For even the most casual viewers of Bellator MMA, the announcing duo of Jimmy Smith and Sean Wheelock was a signature commentary team, two familiar voices with in-depth knowledge of the action inside the mixed martial arts (MMA) cage.
Suddenly and unexpectedly that team was broken up and Boston Celtics announcer Sean Grande replaced Wheelock before Bellator 140, leaving viewers who tuned in for "Lima vs. Koreshkov" on July 17, 2015, somewhat bewildered.
They weren't the only ones.
After recently talking to Grande about the change, I had more questions than answers, but Wheelock had gone off the radar. I reached out through the same channels I had used for previous Wheelock interviews, but he clearly had reasons for not wanting to talk about his unceremonious departure.
That wall of silence has finally come down and Wheelock is now ready to answer your questions and mine in this exclusive interview for MMAmania.com.
Wheelock was like the rest of us completely blindsided when he got the news:
"I think the story broke maybe an hour before I found out. Ironically enough, AwfulAnnouncing.com, a friend of mine who is their MMA and boxing writer had gotten an anonymous tip about it. He called on Spike and I think that forced the announcement. I was called by an executive at Spike (who) very matter of factly said, 'I've got bad news for you. We're not renewing your contract. I think it's best you don't do any more shows.'"
Wheelock was actually expecting Spike TV to offer him a new contract, but kept getting the run-around until he was no longer part of the broadcast team.
"This would have been the first contract negotiation since the departure of Bjorn Rebney. No longer were these negotiations with my representatives and Bjorn Rebney -- now this was a negotiation with my representatives and Spike. Unfortunately for me there were never any negotiations with my representatives at Wasserman Media Group and Spike. Just a lot of stalling while they were looking for other people apparently."
So the $64,000 question (or perhaps much more contractually) is, "Why was Sean Wheelock let go?" In his own words, there's an executive at Spike -- who for personal or professional reasons he won't name -- who had it out for him.
"I know for certain that Scott Coker had no input in this decision whatsoever. I think Scott Coker is fantastic, I consider him a friend, and he said some very gracious things to me when this decision went down. Coker has taken some heat from people, but as far as I'm concerned, his hands are clean. He was told the day before I was told that I was no longer going to be a part of Bellator. I know who (made the call), but I just choose not to name them, believe me."
One of the more revealing things that Wheelock said during our interview was that Coker may be a power broker when it comes to making and promoting fights, but every other part of the Bellator TV product is out of his hands.
"Television broadcasts, which was a major part of Bjorn Rebney did, is a zero part of what Scott Coker does and that's by design. He's not in charge of that wing of the company. When you're working for a MMA promotion that's owned by a television company, the television company is probably going to run the television portion of the show."
Wheelock also thinks Rebney gets a bad rap from MMA fans and fighters alike, and that it's become fashionable to bash him now that he's no longer around in Bellator.
"He was my friend and my close friend. We spent so many nights, especially early on in 2010, having dinner, hanging out in the lobby, having a cocktail, just doing stuff that friends do -- things that Jimmy Smith and I do -- just hanging out. He was extremely loyal."
And when the word first started to get out that Wheelock wasn't a favorite with Spike executives, Rebney made him a promise that he'd never forget.
"I heard early on in 2011 that there were senior people at Spike who didn't dig what I was doing and Bjorn Rebney said to me, 'As long as I'm with this company Sean, you will be the commentator.' He was certainly true to his word on that."
So now that Wheelock can sit back and look objectively at the situation, I had to know his thoughts on his replacement Sean Grande and what he brings to the table as an announcer.
"My first agent taught me two good things -- never wear a white shirt on TV and never speak ill about another commentator. They weren't going to replace me with an empty chair. It wasn't going to be Jimmy calling color while nobody calls play-by-play. I will say this -- I think it's odd that in combat sports we're able to accept somebody who comes in who readily says, 'I don't know anything about this sport, but I'm willing to learn' because I don't know that we would accept that in any other sport."
The bottom line for a lot of our readers who enjoyed Sean Wheelock's work is this: Will he be back on television as a commentator, and if so, when?
"I've had a few offers, I have a few things cooking, I have a great agency, so I'm very much interested in staying as a commentator in MMA. If I have a chance to add boxing, or Muay Thai, or kickboxing, I'd be thrilled on that as well, so there's no doubt."
In the meantime, Wheelock will work as an appointed (and unpaid) member of the Kansas Athletic Commission, overseeing MMA for the safety and health of the fighters, which is certainly interesting given that Bellator runs several shows a year in Mulvane.
"I've already told Adam Roorbach, our executive director, that I will not on principle be going to that show. As many people as I would like to see like Scott Coker, Jimmy Smith, Rich Chou, as long as certain TV executives are there, I think I'll be skipping that one."
Given his summary dismissal that can hardly come as a surprise, but one has to think we'll see Wheelock on television again sooner rather than later.
Complete audio of our interview is below and complete coverage of Bellator at MMAmania.com can be found right here.