Wheelock (left) with Bellator color commentator Jimmy Smith.
Editorial by John Archibald
As Bellator 65 approached, I caught up with cageside commentator Sean Wheelock, who gave some insight to the promotion and what could be expected of the show in Atlantic City on Friday, April 13th. As someone who has long been involved with the sport of mixed martial arts, his expertise was right on point as always.
“I’m really looking forward to this world title fight at 135 pounds,” Wheelock said of the Bellator 65 feature fight involving champion Zach Makovsky against Eduardo Dantas. “Zach Makovsky at the weigh-ins, our champion and a guy who is so nice and articulate, what he said was ‘I don’t know if I really feel like I’m the champion. I won a tournament, Dantas won a tournament, so in my mind this is sort of like the first world title fight.’ I think that is a really mature and intelligent way for Makovsky to look at this. He won the championship because he won our inaugural 135 tournament back in the fall of 2010. Dantas earned this title shot because last year he won our 135 tournament. Makovsky has been phenomenal. He’s undefeated at this weight class. His only two losses have come at heavier weights. Dantas is just 23-years-old, and he’s an absolute prodigy. He was sold to us as a prodigy out of Brazil, along with his accomplishments in Japan, but he’s actually exceeded my expectations. I’m really excited about this fight.”
One of the main things that Bellator has done extremely well since its inception is find somewhat unknown fighters with a healthy dose of talent, and the organization then does a great job of turning those athletes into stars.
“Bellator has a reputation of being fighter-friendly, and it is a place quickly building a reputation of where you want to go if you’re a fighter,” Wheelock stated. “A lot of people bring in their teammates. I think word has gotten out that if you come into Bellator, the money is good, you have a chance to fight for a world title if you win three fights in a tournament, the fans are great, and the production is great. It’s a really good place to fight, and it’s a very loyal organization. No disrespect to any other MMA organizations around the world, but I think people look at Bellator and the fact that we’re moving to Spike in 2013 and owned by a majority share by Viacom as being an organization going upwards. One of the biggest accomplishments of Bellator is that we survived. It reminds me a lot of when I was involved with Major League Soccer. I was a commentator in Major League Soccer from year one in 1996, and all I heard the first four years was that we weren’t going to make it, we’ll be out of business by next year. All Jimmy Smith, my color commentator, and I heard in 2010 was Bellator is not going to make it, Bellator is going to be done. Last year, you’re only on MTV, you’re going to be done. Once the Viacom purchase and the move to Spike was announced, there hasn’t been any more of that, and we’re settling in for the long haul.”
Something that definitely separates Bellator from the rest of the MMA world is that title shots must truly be earned. Fighters have to make their way through a tournament to get a crack at the belt, and Wheelock says that truly legitimizes what the organization is doing.
“Bellator is in the business of creating new stars,” he commented. “When you come into this organization as an established star, like Masakatsu Ueda who was a big star in Japanese MMA or Roger Huerta in the spring of 2010, what they found out is you’re not going to get preferential treatment. You’re not going to come in and get an easy tune-up and then a world title fight. I believe that, above all else, the reason we are having so much success in Bellator is because we are creating our own stars. If you look at the philosophy of what Art Davie did when he created the UFC on November 12, 1993, he didn’t go out and try to find established boxers, pro wrestlers and NFL players. He created his own stars – Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn, Royce Gracie, Tank Abbott, Kimo Leopoldo – these were people by and large completely unknown and very quickly became stars in MMA, and I think that is what Bellator has done. When I look at other organizations that have come and gone, such as Elite XC, Bodog or the IFL, they weren’t in the business of creating their own stars. They were in the business of taking established stars and trying to keep their career going. Bellator has gone out and created their own stars. Look at Pat Curran, Ben Askren, Michael Chandler – these are guys who were virtually unknown in the MMA world, and now they’re legitimate stars in MMA. I think that’s the absolute secret formula.”
One place that has found itself as a regular stop on the Bellator train is the State of New Jersey, particularly in Atlantic City. Bellator 65 will take place at the historic Boardwalk Hall.
“First off, the State of New York should be embarrassed,” Wheelock remarked when asked about the region. “Look at how many great fights they’re losing. Look at how many New Yorkers come into New Jersey for these fights. New York is either naïve or arrogant in not allowing MMA, and I think anyone listening to this is going to feel the same way. New York’s loss is New Jersey’s gain, and there are phenomenal fight fans here. There’s always an energy when we come to Atlantic City. These crowds are smart, they’re intelligent, they know fighting, and they back their fighters. It’s always a pleasure to be here, and we are treated phenomenally well. It’s a thrill to come to Atlantic City and do fights. It always feels like something a little extra special. I love our fight crowds here, and there’s always a certain energy in the room. There’s just a buzz of excitement when you do fights in AC.”
Bellator 65 will go live at 7:00 p.m. Friday night on www.bellator.com and the main card will hit MTV2 at 8:00 p.m.