Sean Wheelock is the lead play-by-play commentator for Bellator, an MMA organization that airs every Friday night on Spike. Wheelock is a veteran sports commentator who has called the MLS, the World Cup, the Super Bowl, US Open tennis, and mixed martial arts fights. In the past, you may have heard his voice on ESPN, Fox Soccer Channel, and BBC International.
Heading into Bellator’s first pay-per-view on May 17th, I caught up with Wheelock to chat about his history in MMA, Bellator, and the next logical step for a company that has steadily grown during its life.
(NOTE: This interview was conducted before Eddie Alvarez pulled out of the main event of the pay-per-view with a concussion)
Joe Lucia: How did you first get started with Bellator?
Sean Wheelock: I’m someone who’s a hardcore MMA fan. I’m very proud of the fact I watched the very first UFC. My mom paid the $14.95 and she was someone who would always buy me the boxing pay-per-views without a question. I was kind of fading out of being a pro wrestling fan, hardcore boxing fan, and she bought me UFC 1. I saw the posters – $14.95, and that was November 12th, 1993, and I was absolutely hooked.
In the early to mid-2000s, I started doing some regional MMA shows. I so wanted to be a UFC commentator when UFC was the only thing around and I think that was a way in. They used a lot of different people and I’m talking this is when no one would hire me for anything. I wanted to be an MMA commentator. I wanted to do it. And then I got turned on to PRIDE through Netflix, actually. I started ordering all of the PRIDEs on Netflix and extremely fell in love with PRIDE to the point where I kind of fell out of love with the UFC because I fell in love with PRIDE.
So I started doing regional cable around the Midwest, doing shows. PRIDE was actually looking for a commentator at the end of 2006. I put together a demo tape, sent it cold to LA. I was in LA doing an LA Galaxy match, met with the LA office of PRIDE, wound up getting hired as a PRIDE commentator. My boss in PRIDE, Jerry Millen, brought me to M-1 who formed the partnership of Jimmy Smith and myself as commentators.
We did two years together at M-1 and then Bjorn Rebney, who is my boss at Bellator, recruited Jimmy and me as a fully-formed commentary team to start with Bellator. I signed my contract in January 2010, and started on Bellator season two, which I believe was the first week in April 2010.
JL: I actually had no idea you worked for PRIDE. That’s pretty crazy. Did you just do a couple of shows there at the end?
SW: Yeah, I was there right at the very end. It’s funny – people misremember that I did the Las Vegas show. Even Frank Trigg, who was my broadcast partner, was misremembering that I did the Las Vegas show, but I joined right after the Las Vegas show. But it was insane for me – I literally went from doing the World Cagefighting Federation on Metro Sports Television from Independence, Missouri to being in Saitama Super Arena in front of 50,000 people there, and there’s Fedor Emelianenko and Wanderlei Silva.
It was unbelievable. It was the equivalent of someone having done high school football and then taking over for Al Michaels on Sunday Night Football on NBC. It was crazy. I’m such a hardcore fan of the sport and PRIDE was an amazing experience. I wish that PRIDE would have lasted longer, but when Zuffa purchased it, they chose not to keep it. But I had a really loyal boss in Jerry Millen who said “whatever the next thing is, you’re my guy” and that turned out to be M-1 a few months later.
JL: How would you describe Bellator to the fight fan that has only heard of the UFC and isn’t aware of any other promotions?
SW: I think a good analogy is college sports – college football and college basketball. It’s almost as though people would say, I’m going to use the Big Ten because I know you’re a Big Ten guy, I’m a huge college football fan, but I only watch the Big Ten. So you don’t watch the SEC, you don’t watch the Big 12, you don’t watch the ACC, you don’t watch the Pac-12. That’s what I feel that it is – a lot of people, just because the UFC was first and they’re almost 21 years old now, people have a tendency to watch the UFC.
It’s almost synonymous – nobody asks for a tissue, they ask for a Kleenex, right? Sorry to the Puffs people for saying that, but it’s almost a generic term, where people will say “oh, you do those UFC fights”. There’s always the joke in this sport about training UFC. It’s just that name recognition.
But with Bellator, we’re another promotion. We’re tournament-based. The UFC has phenomenal fighters. I think we have phenomenal fighters. There’s some phenomenal fighters in One FC. I think there’s some phenomenal fighters in World Series of Fighting. This sport has gotten so big and so popular that not one promotion can contain everyone, and I think that’s across the board. It’s changed a lot from when PRIDE basically had all of the international guys and the UFC had mostly US and Canadian guys.
So for people who only are aware of MMA through the UFC, I would say there’s a whole different world out there of fighting, all the way from small amateur shows that are probably taking place all across your state on weekends, to the very small professional shows, working your way up to the upper level of the sport, which I believe is Bellator and the UFC.
I think we’re a phenomenal promotion, and I think our top fighters and our top champions are every bit as equal to the UFC or any promotion in the world. I just think that the sport has gotten that big and that talent-filled.