Wheelock (right) works cageside for Bellator Fighting Championships.
Veteran MMA Commentator Talks about the Move to Bellator
By John Archibald, Resolution Sports
Philadelphia (Sunday, July 25, 2010) – This past Saturday, I was able to catch up with sports commentator Sean Wheelock after he wrapped up doing the call for a 4-1 Philadelphia Independence win over Sky Blue FC in Women’s Professional Soccer action. For those who don’t know, Wheelock has been around Mixed Martial Arts long before it exploded onto the mainstream, and he was also in the booth when Major League Soccer debuted in 1996. Needless to say, he has more than paid his dues in the industry and earned his way into the lead commentator role for Bellator Fighting Championships, a position that he feels is his best yet.
“Best gig of my career, man,” he said of Bellator. “You’re talking to someone who’s done a World Cup, three Super Bowls, week one of MLS back in 1996 and a lot of cool things. And it’s the best gig of my career by far.”
After season one of Bellator concluded in 2009, the Latin-based organization (Bellator is Latin for “warrior”) decided it wanted to branch into the English-speaking fight community. Something they would need to make that transition was a well-versed voice to break down the action. Enter Wheelock.
“It’s a job that I really wanted,” he reflected on being cageside for Bellator. “I was the last English-language commentator of PRIDE, for which I’m just immensely proud. I thought PRIDE was far-and-away the best organization in MMA, and you’re talking to a guy who bought all the early UFC pay-per-views, including UFC 1, and still has them on VHS.”
As irony would have it, a virtual buy-out of the Japanese-based PRIDE Fighting Championships by the UFC in 2007 brought an end to what was at one time the biggest MMA organization in the world. With the move, Wheelock joined the booth for the Russian-based promotion M-1 Global.
“I was a PRIDE guy, and Jerry Millen, who was the U.S. VP of PRIDE and one of my best friends, took me to M-1,” Wheelock said. “From M-1, we were looking at other opportunities. I knew about Bellator, and I followed their first season on ESPN Deportes and tried to find their English-language shows on the web, and I was impressed.”
Wheelock mentions a season-based concept, which is something that stands Bellator on its own in terms of most fight promotions. Each season, the organization runs tournaments for its respective weight classes, with the winner taking on the champion of that division.
“It goes back to (Bellator CEO) Bjorn Rebney, who at one time was Sugar Ray Leonard’s business partner when Sugar Ray Leonard was a boxing promoter,” Wheelock explained. “Bjorn Rebney was a lawyer, his dad was actually – this is very interesting – the GM of the Seattle Sounders in the old North American Soccer League. He comes from a sports background, and he understands this. What Bjorn said is the thing that always bothered him about boxing is it is so arbitrary. Who is the number one contender? It’s almost like someone just waves their hands – you’re the number one contender.”
Wheelock then broke it down in terms any casual sports fan could understand.
“Bjorn gives the analogy – it’s like at the beginning of the NFL season, what if Roger Goodell would say ‘you know what? Let’s have Minnesota if Favre comes back, and let’s have New Orleans play them in the NFC Championship. And the winner can play the Patriots. How about that?’
“That’s kind of like what promoting is like, and that’s what match making is like,” Wheelock remarked. “It seems ridiculous in a team-sport concept, and what Bjorn was saying is ‘why don’t we make the champions have to fight someone who actually earned it, so there’s no mystery about why they’re fighting this opponent for the title?’ Thus, the tournament system. The winner of the tournament emerges as the fighter who will face our champion for the title. So there’s no mystery about ‘well, maybe there was a back room deal or contract or what have you.’”
As a man who has been in the vortex of MMA and soccer long before either was accepted into the mainstream of today’s sports scene, Wheelock has seen both grow exponentially over the years. Being a fan of both sports is something that has become a regular occurrence in each game’s fan base, and Wheelock broke down a great reason why that might be.
“They’re both ‘thinking man’ sports,” he suggested. “You get a lot of really intelligent people who love both sports. When you’re in these sports, you’re all in. There as so many casual NFL fans – there are also a lot of hardcore NFL fans – but there are millions of casual NFL fans. I don’t meet a lot of casual soccer fans and casual MMA fans. When you’re in the sports, man, you’re in the sports.”
Catch Wheelock and his partner, Jimmy Smith, break down all the action of Bellator Fighting Championships at Bellator 24 from Hollywood, Florida, on Thursday, August 24th, through the FOX Sports family of networks. For more information on Bellator, visit www.bellator.com.
CLICK HERE for the full exclusive interview with Sean Wheelock.