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Sean Wheelock details abrupt termination from Bellator, looks back on early commentary work with Teddy Atlas

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Former Bellator MMA commentator Sean Wheelock spoke with Bloody Elbow's Three Amigos Podcast to talk about the next phase in his commentary career, the 'seismic shift' he sees coming for MMA, and the most shocking ending to any fight he's called.

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Manny Rodriguez (left), Sean Wheelock (center), Jimmy Smith (right) discuss Bellator season 6 in 2012
Manny Rodriguez (left), Sean Wheelock (center), Jimmy Smith (right) discuss Bellator season 6 in 2012
Youtube screenshot

Longtime Bellator MMA play-by-play voice Sean Wheelock was surprisingly removed from his position back in July. In his place came Boston Celtics radio play-by-play man Sean Grande, while Wheelock's great friend Jimmy Smith remained in his color commentary spot. Wheelock has since taken a (unpaid) role as a Kansas Athletic Commission member, but he has made it clear that this was not related to his firing, which was done by Spike.

A "gag order" of sorts was made thereafter, which prevented Wheelock from speaking to MMA media for several weeks, but he's since done the interview rounds across various MMA platforms, including ours. The Three Amigos Podcast recently spoke with Wheelock on a host of topics, including his reaction to the abrupt end to his Bellator commentary days, his new gig with Titan Fighting Championships, his thought-provoking opinions on what's transpired (and what will soon transpire) in the MMA landscape over recent months, and a story on Bjorn Rebney using one of his commentary moments as his cell phone ringtone.

TAP: We know you've recently had the "gag order" lifted, so run us through the sequence of events that led to your unfortunate and surprising dismissal.

Wheelock: Essentially, I had signed my first contract with Bellator in January, 2010—a two year contract with Bjorn Rebney. After the first year, Bjorn said, ‘We really like what you're doing. We want to give you a little more money and better terms, let's renegotiate,' so we put it through my agent.

I had a year left on that contract in 2012, Bjorn came back to me and said the same thing, so I got another multi-year contract. As we entered this year, I was aware that the current contract was ending and Bjorn was no longer with the company. My agent would be negotiating with Spike and no longer with Bjorn. I wanted to get the process going, so starting in February, I had my agent start making overtures. There was a lot of stalling, ‘Yeah, we'll get back to you. We're just figuring out the schedule. We just need to put everything together, but we love Sean. Everything is great, no problem.'

Boxing was the first sport I ever commentated, and I really wanted to do the PBC series on Spike. When I didn't get that, I probably should have been smart enough to put things together, but for whatever reason, I didn't. Going along further and further, and the end of my contract is getting relatively-not immediately-but relatively closer to the end, I wanted to get my new contract done.

It was cold, it was corporate, it was just like that.

About four or five days before I was set to get on the plane for our July show at the Mohegan Sun, I got a call from a Spike executive, and the conversation was basically, ‘Sean, are you driving? You might want to pull over, I have some bad news. We've decided not to renew your contract. We think it's best that you don't work here anymore, thank you very much.' I said, ‘Thank you,' and that was it. It was cold, it was corporate, it was just like that. I think the best analogy is in UFC 1, when Gerard Gordeau throws that full-on roundhouse kick into the face of Teila Tuli, and his tooth goes flying into the was kind of like that. Teila Tuli didn't see that kick coming from Gordeau, and I didn't see this.

Obviously, if I look now in hindsight, I'd see that they weren't proactive in approaching my agent, they were stalling negotiations and they didn't give me PBC boxing when I let it be known that I really wanted to do that. Maybe I should have put it together, but this is a series that I'd been on for five-and-a-half years, 127 straight shows, never missed a single event, never even missed a production day. I love this gig and I would have signed a 100-year contract.

It really came as that kick to the face. I never got my last show. They chose to move in a different direction, and people have asked me, ‘Why did Spike make that decision?' Honestly, I don't know, because I asked them, and they didn't tell me. I had calls with two more senior executives from Spike and it was basically the equivalent of getting dumped in a relationship and the person says, ‘No, no, no. It's not you, it's me,' and you never really find out. It was a lot like that.

They still haven't told me an official reason or given one to my representatives as Wasserman Media Group. I got the, ‘We're moving in a different direction' thing, and clearly, they did.

TAP: When exactly was your contract scheduled to officially end?

Wheelock: I have to be a little careful legally on how I answer this. I had a few months left on my contract, but I think I could get in trouble legally if I give the exact date. If you think about a date when most contracts end, a time when maybe people celebrate, and they look at calendars, maybe a ball drops in Times Square, that would be about the time.

We still had some time left on it, but in my experience working in television, working for Bellator, other organizations, when I was a major league soccer commentator, generally, if you're valued, they're not going to let you go much past a year left on your contract without approaching you.

I should have been smarter in this, but sometimes you just don't want to see what's there. As I look back now, it's easy. They weren't aggressively approaching saying they wanted to renegotiate, they didn't give me PBC Boxing, but on the other hand, I wasn't getting critiques or notes or ‘bad job' or ‘you might want to put your family on alert' or anything like that.

TAP: You said there was still some time on your contract. Did Spike give you a severance package or pay out the rest of your contract?

Wheelock: [Laughs] That's stuff I really can't talk about. If you want to come over and have a Jack Daniels with me, I'll tell you all about it. I will say this, in terms of once I was gone, I think Spike acted very honorably.

TAP: A story was recently saying that there was an executive at Spike that was responsible for your termination based on some personal feelings they had towards you. Is that correct?

Wheelock: That's absolutely correct. It's funny, you hear certain things, and then when you're gone, the stuff that you hear from people because they can tell you now that you're gone... you know, as early as 2011, I was made aware that there was a senior executive at Spike who didn't think that I was worthy to join the show when they went to MTV2, and never really liked me. He was someone who was around the show quite a bit, had a little power, and when Bjorn left, he had a lot more power.

You know, as early as 2011, I was made aware that there was a senior executive at Spike who didn't think that I was worthy to join the show when they went to MTV2, and never really liked me.  -Sean Wheelock

Bjorn Rebney always said to me, ‘Sean, as long as this is my company, you will be my commentator,' and he was absolutely true to his word. He was my defender, my protector and to a much larger extent than I knew at the time. This was not a Bellator decision, this was a Spike decision. I always separate the two. I didn't get bumped from Bellator. I got bumped by Spike from Bellator. In my mind, there is Spike and Bellator, and clearly this was a decision by Spike to get rid of me, there's no question in my mind.

TAP: You're set to call Titan 36 in December in Kansas City. Do you have a formal contract with them or is this a one-off thing?

Wheelock: I hope that it turns into a long-term thing. I spoke with [Titan FC CEO] Jeff Aronson, he reached out to me very very gracious. We'd never actually met or spoken, we obviously knew all the same people. Both of you know that MMA is a tiny business -- one degree of separation -- very graciously reached out to me and we both agreed let's do one show and hopefully this will turn into a very long term thing. I've spoken to a few other organizations that I want to work for and I hope that they come through and I hope that I can announce.

Ultimately, I want to work. Other than losing my job at Bellator, a tough thing for me was when we cut down on shows, because when we were doing 25-26 shows a year, I was hoping we would go up to about 35. This year, Bellator dropped down to 16 and that was tough for me. As much as I love my wife and my little girls and my mom (who lives 10 minutes way), I'm built to travel. I love calling fights, being on the road. Since I've stopped doing Bellator, I've gone to local MMA almost every weekend with my 10-year-old daughter. I love being around fights, so I'm thrilled for this Titan opportunity. I'm hoping I can announce a couple of other orgs fairly soon. If I can get a schedule where more weekends than not I'm calling a fight, I'm going to be really really happy.

TAP: Do you have any interest in possibly covering boxing, jiu-jitsu or kickboxing? How many offers have you fielded that you may have in consideration right now?

Wheelock: Boxing is something I very much want to do, and Premier Boxing Champions is spread across a lot of channels. I would love that opportunity on PBC. Even TruTV does a boxing series, so something like that. I've been asking around for 6 months "How do I commentate Metamoris?" because I'm someone who does grappling and I love it. I've never spoken to the Metamoris people; if they're listening, call my agent or call me. I would love to do Metamoris. I'm someone who would love to call a lot of combat sports, if I if I can have a base of MMA but you allow me to call a grappling event like Metamoris, if I can do boxing, I don't care if it's PBC, if I can just do any type of boxing would be great; kickboxing/Muay Thai, I really love combat sports. So to be able to do a wide array of stuff -- that's why I was so hopeful that I was going to get to do PBC on Spike. I thought this would be really cool if it grows back to doing 25 Bellators a year and 10-12 PBCs, that a nice little schedule. I really love calling fights on television, it's a passion and it never feels like work. I love everything about it -- the preparation, being around the fighters, the interviews, and I love the work.

TAP: In the late ‘90s, you did Friday Night Fights with Teddy Atlas. What was it like to work with Teddy?

Wheelock: What a gracious person! I was a kid, I was really young in this business and I thought I was really good; I wasn't good, I've seen it! He was so nice to me, so gracious, and people forget what a good boxing commentator Bob Papa was, because he hasn't done it in awhile. He's the radio voice of the NFL's New York Giants, but Bob Papa was great. To step into that show and as his fill-in, people could've been not very nice to me and they were extremely nice. Nobody was nicer than Teddy Atlas and he set the tone. I've seen him a few times since, he's come to a couple of Bellators and I've spoken to him on the phone a couple of times, and I had him on our podcast (Let's Get It On) with John McCarthy right after Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, and I always remind him of that. I was like, "Teddy, it shows your character, I was a kid in my early or mid-20s, you didn't have to be nice to me and you were incredibly nice and gracious to me." That was a huge thrill. I think the two biggest thrills of my career -- I did three Super Bowls for the BBC, which was really cool, I did the FIFA World Cup, which was amazing -- when I got there and kinda looked around and thought ,"Wow!" when I did Friday Night Fights the first time and doing PRIDE I'm like, "Wow this is very odd. I can't believe I'm doing these shows. How cool!"

TAP: We've seen plenty of UFC fighters over the past few months either make the move to another promotion or at least publicly declare they'll "test the free agent" market. How much do you feel the MMA landscape will change as we see this trend continuing?

Wheelock: I feel like a seismic shift is about to come. If we go on the premise that what we know as MMA began with UFC 1, November 12th, 1993, there's been a real sea change in our sport about every 7-8 years. Look at what happened around 2000-01, that's when Bob Meyrowitz was getting out. The UFC was in a very dark period under Bob Meyrowitz, and then the Fertittas and Dana White come in. And that you look at around 2007-08, that's when you have the UFC buying PRIDE -- which put me out of a job at PRIDE unfortunately, that was a dream gig doing PRIDE, it was fantastic -- you had to deal with ProElite, you had a real shift. Remember Calvin Ayre was doing BoDog Fights, Affliction was there, Scott Coker was coming on with Strikeforce. I feel like 2015-16 we're coming to that seismic shift again. I do think that competition is great. I think it's great for people who work in our sport, whether you're a fighter, a cutman, a commentator, a manager, a matchmaker, if there are other people who are willing to pay for your services and bid up your services, I think that's outstanding. The UFC is clearly #1 and rightly so with the number of fights they do, the number of fighters they have, the quality of product they have. But it's an interesting time and I've always thought whoever the #2 org is, whether it's Bellator, ONE, WSOF, or what Nobuyuki Sakakibara is going to attempt to do with his new organization, I think that the true test is going to be, "Can you take someone who the UFC really covets and outspend the UFC and get them?" Don't get someone who is on a 3 fight losing streak, or who is in the later stages of their career, get an outright star. Get a champion, get a top 5 fighter, someone who they really covet to jump, and then I think you have something, but again I'm all for competition.

I'm an MMA fan, I want all MMA events to do well and I mean that sincerely. Again, I have no animosity towards Bellator. Don't ask me about Spike, but towards Bellator, I want to see them continue to do great. I'm really proud of where the company has come from in the growth under Bjorn Rebney and Scott Coker. I just want to see MMA succeed and I don't think we have to be pro football where it's the NFL and really nothing else. Maybe we're a model like college football where you can have the Pac-12, the Big 10, the SEC, and you have a lot of different groups doing very well. That's what I hope for for this sport.

Again, I have no animosity towards Bellator. Don't ask me about Spike, but towards Bellator, I want to see them continue to do great.

TAP: Do you feel it's better to have the bulk of the best fighters in 1 promotion or scattered across multiple?

Wheelock: It really depends on how often they fight. It's great to see the best fighters fighting. John McCarthy and I talk about this a lot in our podcast, In boxing, nobody ever cares about the promotion. Mayweather and Pacquiao, nobody really cared if that was a Don King fight or if that was a Bob Arum fight or if that was done under De La Hoya or Mayweather Promotions. People just wanted to see that fight, but yet in MMA we're the opposite. You can take a fight and put in the UFC And you put it in World Series of Fighting. People get really wrapped up in who the promotion is. I think ultimately, we just want to see the best fighters. It's great to see talent spread around, like I thought the Palhares vs. Shields fight in WSOF was phenomenal, up until the end. that fight would've had a lot more at. At the same time, ultimately, I think all of us as fans want to see the best fighting the best on a regular basis.

TAP: You've called thousands of fights for various promotions so this may be hard to single out one, but what is the most shocking ending to a fight you've ever seen?

Wheelock: I can actually immediately recall a fight. September 2010, Majestic Theater, San Antonio, Texas. Joe Soto vs. Joe Warren - It was the first world title fight in Bellator. Joe Soto had won season 1 in the 145 lbs tournament, so he was the champion, he got the belt. Joe Warren won the season 2 145 lbs tournament, which gave him that title shot. I don't believe in 10-7 rounds -- John McCarthy and I talk about this on our podcast all the time, we really don't think that unless there's a point deduction that there should be a 10-7 round -- round 1 of that fight (if you haven't seen it, go on MMA-core or Dailymotion or Youtube), that's pretty much a 10-7. I mean, it is a wipeout, Joe Soto cannot miss on Joe Warren, and Warren amazingly makes it through 5 minutes. He's sitting on his stool, he comes out, Joe Soto is taunting him, he's playing, he's shuffling, he's almost doing an Ali/Prince Naseem Hamed/Ric Flair he feels so good about himself... and Warren catches Soto with a knee and just starts throwing punches and knocks him unconscious and takes the title that stands out for me. Something I got a kick out of and was always really proud of, Bjorn Rebney had that as his ringtone. We'd be sitting in productions meeting, or at a restaurant, a hotel lobby, his phone would ring, and there's me calling the end of that fight. It's my all-time favorite fight as a viewer, as a commentator, and that's the most shocked I've ever been. I've been shocked at some reversals and some victors and swings of momentum, but nothing like that fight.

Follow our Twitter accounts: Stephie HaynesThree Amigos PodcastIain Kidd and Mookie Alexander. The show is available right here or via the embedded player below. Sean's interview interview starts at the 1:06:25 mark of the audio.