Former NFL star Shawne Merriman finds his second act with MMA promotion
This story first appeared in USA TODAY.
The potential jumped off the screen.
Shawne Merriman was scrolling through Instagram last year when a video of a sparring session stopped him.
The athlete in the clip shot at a gym in Greensboro, North Carolina, was Chris McCain, a defensive lineman at a crossroad in life. After being charged two misdemeanor counts of battery in June 2018 and later being cut by the Indianapolis Colts, McCain couldn’t find an NFL team willing to sign him .
“They gave up on me,” McCain said. “And I had given up on football.”
Meanwhile, Merriman, a former three-time Pro Bowl linebacker, was positioning himself for his own second act: mixed martial arts fight promoter and league owner. Merriman saw McCain not as damaged goods but rather his ideal target: a highly skilled athlete craving a fresh start, a new sense of purpose.
Merriman could identify with that.
After an eight-year NFL career, the former San Diego Chargers star retired following the 2012 season. But despite tackling various ventures, including his Lights Out clothing line and television broadcasting, something was missing.
The void gnawed at Merriman. He struggled with the feelings of isolation. But eventually, he found martial arts — the offseason training tool he used to improve his conditioning and pass-rushing techniques — offered deliverance.
Four years later, Merriman has found his new pursuit, spearheading the growth of Lights Out Xtreme Fighting, an independent mixed martial arts league sanctioned by California.
On March 13, Merriman will join co-owners and business partners Steven Bash and George Bastrmajyan in hosting LXF 5 at Commerce Casino outside Los Angeles. Highlighting the night are championship bouts between heavyweights Mike Quintero and Blake Troop as well as bantamweights Albert Morales and Ryan Lilley. Meanwhile, McCain, who took Merriman up on his offer, will fight in one of eight additional bouts.
“I love it. It’s one of those things where you see things growing, and you just want to go harder,” Merriman told USA TODAY Sports.
“It’s one of these things where you go out as a coach, you design the play and they execute it, and you’re happy as hell.”
‘In my blood’
The allure had existed since childhood.
A love for boxing ran strong throughout Merriman’s neighborhood in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Family members and friends boxed. The community gym served as a gathering spot.
And even though his own athletic path led him to the football field, Merriman remained a boxing fan.
“Boxing and combat sports was just in my blood anyway,” he said. “(In) 2005, when I got drafted by the Chargers, MMA had just started to pick up as it came onto the scene. My rookie year, I noticed that I wasn’t very good with my hands, just from watching film and old footage, so I said, you know what, let me try this MMA thing out. …. So, I just kind of fell in love with the sport.
“Every offseason, it turned into a little more. … I knew that I was going to be involved in the sport when I retired at the end of 2012, but I didn’t know what capacity.”
After working in 2016 with Bellator, one of the country’s biggest MMA promotion companies, Merriman began training for his own fighting debut. But he decided that given the time commitment required, and the demands of his other business ventures, he couldn’t sufficiently devote himself to that career. However, he still trains daily with fighters and hasn’t ruled out a debut.
Last May, Merriman found another way to deeply immerse himself in MMA. He met Bash and Bastrmajyan, who co-owned California Xtreme Fighting, and approached them about joining their team.
“I went to two fights, I said, ‘We have to do this and I want to be involved.’ I sat down with them and said, ‘I’ve got a crazy idea. I want to rebrand this as Lights Out Xtreme Fighting. … I said, ‘I can add an element to his fight game that’s missing because of my background with the NFL and the story I have to tell about why I love the sport so much.”
Bastrmajyan was skeptical. He and Bash had promoted approximately 200 events, and some of their top fighters had clashed with high-profile opponents from Golden Boy Promotions and Don King’s MMA ventures. Would this rookie actually bolster their efforts?
Merriman quickly showed the answer was yes.
“He brings his presence, his star-power to bring in sponsors, advertisers, big, Hollywood people to the shows to get the notoriety that we need,” Bastrmajyan said. “He’s a go-getter man. Hustling 20 hours a day, sleeping for four. Last night at 1 a.m., he texted me saying, ‘Hey, such and such might be available to fight for us.’ Eight, nine meetings a week, flying wherever.
“Yes, he’s the face of Lights Out Xtreme Fighting, but he puts in a lot of work. He’s not the guy that sits there and once the camera starts rolling he jumps in. No. He grinds and he hustles.”
With Merriman’s help, the league has secured broadcast deals with Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket, Fox Sports San Diego and regional Fox Sports markets in Las Vegas, Hawaii and portions of Mexico.
Attendance has grown from roughly 700 fans at LXF 1 to around 1,100 at LXF 4. After announcing the date for LXF 5 last Monday, Bastrmajyan says the 1,800-seat arena is nearly sold out.
“It’s grown by leaps and bounds since May,” said Merriman, who expects to secure a major streaming deal in the near future and dreams of LXF, which currently has 40 fighters signed, rivaling Bellator in popularity.
But another goal also fuels Merriman’s mission.
Because of the aimlessness he encountered upon retirement, Merriman wants to offer other former athletes a second act.
“I just hope to provide that platform,” Merriman said. “Do the guys want to have a 10-year career, five-year career or just a couple years? You never know, but this does change the course of what they have going on. Early on, it’s not a lot of money in it. We can’t pay our amateurs. Obviously they get sponsors and stuff… But a lot of these guys don’t have a whole lot going on. They want to get back out there again.
“Being secluded and feeling like you’re not a part of nothing is a terrible place to feel and be. I experienced a little bit of that even though I had tons going on. I still felt that way.”
That’s a big reason why Merriman reached out to McCain after seeing his Instagram videos.
Recalled McCain, who reached a plea deal on his charges and entered a diversion agreement, “I had a situation where I ended up in jail for a week, and after I got out of jail, I was waiting for teams to call me and no teams were calling me because I had been in jail. I started to realize that that was it for football. … Shawne hit me up and said, if you ever want to take this fight thing serious, I’m starting up a fight league shortly and you’re welcome to come out here with me and see if you like it.”
Two weeks later, McCain called Merriman from Los Angeles International Airport after buying a one-way ticket and flying cross-country. He wanted to know where to go next. Merriman scrambled to line up transportation from the airport, a place for McCain to live and a game plan for launching his fighting career.
Now, the 6-foot-5, 241-pound McCain is 3-0 as a heavyweight, and Merriman said he’s showing world champion-level potential.
“I’ve always been a firm believer that everybody needs a second chance. This is not really a second chance for these guys, but it’s a second coming,” Bastrmajyan said. “If the average football player’s lifespan is four to five years, and these guys have been doing this since they were kids from Pee Wee to junior high to college to NFL. They put a lot of time into the sport and then they don’t have a way to make a living after that. We want to give them a second opportunity.”
LXF recently signed former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Kache Palacio and is in talks with a former hockey player, said Merriman, who predicts the opportunities for former athletes will in turn help further grow his league.
“People need to see us, not only in the country but internationally,” he said. “We have a great following of guys with different cultures and backgrounds, with great stories to tell. … People hear MMA and think UFC. No, we have our thing, too, and we’re coming.”