No limits for Merrill
Hailing from the notoriously tough area of Inglewood, California, known for its gang rivalry between the Bloods and the Crips, Raymond Merrill II was born on the 29th January 1989 into an environment with a number of challenging factors.
Ray was born deaf, but this only became apparent to his (also deaf) mother at the age of two when he wasn’t responding to voices. With his younger brother also being born deaf a few years later, the Merrill household became dependent on hearing aids, signing and reading lips.
From an early age, the kids at elementary school would pick on him, but his instinct to fight back soon detracted them for going back for seconds. “It was my way of getting respect and showing everyone else in school that I was not to be messed with - and don't let the hearing aids fool you!” Merrill told Boxing Monthly.
Hearing aids apart, Ray was a popular kid – despite being a bit of a wise guy. “I got along with everyone, but I was always the only deaf person in the midst of hearing people. I never let my hearing stop me from socializing and being active.”
And academically? Ray explains - “Growing up I was always told that I was too smart for my own good. I was very smart, but didn't like to be told what to do. I chose to be more of a class clown unfortunately.”
Instead of focusing on the potentially deadly gangland distractions on his doorstep, Ray focused on the sub-title which came with Inglewood – ‘City of Champions’. From as early as he can remember, that sub-title resonated inside him, and he soon discovered sport could help him pay tribute to those three words. Although boxing was not his first love.
Ray explained to BM. “I was naturally gifted at every sport I played. My favourite was football as I am a very aggressive individual. My only problem growing up was not being disciplined. I had an ‘I don't care attitude,’ which doesn't get you far in anything in life.”
Ray’s mother soon realised that something had to change. Gangs, weapons, alcohol, drugs and money often lure impressionable individuals down a negative vacuum. Champions in the making can often become prisoners in training.
“I grew up in South Central to a hard working mother, but my father was in and out of prison when I was a kid, so I didn't have the best relationship with him. So, my mother moved us to Palmdale, California when I was 14, to protect me from gang life that infects South Central. She was also scared for my little brother, because he signs, and didn't want him getting killed because of someone mistakenly killing him because he's throwing up gang signs, but in actuality he's signing.”
A few years after settling down in Palmdale, Ray decided to walk into a boxing gym, not knowing he was about to walk into a discipline that would sculpture his future.
“I actually hated boxing growing up. I didn't understand it. My father used to watch Muhammad Ali’s old fights everyday as well as other great fighters, but I just had no interest. I didn't start boxing until I was 19 years old. I realised I had an anger problem, and needed a way to channel it. I didn't want to end up in prison like my father, so I walked into a boxing gym just to hit the bag. Little did I know I would be walking into a lifelong passion.”
Boxing as a deaf person would always come with its challenges, but Ray adapted quickly. “People always ask me when I know when the round is up in a fight, without being able to hear the bell. The answer - I can feel the vibrations of the bell on the ring mat, and the referee is given special instructions in advance. I also read the referee and my corner’s lips.”
Due to a late start in boxing, Ray only had five amateur fights, winning all of them. He soon realised that his dream was to turn professional and that Palmdale could not fuel his desire, so he took a leap of faith.
In 2013, Ray headed to the mecca of boxing, Las Vegas. He pulled up into the parking lot outside the Mayweather Gym, just as Roger Mayweather was closing up. As he walked in with nothing but a bible in his hand, they struck up a conversation, and Roger tested Ray’s knowledge out, asking him if he knew the various fighters on the walls, dating back over the last hundred years. Roger, who has coined the phrase on a number of occasions, ‘Most people don’t know shit about boxing’, had to concede that Ray knew his stuff.
At the time, Ray was sleeping in his car in the Mayweather parking lot. Roger and Floyd Mayweather Sr could tell Ray didn’t have a great deal of cash at his disposal, so they allowed him to train for free. Ray was delighted on a number of levels – “I was training every day, so was glad they had a shower in the gym, otherwise my car would have smelt funky!”
The Mayweathers never reneged on their commitment, and Ray now looks back with a smile on his face as he reflects on the last two years. “I was training with Floyd Sr for a year and a half, but because of his busy schedule I’ve also started working Jeff Mayweather. It has been an honour working with the both of them, and they have added many dimensions to me as a fighter, and taught me how to adapt to any style. It’s definitely a confidence booster when you have the best trainers in the world training you.”
Thankfully, it didn’t take long for Floyd Sr to take note of Ray’s potential. Standing at 6ft 3 inches and weighing 126lbs, Floyd Sr commented that Ray could be the next Tommy Hearns. Aware of his height and frame, Ray has a longer term plan. “I will stay at featherweight for as long as I can. As soon as I get a (professional) belt I will rise up in weight and get belts in as many weight classes as I can. I eat healthy, and I don't blow up in weight like most fighters do. I walk no heavier than eight pounds from my weight.”
Ray’s ambition is to have his pro debut as soon as September, but as he tells BM, he’s leaving that to his team. “Jeff is looking to get me a fight now. He's waiting to hear the word from Al Haymon.”
Ray’s ambition as a boxer goes beyond simply competing. He has an ultimate goal, in wanting to become the first ever black deaf professional boxing champion. (To my knowledge, he could become the second boxer in history to ever win a world title as a deaf boxer, behind Italian bantamweight, Mario D’Agata, who picked up the crown in 1956). Ray explained: “I'm very inspired to achieve this goal, and it keeps the fire within me ignited. All my life I was told by people, teachers, family that I wouldn't make it far in life, and I'm going to prove them wrong. I want to inspire not only the deaf culture, people with disabilities, but the world.” Early days, but it’s an interesting journey to watch unfold.
Back over on our side of the pond, I’m delighted with how England Boxing has addressed what is a fundamental need in society. By working in partnership with the likes of UK Deaf Sport and the National Deaf Children’s society, they have shown a strong commitment to helping deaf people be on the inside of the ropes looking out, as opposed to the other way round. Inclusion is always better than exclusion.
By educating trainers, referees and judges with bespoke knowledge for deaf boxers, their opportunities to excel are sky high. The likes of Ray Merrill are living breathing evidence that you should follow your dreams. You should push yourself to the limits – and perhaps most poignantly, don’t take note of those who say, ‘try something else’.
Ray’s inability to accept ‘no’ as an answer, combined with an incredible energy to succeed, will no doubt act as a great mentoring model for his brother and also the 70 million estimated deaf people on the planet. Not to mention those wanting to step out of the shadows of gang crime.
Ray signs off with inspirational advice. “Don't let your limitations in life limit you. If you have a dream or vision. Go for it! Don't let anyone tell you what you can't do. Everyone will not believe in you or your vision. Turn them into believers and make them regret that they've ever doubted you.”
“I grew up around gang members and I almost got sucked in at one point in my life. I soon realized that was the same direction my father went in, and I’d seen how that ended, so I decided to see how far I could go the right way. I've always said it only takes one person to make a difference, and I'm willing to be that person no matter how difficult it may be. I just want to make an impact in this world while I'm here.”
You follow Ray’s journey on Instagram and twitter @raydabombay