephen.
I had survived two tours in Iraq and now I was back on base in North Carolina. I was fulfilling my military duties, enjoying my new son and still training in the ring, and life was good. I was a Sergeant in the Marines, I was becoming a better boxer and I had another child on the way. This time, a little girl.
It’s 2009. July 27. My new daughter, Ariyanah, is now two months old. Your first daughter is a little bit different than your first son. You’re a little more protective. That’s daddy’s little girl, and you’re not gonna let anything happen to her.
I came home late one night from training. The kids were asleep. I sat downstairs and turned on the TV to unwind a little bit before heading to bed. From upstairs, I heard my girlfriend scream.
I can still hear that scream. It’s burned in my memory. It’s one of the worst sounds I’ve ever heard.
If you’re a parent, you’ll understand this: You’re paranoid about your kids. When you walk by them and they’re sleeping, you stop and stare to make sure they’re breathing, and you won’t walk away until you see their chest moving up and down.
My girlfriend went to check on Ariyanah. Her chest wasn’t moving. She wasn’t breathing.
I can still hear that scream.
The doctors did everything they could, but in the end, they couldn’t save her. They said it was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The hardest part was that they didn’t even have an explanation. Just like that. Daddy’s little girl. Gone.
What followed were the darkest months of my life.
I didn’t want to do anything. I was down and out. She was only two months old, and it had only been a few years since my good friend Stephen died. I just thought, This isn’t fair. I felt like I was losing people close to me left and right. I just wanted to quit everything.
I even stopped boxing for those two months. The will just wasn’t there.
Over time, my family and fellow Marines pushed me to get back on my feet and back into the ring. They could see that I had talent, and they told me that I should go and fulfill my dreams. Fight for Ariyanah, they told me. That’s what she would want. That was my motivation, and boxing became my getaway. I would go into the gym and forget everything that was going on outside. I’d let out all my frustration and just focus on the sport.
It’s 2011. I had started fighting in military tournaments again and I had won a couple of silver medals. Now, I’m entered the Armed Forces Championships, where the winner earns a spot in the 2012 Olympic Qualifiers.
It was never my goal to qualify for the Olympics. I was just training to fight because I enjoyed fighting and it was a release for me. My attitude was to just go out there and give it my best every time I stepped into the ring. But when I started winning and winning impressively — beating guys who’d won multiple national championships — I started to build that faith in myself. I started taking boxing more seriously and looking ahead. I thought, I’m beating guys with better resumes than me… Maybe I can really do this.
And I did. I took gold at the Armed Forces Tournament, earning a spot in the Olympic qualifiers. There, I won bronze, which earned me a spot in the 2012 London Olympics.
I was blessed enough to have the opportunity to fight for my country in Iraq. Now, after so much adversity and so much pain, I had the opportunity to fight for my country, and for myself. This time, in London. And what made it even more of an honor was my coaches appointing me as a captain of the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team.
It’s 2012. July 27. Opening Ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics. The third anniversary of my daughter Ariyanah’s death.
Olympian. Captain. Veteran. I wasn’t supposed to be here. Nobody expected me to be here. I looked up into the sky and said to my daughter, Baby girl, I made it. I did it, and I did it for you. It was all for you.
I’ll remember that day forever.
I don’t have a triumphant Olympic hero story. I didn’t fare as well as I would’ve liked. I didn’t win gold. But nobody can take away the fact that I can be called an Olympian for the rest of my life. Now, I just had to make a decision on what I wanted the rest of my life to be.
The choice: Continue my career in the Marines or try my hand at professional boxing.
As a Marine, I felt I had accomplished a lot. I served two tours in Iraq. I was the only Marine in any sport to compete in the 2012 games. I was the first Marine to box on the U.S. Olympic team since 1992. I think I represented them well. But at the end of the day, I didn’t want to be that guy that looked back at his life and thought, What if…
So I decided to leave the Marines and give boxing a real shot.
I’ve had some early success as a pro boxer. I’m 11-0 with seven knockouts, but I’m still in the beginning stages. One thing about going pro: people start picking you apart. You’re not an amateur anymore. A lot of people doubted me. They said I didn’t have enough power, but I’m knocking guys out left and right. Now, people know I mean business. My record speaks for itself, but I still have to do more. You’re only as good as your last fight.
My record says I’m undefeated, but I’ve lost plenty in my life. However, I’ve also gained a lot. My son, Stephen, is a constant reminder of my good friend who left us far too soon. Now and I have another son, Jamel Jr., and a new daughter, Jazmyne. She looks just like Ariyanah, who I still think about every day.
I didn’t really have a plan after high school. I had a lot of friends growing up who are now either in jail or doing nothing, and if it wasn’t for Stephen Brown recruiting me into the Marines, maybe I’d be one of them. But you write your own story with the decisions you make and the people you surround yourself with, even if they’re only with you for a short time.
It’s 2015. June. Jamel Herring vs. Oscar Cortes.
Time for me to write my next chapter.