Jamel Herring waited months and battled through COVID-19 to show that he was ready for a major fight as a world titleholder.
After his performance Saturday in a title defense against Jonathan Oquendo, that status is very much uncertain.
Inside the Top Rank bubble at the MGM Grand Convention Center in Las Vegas, Herring retained his WBO junior lightweight title after Oquendo was disqualified at the end of the eighth round because of an illegal head-butt that opened a cut over Herring's eye during the fifth. The moment Herring said he couldn't see out of his right eye, the official had no choice but to stop the fight. Herring was taken to the hospital for precautionary measures after the fight to make sure his orbital bone wasn't broken.
The outcome of Saturday's bout is as murky as Herring's outlook as he attempts to prove that he is one of the top fighters in the 130-pound division.
The fight against Oquendo was supposed to be a tune-up for a future fight against Carl Frampton, a former junior featherweight and featherweight titlist who was penciled in to face Herring, potentially as soon as the end of 2020.
The messy ending Saturday raises another question: whether Herring has the mettle to beat someone of Frampton's caliber.
"It just got ugly," Herring said in his postfight interview. "I wasn't too satisfied with my performance, to be honest with you."
It seems silly to ask such a question of a former Marine who has served two tours of duty and dealt with COVID-19 that twice delayed his fight against Oquendo (31-7, 19 KOs). However, it seems warranted, considering the end of the fight.
After an uneventful first round, trainer Brian McIntyre urged Herring (22-2, 10 KOs) to use uppercuts and short hooks to combat Oquendo's charging style that used his head to get inside in lieu of a jab.
The approach paid off in the third round. Herring landed a big left uppercut that floored Oquendo, who struggled with his balance at times throughout the fight. For the next few rounds, Herring successfully found success at a distance and caught Oquendo while he continued to charge inside.
That started to change in the sixth round. Herring kept finding himself trapped on the inside against Oquendo. The distance between the two fighters was minimal, as Oquendo continued to barge his way into Herring's chest. Even if that didn't lead to many successful punches, it was clearly frustrating Herring.
That was apparent as Herring made his way to his corner at the end of the eighth round. In a ballroom without fans, ringside microphones caught him telling his corner that he couldn't see out of his right eye.
In his postfight interview, Herring offered a different version of events.
"My team just felt like it was too much," Herring said. "They just had to stop it or whatever."
The most clarity regarding the situation comes from what Herring said about the ugliness of the final rounds and Oquendo's head-first style.
Herring also made an interesting point. In a 10th-round TKO loss to Denis Shafikov in 2016, Herring's first career defeat, he said he had a similar experience fighting with one eye. However, he continued that night until his corner stopped the bout.
On Saturday, Herring, not his team, made the decision. At the time he complained about the vision problem, Herring had dropped only one round combined on all three judges' scorecards. Referee Tony Weeks even gave Herring's team time to decide what they wanted to do before Herring said he couldn't see and the fight was stopped.
Finding a way out against someone such as Frampton might not be as easy or convenient. Herring had the opportunity to end Saturday's fight and retain his belt. Whether he knew it or not, he took advantage of it.
If the bout against Frampton comes to fruition, maintaining status as a champion will be much more difficult for Herring. Frampton is a much more polished and skilled fighter than Oquendo, who managed to land only 17.6% of his punches, according to CompuBox.
Oquendo is physically like Frampton. As seen Saturday, the former comes forward more often than Frampton, who is a bit more calculated in his attack. After the fight, Herring said the target for his next opponent was unchanged.
"I still want the Carl Frampton fight next, by all means," he said.
But the postfight scene in the ring summed it up. Herring didn't grin when the decision was announced, nor did he reach for his belt. Even though he won, the way he got there was unsatisfying.
To beat Frampton, he'll need to show more resolve than he did against Oquendo. Whether he can is a question that cannot be answered until the next time he steps into the ring.