JAMEL HERRING flew through the Middle Eastern skies that still haunt his nightmares on the wings of his guardian angels.
The former US Marine, who lost count of the number of comrades he lost on two tours of Iraq, is in Dubai to defend his WBO super-featherweight world title against Irish icon Carl Frampton on Saturday.
His inspiration, far above money and belts, are the memories of his childhood friend Stephen Brown who he followed into the Marines and tragically died of lung cancer, aged just 20.
And his first daughter, Ariyanah, who heartbreakingly passed away from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at just two months old after her desperate daddy had tried so hard to revive her.
Chatting over Zoom without ever meeting previously, it feels cheap and almost cruel to ask Herring about jetting into the desert again 14 years after the hell that left him battling PTSD as well as elite boxers.
But the 2012 London Olympian is the sort of special human being who can see when a hack is struggling with this most delicate line of questioning and stops to help out.
He told SunSport: “As you were asking me the question I had a moment.
“When you fly internationally you get the live digital map in the headrest in front of you and it was funny because when I was coming over I saw Fallujah and Baghdad on the map.
“They were both on there and as some people know I was in Fallujah in 2005 when things were crazy and I had a moment at the time to realise where I was then and where I am now.
“I thought about the brave men and women I served with at that time, I still think about those people daily.
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“That’s why I interact with everyone on social media who reaches out to me, I am a people person and I try to enjoy every day because it is a blessing.”
Herring has come through insurmountable darkness to see rays of light all around him.
Certain dates have aligned so perfectly that he cannot pass them off as casual coincidences.
July 27, 2009 was the day he heard Ariyanah’s mother scream upstairs before racing up to try to resuscitate his baby girl.
July 27, 2012, after feeling her little spirit urging him not to lose his talent and potential in a haze of grief, he led the American boxing team out as captain at the London Olympics.
And, when he won his first world title on May 25 2019, it was on what would have been Ariyanah’s tenth birthday.
He could now score the biggest win of his career in the same life-changing region that shaped him and Stephen – who he named his first son after – just a week before his childhood hero’s birthday.
He said: “Of course being back out here feels special. And Stephen’s birthday is April 12.
“I believe things happen for a reason, in terms of my faith.
“I look at them as my guardian angels and, because I have my children alive with me today, I know I have to live by example so they can look up to me.
“And not just my own children, I know people look up to me and respect me so I have to behave in a certain way.
“Some people who are not even with us today play a big part in how I try to live my life.”
This long-awaited clash with Frampton has faced a handful of relocations and reschedulings after Herring was hit with Covid-19.
The 35-year-old first tested positive and suffered symptoms in June and, with an underlying condition, was seriously affected.
And he admits the September tune-up fight he had against Jonathan Oquendo, which he won via disqualification after being repeatedly headbutted, showed a man still at war with the virus.
He said: “I have asthma so it did a job on my respiratory system.
“It plays a lot against your fatigue and it weighs your whole body down so you just cannot get in the ring and train to 100 per cent.
“But I hope I am living proof that you can come through it.
“It is a scary thing because it hits different people differently.
“I went through it in my last fight. I got heavily criticised for that last fight but that was not me in there, it was a guy trying to fight through a virus to maintain his career.
“It is rough, the pandemic takes a toll on your body and sometimes your body does not react well.
“It’s only afterwards that you start to worry about the long-term effects.
“Thankfully I can say I have recovered 100 per cent and I am grateful because a lot of other people will not.”
Herring has defied enough odds and doubters already but insists he is only really getting started.
Once he uses his five-inch height and seven-inch reach advantages to defeat Ireland’s two-weight hero he insists he will target rival champ Oscar Valdez or chase a champion up at lightweight.
First, the former gunner just wants to enjoy the sunkissed Arabian sky without worrying that a sniper has his crosshairs pinned to his helmet.
He said: “It will be a nice change fighting in the desert, doing something I love and knowing I can go home to my family, instead of being in the desert during those times.
“I cannot really describe how I feel being here now, especially at world championship level, this is a dream that most people never thought I would get here.
“I always had doubters, a lot of people never even thought I would be an Olympian.
“But I never wanted to live with a ‘what if’ I had to go pro and see where I could go.
“In today’s boxing you get a lot of world titles and champions but a lot of those guys never get that marquee fight.
“So I am so happy to say I am in one of those moments that people might talk about for many years to come.”