At some point, Shawne Merriman’s entry into combat sports began to feel like an inevitability. A question of when, not if.
A 6-foot-4 behemoth who wrecked havoc upon NFL offenses in a past life, Merriman became a common sight at Bellator events over the past years. He was dubbed a celebrity ambassador by the promotion, a thickly muscled three-time Pro Bowler who would roar from cageside as Benson Henderson and Patricio Freire waged war for the television audience. He was fascinated by it all. He sparred Tito Ortiz for a Bellator featurette. He posted gym footage and talked about fights incessantly. He was the fan who seemed to revel in the wonder around him, and all the while, whispers flowed from the west coast about the eventual day Merriman would take that final leap and make his debut in the cage.
That day may still come. Merriman’s MMA dreams are not dead, that’s for certain. But they’re not his present focus either. That’s because Merriman has taken a leap of a different kind. Rather than waddle his first baby steps into the fight game with an amateur MMA fight or a kickboxing smoker, Merriman hurtled over the entire violence spectrum and landed straight into the gnarliest arena around: On November 9, in Casper, Wyoming, the former NFL linebacker will make his combat sports debut on the inaugural World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation (WBKFF) show, facing 26-fight MMA veteran Mike Bourke in a bare-knuckle boxing contest that has the potential to get extremely bloody, extremely quick.
It’s a dramatic step for a rookie of the game, marching straight into battle with no gloves, no headgear, and no experience against a opponent like Bourke, whose first MMA fight came back in 1999 when mixed martial arts was still known to some as No Holds Barred. But Merriman has never been one to shy away from a challenge, and even during his playing days, the man they call “Lights Out” always had a flair for the dramatic.
“Over the last couple of years, it’s been thrown out there and I was serious about it. I always have been,” Merriman told MMA Fighting about his looming combat debut. “At first, I thought my first fight was probably going to be in MMA. That didn’t work out, so when it came up to me and WBKFF came around, they reached out to my manager and they said, ‘Hey, does Shawne still want to fight?’ Of course. I’m still training and in-shape, I feel good, and literally, probably within a week, we got it done. And I couldn’t be more excited.”
In a way, Merriman has been preparing for this moment for the last 12 years. He first started experimenting with MMA cross-training in 2006 following a spectacular rookie season with the San Diego Chargers that saw him collect Pro Bowl, All-Pro, and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Merriman says he wanted to get more violent with his hands, and with the help of NFL reporter Jay Glazer and UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture, his offseason MMA workout regime paid instant dividends in the form of an jaw-dropping 2006 campaign that saw him lead the league in sacks and become a breakout star for the Chargers.
By the time his NFL career started winding down in 2012, Merriman says mixed martial arts had become a true passion of his, something more than just an offseason routine. At that point, he already knew the day of his first long walk into battle would come sooner or later.
Most people in MMA assumed that walk would come in the Bellator cage. As former Pro Bowler Herschel Walker can attest, Bellator president Scott Coker has a certain knack for promoting famous athletes who want to test their mettle in the cage. But in the end, the right opportunity in mixed martial arts never quite arrived at the table for Merriman, and WBKFF was more than happy to step in and take the reigns.
“I can’t really answer that on my side,” Merriman says about his MMA debut that never was. “I made it very clear that that’s what I wanted to do, and I’m all about opportunity, man. If the right opportunity presented itself, I’m going to take it because I’m not afraid of work. You’re going in, there’s definitely a learning curve in doing what I’m doing now, but also, too, I’ve been boxing and doing some Muay Thai stuff on and off for the last 12 years.
“When I retired at the end of the 2012 season, I didn’t know whether [I would make the move to fighting] as soon as I retired or whether I was going take some time off, obviously running my company Lights Out. It was like, ‘Man, okay, well this is what I want to do.’ Fighting is one of those things that you don’t halfway do it. When somebody says, ‘Hey, you think you’re going to fight,’ if that answer’s not yes right away that that’s what you want to do, I would advise anybody to not do it. Either you fight or you don’t fight, because the preparation that goes into it, man, you’ve got to be all-in.
“These last few months, I’ve made this my life. I really have,” Merriman continues. “We had about an eight-week training camp, and I started working and training beforehand so I could walk into camp in-shape, in fight shape at least, and that way I could start working on more of the technique and working on skill rather than trying to get in-shape. So, that was my approach from the start, and I’ve been around fighters my whole life.
“My uncle, Henry Buchanan, was a professional boxer. Henry ‘Sugar Poo’ Buchanan, he was a professional boxer. And just being around fighting, being around some of the biggest fighters, being in southern California — you’ve got to think, this is a hub here for MMA and kickboxers, Muay Thai guys and so forth. So I’ve been around these guys. I can always pick their brains. I can always pick up the phone and call whoever, and they’ll take my calls and they’ll give me some of their time to kinda give me some pointers.”
Merriman is spending his days now splitting time between Glazer’s Unbreakable Performance Center and former heavyweight contender Justin Fortune’s boxing club, Fortune Gym, in Los Angeles. He likens the work he’s doing to the early stages of his old career, when hard work, focus, and the monotony of repetition were the only conduits that could teach him how to be an elite pass rusher. He knows he’s new to fighting, but he’s learning, ever so slowly, and each passing day brings with it a new wrinkle to explore.
In contrast to the former NFL star and his greenness, Merriman’s opponent Bourke is a grizzled veteran of the fisticuff arts. A 49-year-old heavyweight nicknamed “The Rhino,” Bourke spent most of his career competing for King of the Cage, but dabbled in Pride FC and other relics from a bygone age. His last appearance came in 2010 with a wintertime romp over UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock. Bourke finished the living legend with punches in a mere two minutes, then hung up his gloves on a winning note. But now he’s back for one last dance with WBKFF, and Merriman knows not to take the journeyman lightly.
“I saw a few of his fights, man, and I know that he can knock you out. That’s for sure,” Merriman says. “So by knowing that, we just have to — obviously I’ve got a height and a reach advantage, we’ve got to be able to move around and make him move a little bit with you, and do some things to make him uncomfortable. I want him to try to charge me a little bit, I want him to try to come in, because you’ve got to make him pay when somebody does that. So, they wanted me to fight a vet, they wanted me to fight somebody who’s been around, and is going to be able to take them punches and deliver them back to see if I can take them. That’s what (WBKFF executive) Paul Tyler told me from day one.
“He said, ‘No, we’re not giving you a layup. We want you to fight a vet.’ And they had two or three guys, and Mike Bourke’s the one they moved forward with.”
Merriman says this isn’t a one-off. He signed a three-fight deal with WBKFF and he intends to see it through. He’s performed on the biggest stages imaginable — college stadiums in front of hundreds of thousands, Monday Night Football in front of millions — but the cozy Casper Events Center on Nov. 9 presents a challenge unlike any he’s ever faced in his life. This is something new. This is something exciting, something frightening. This is something legitimately dangerous, a bare-knuckle fistfight in the untamed West, against a man who’s done this plenty of times before — and even the former All-Pro isn’t sure what’s in store.
The lifelong fight fan has finally become the professional fighter he always knew he would be, and now it’s up to him to write how the rest of this story goes.
“I want the fight fans to see what I’ve got to offer,” Merriman said. “Obviously I appreciated all of [my time in] football and seeing what I did on the field, but to be honest, when I walk in the gym every day, none of that matters. The accolades are left on the field, it doesn’t matter. The pride gets checked at the door, ego is checked at the door. And I want to put on a show, man. We were just talking about me being a fight fan. I know what I like to see when I’m watching fights. I want to make sure that when people order that pay-per-view, they’re ordering it for a good damn reason and they’re going to get their money’s worth.”