The window may not be wide open—slightly cracked may be more accurate—but Shawne Merriman’s MMA debut is still a definite possibility.
The three-time San Diego Chargers All-Pro still possesses the size, speed, and power that made him one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL, so there’s no reason he couldn’t successfully transition to MMA. It also helps that Merriman trains consistently with Bellator welterweight Joe Schilling. With that combination of training and talent, he’s still got a strong shot at recapturing his “Lights Out” nickname (earned after he knocked out four opponents in his high school days).
“It's still not completely off the table,” Merriman says about entering the ring. “The only thing with fighting is, when you do it, you can't ‘go test it out’ or ‘try it’. Either you do it or you don't.”
But whether or not he ever actually steps in the ring as a fighter, Merriman remains content these days viewing the action from outside the ring—as he will for Friday’s Bellator 185—as a sponsor for the organization with his clothing brand, appropriately named Lights Out. He’s also stepped into a mentorship role after signing rising Bellator star welterweight Joey Davis to represent his clothing line.
“He's up and coming right now,” Merriman says of Davis. “He doesn't have a huge following yet, but if you ask anybody in Bellator, I think he's going to be a future champ.”
When he talks about Davis—the Compton native and former unbeaten D-II college wrestler is now 2-0 in Bellator—Merriman can’t help but see an image of himself. Back in 2005 Merriman was a young, talented, and brash 20-year-old first-round draft pick who needed a veteran influence.
“Ray Lewis and LaVar Arrington kind of grabbed me up at a young age and guided me through some of those things I may have experienced,” Merriman recalls. “Now, for me, it's almost my duty and my job to help young guys like Joey out as much as possible through this process.”
His advice for Davis’ road to the welterweight belt is simple: “We're playing football in training camp, the object is to go to the Super Bowl, but we’ve got to win Game 1. If you take your eye off the prize, and you don't look at the opponent who's right there in front of you, you'll never get there.”
Merriman’s venture into MMA training dates back to 2006—one year after his 10 sacks helped earn him NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He trained with MMA coach and Fox football analyst Jay Glazer to improve his hand-eye coordination. It worked: He went on to record 17 sacks the following season.
“MMA instantly translated onto the football field,” Merriman says. “I ended up just falling in love with the sport, so I started to not only do it on the off-season for practice, I started to spar and really get into it, and learn a little bit of grappling and Muay Thai. And it turned out I was pretty damn good.”
Today, with 260lbs on his 6’4’’ frame, MMA training and conditioning dominate his training regimen, a shift from the football-specific training he was used to. “In football, everything was about explosion getting from A to B as fast as you can, changing direction of things like that.” Now Merriman’s focus is on circuit training, including lots of battle ropes, kettlebells, even yoga. “I'm not trying to build mass or huge muscle anymore, I want to really stay toned, lean, fit, and flexible.” Merriman watches calories not foods, per se, and staying hydrated through his long hours is key. “Eating fun food once in a while keeps me from being miserable,” he says. “But I do live off of Perfect Hydration.”
Flexibility—both in the gym and boardroom—is key these days, especially for an ex-linebacker who has several hats thrown into a variety of sports ventures these days. Along with Bellator, Merriman is actively involved with NASCAR as partner and car owner for driver Jesse Iwuji, one of only two African-American drivers on the circuit. “It's been exciting to have someone like Jesse and me come in and give a kind of fresh perspective to the sport.”
He’s also making an effort into helping diversify the sport, recently hosting 100 inner city children to a day at the track at Dover International Speedway, a part of his Lights Out initiative. “‘NASCAR has a huge diversity problem,” he says. “It's pretty out there and people know about it, but things are changing. Things are getting better, and NASCAR has done a great job in opening the doors for some new fans, some new faces.”
Back in the commentator’s booth, Merriman can’t get enough of the return of on-field celebrations. “I'm so damn happy that I get a chance to watch these celebrations now,” says Merriman, who once made waves—and enemies—with his own Lights Out sack dance. “That's why I played football. That's why when I was a kid 12 years old, and I was looking at Deion Sanders and all these guys coming out the tunnel...and doing touchdown celebrations. It excites me again to see guys be able to have fun.”