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Opinion: Jamel Herring should have been allowed to fight Tuesday night

14
Jul

Dealing with annoyances and screwups and politics outside the ring can be as or more draining for fighters than the in-the-ring part of the sport.

Fighters quite often feel most at home and in the flow when they are in that squared circle. It’s experiencing and processing downs and up with managerial and promotional matters, and other situations where one isn’t as able to be master of one’s own destiny at that moment as one would prefer, that can affect one’s fondness for the sport massively.

It sounds like Jamel Herring is handling the ludicrous rollercoaster ride he’s been on the last month as well as can be…but you could forgive the 34 year old Coram, Long Island, NY native if he did some stomping, shouting and swearing when he was informed Monday that his Tuesday fight versus Jonathan Oquendo was off.

Again.

CATCHING UP ON CATASTROPHES

If you missed the news, Herring (21-2 with 10 KOs) felt ready to rock on Monday, and would have made weight for his July 14 WBO 130 pound title defense against the 36 year old Oquendo on ESPN.

Herring told RING he’s hoping the third time’s a charm, and he can get a re-reset fight in August.

Both men were juiced and eager for the combat, because they’d been matched together on July 2. That fight got put off because the Top Rank promoted Herring tested positive for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on June 20.

He rested up, let his immune system do its thing, and once he was showing no symptoms, and got the OK from a physician to re-start training. Meanwhile, the folks at Top Rank adapted, as they have repeatedly since starting to hold abbreviated fight cards at MGM, and found another date for the Herring-Oquendo face-off to unfold.

All parties agreed, July 14 it is….Until it wasn’t, because Herring got tested on July 12 and he tested positive for the virus, he told RING.

(UPDATE, posted Friday, July 17: Please note…The previous sentence has been changed, to best reflect where information on that July 12 test came from. It DID NOT come from the Nevada commission, the writer went back and forth with Herring himself about the multiple tests he’s taken.

Bob Bennett is the executive director of the commission, and we spoke on Friday afternoon. He correctly takes very seriously fighters’ right to privacy regarding medical records, and that’s why I changed the wording, to make that crystal clear. Bennett was kind enough to give me time and he spoke on how the commission is handling testing, how they’ve crafted their protocol, and how they listen to a wide range of sources to inform them on how to proceed with testing, and interpreting results, all of it.

You will see down below in the story, I talk about how such a commission is likely to err on the side of caution. Much better that than the alternative, right? I originally wanted to communicate to readers that putting together and maintaining such a strict testing regimen is the opposite of easy, and I will say it more explicitly now: I believe that Nevada has done a really good job overseeing “Bubble” shows. Positive COVID tests show that the system is working. Bennett told me he gets it how Herring could feel frustrated, but the man who served 24.5 years in the FBI, his points were well-taken on my end: he and the whole of the commission are most capably looking out for the safety and well-being of not just the fighter, but all staff and personnel involved in “Bubble” cards.)

OK, let’s repeat what we know, to get to a point of clarity.

Herring’s first test for the virus came June 15 in Omaha, where he trains. Negative, good news.

Jamel Herring has dealt with adversity time and again in his life.

Check out Herring’s social media accounts. He was initially frustrated by the fight cancellation, but by July 15, he had this take: “Gotta look at the brighter picture, and just remain grateful.”

A June 20th test in Omaha, though, came back positive. The left-hander had been feeling ache-y, but chalked it up to training. Better to be safe than sorry; his temp was taken, and it was 101.5. A nasal swab test confirmed what people around him suspected. Herring characterized his case as “mild” and the fighter recovered. And Herring did another test on July 3, in Omaha, so he could get back to physical activity. He passed the test.

More and more folks are coming to understanding, this testing deal is inexact.

He doubled down on training that much more, knowing that Top Rank could and would re-insert Herring-Oquendo onto “the Bubble” schedule.

On July 7, official word dropped that on July 14 we’d see Herring-Oquendo. But those best-laid plans….On July 12, a pesky positive cast another cloud on the title defense.

Top Rank, though, has done their homework, they know there is ample research indicating that someone can test positive, and not be a risk to transmit this virus. Top Rank thought and hoped that Herring could take an antibody test. Antibodies, according to the US government’s Center For Disease Control (CDC), “may tell you if you had a past infection with the virus that causes COVID-19. Antibodies are proteins that help fight off infections and can provide protection against getting that disease again (immunity).”

Herring got a blood test, he had COVID-19 antibodies in his system.

Positive…for antibodies, a good thing.

But the commission held firm, Herring-Oquendo got tossed from another “Bubble” card.

HERRING MAINTAINS COOL DURING TRYING TIME

RING checked in with the 130 pound champ, who we’ve gotten to know a bit as we’ve seen him climb from the 2012 Olympics, to the PBC platform, then to championship level as part of the Top Rank fighting family.

We don’t pretend we don’t admire how he’s soldiered on after seeing horrific scenes while serving in the Marines in Iraq and then taking on emotional shrapnel when he saw his two month old baby daughter perish from SIDS in 2009. How was his head Monday night?

“I’m good, brother,” Herring said. “Just been taking it easy but my antibody test just proved that I had the virus and built the antibody to beat it. They (the Nevada commission) have to change their protocol! I have the antibody which is POSITIVE to help fight the virus, and the virus is NEGATIVE.
Top Rank tried to save the fight by requesting I get the antibody test as proof I’m ok. The commission were the ones to make the final call. Top Rank really tried their best fighting for me.”

Lord knows I’m no doctor, haven’t even played one on TV and I admitted to Herring that I sometimes get confused with what is known and what isn’t regarding the virus. Me too, he said. I also know that a body like a Nevada commission is likely to err on the side of caution. But I was under the impression that someone who’d had the virus and possessed antibodies is not seen as a risk, to contract COVID-19 or to be transmitting the virus.

(But infectious disease specialists will say we still don’t know whether the antibodies are protective, and if they are, how long they are protective for. Whereas there’s overwhelming evidence that face coverings cut to some degree the risk of spread, we don’t have the research at hand to speak with certainty about antibodies and immunity.)

DOC TALK ON HOW LIKELY IT IS (OR IS NOT) THAT HERRING HAS COVID-19 AGAIN

But what do I know, I’m a boxing writer. So I reached out to a physician, an MD, with no dog in the hunt. Not affiliated with Team Herring, or Top Rank, or boxing, period.

This physician is in a position to have a solid command of the virus and would be able to weigh in, in meaningful fashion, regarding Herring’s case, as it was explained to me by the fighter.

“Seems odd to cancel a fight for that, since you know he actually had the infection in June,” the physician said. “This would be the expected result, that he had it and now has antibodies against it.”

And, here, to me, is THE KEY to the case, and what, ideally, the Nevada commission (attention Bob Bennett) needs to wrap their collective head around:

“It is possible to have non viable (unable to cause infection) viral particles on the swab testing for weeks after the infection,” that doctor told me.

Bennett and company need not take my word for it, but how about the word of a physician who actually tested positive for COVID-19, fought it off, developed antibodies, and donates plasma to help people who are sick with COVID.

Literature also exists which bolsters Herring’s case, that he should have been allowed to fight.

On June 8, the highly-regarded medical journal STAT ran a story on a mom who wasn’t able to see her preemie baby, aside from on video monitor, for two months. Why? Because the woman, in Canada, repeatedly tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. She was discharged, but her newborn stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit.

An excerpt from the piece by Helen Branswell: “Her case is one of a number that have experts questioning the utility of testing people over and over again after they’ve recovered. Experts have also raised doubts about the value of a growing mountain of studies that show some people test positive for weeks after infection. There’s concern that such tests are being misinterpreted to suggest people are infectious when they probably are not, and are keeping them from returning to work — or, in this particular case, being reunited with their loved ones, for no good reason.”

Those nasal swab tests, the writer concluded, after making the rounds talking to experts, can’t determine whether the person being tested is emitting whole virus capable of infecting someone else, or just viral particles which can NOT cause infection.

And here is more material, burnishing Herring’s case, this time from the CDC:

“At this time, replication-competent virus has not been successfully cultured more than 9 days after onset of illness. The statistically estimated likelihood of recovering replication-competent virus approaches zero by 10 days (CDC unpublished data, Wölfel 2020, Arons 2020).”  That dropped on May 3, under the headline “Symptom-Based Strategy to Discontinue Isolation for Persons with COVID-19.”

The piece reiterates this line of thinking: “At 10 days after illness onset (the date symptoms begin) recovery of replication-competent virus in viral culture (as a proxy of the presence of infectious virus) is decreased and approaches zero.”

That medical-ese can give regular folks a headache. So here’s an easy to process summation from that Stat article: “Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that people can be considered recovered and non-infectious 10 days after their symptoms began, as long as they have been symptom-free for three days.”

I’m not and the STAT and CDC pieces do not promise 100% certainty on this issue, how to proceed after infection and recovery. “The only way to know if a person is actually still infectious — shedding or emitting what’s known as “replication-competent virus” — is to try to grow virus from a specimen from that person,” Branswell in the STAT story. “That process, called culturing, is time-consuming and in the case of SARS-CoV-2, not so easy to do. The virus can only be worked on in laboratories that have a high level of biosecurity — BSL 3. Not every hospital would have that capacity.”

(NOTE: Branswell’s newest effort for STAT pulls no punch, and even smacks to the belt-line, just to get the attention of mask deniers and such. “There’s no point in sugar-coating this. The U.S. response to the Covid-19 pandemic is a raging dumpster fire,” is the napalm-y lede.

“Accept that for now the virus has the upper hand,” STAT’s Branswell writes on July 14.

If the Nevada commission is able to and wants to start up a ‘culturing’ addendum to the protocol assembled in May, that would be ideal, probably. But it doesn’t seem feasible. So, in lieu of that, let’s re-examine how to proceed with athletes who have tested positive, and if we are doing the right thing in testing, and re-testing them.

Looks to me like Jamel Herring was NOT a risk to himself or his foe or others in “the Bubble,” and that he should have been allowed to defend his title, and earn his purse.

Herring is an undeniable credit to the sport, and he deserves the very best boxing can offer from all points in the circle. I’m not dissing the Nevada commission here, I’m a ‘better safe than sorry’ guy when it comes to COVID-19. But at every step of the hard mission, professionals tasked with responding to the pandemic threat and helping plot steps forward have to bow down to the best informed. That means doctors, epidemiologists, scientists, not politicians, pundits or the voices from the bleachers who are saddled with biases they aren’t even a bit aware of.

We end with the last word, from the fighter himself:

“I feel as if no matter, I have to keep a positive attitude about things,Herring said. “The reason why I don’t complain about these setbacks is because when I look around, there are a lot of other fighters, under other banners, that are still sitting on the sideline waiting to get some sort of new. At least with Top Rank they can quickly reschedule me back in the mix. Not to mention, Bob Arum just announced via Twitter that both Frampton and I are fighting in August now, then against each other in November, so I’m pretty happy knowing how rough 2020 has been, I still can make up for lost time!”

Sorry, I can’t give Herring the last word. He’s a go with the flow type, so let me agent, humbly but firmly, on the behalf of him and others who might see opportunities unfairly erased:

Boxing nation, Nevada commission, powers that be–let’s look harder at the science and re-figure what to do about viral positives from people who’ve had and fought off COVID-19, stat. 

 

–Michael Woods is a Brooklyn resident who has covered boxing since 1995.