The M-1 Challenge broadcast team of play-by-play announcer Sean Wheelock and color commentator Jimmy Smith might be one of the best kept secrets in MMA. However, after Affliction’s “Day of Reckoning” pay-per-view event on Jan. 24, the tandem will likely be a secret no more after they debut as the promotion’s new U.S. announce team.
Wheelock and Smith’s bosses at M-1 made the revelation following a recent interview with FiveOuncesOfPain.com. The team remain under contract to M-1 and are being made available to Affliction as a part of an ongoing partnership between the two fight organizations.
While the two have been flying under the radar as a team while calling fights for the M-1 Challenge every Friday night at 8 p.m. on HDNet, Wheelock and Smith are already established as individuals.
Wheelock has been a professional announcer for the past 13 years and is one of the premier soccer play-by-play announcers in the United States. Currently the voice of the Kansas City Monarchs of the MLS, Wheelock also hosts a weekly show dedicated to soccer on BBC radio in the UK.
Having been involved with broadcasting since the age of 18, Wheelock’s broadcast credits also include the 2006 World Cup and three Super Bowls for BBC Radio as well as a three-year stay at ESPN. While working for the “Worldwide Sports Leader,” Wheelock was the number two man behind Bob Papa for the channel’s former “Friday Night Fights” boxing series in addition to his primary role doing soccer play-by-play.
Despite his background as a mainstream sports announcer, Wheelock should not be mistaken for a bandwagon jumper looking to get involved with MMA simply as a way to create a new revenue stream.
“I adored MMA,” Wheelock said during our exclusive interview. “I was one of those people that actually bought UFC 1. I saw the poster in my gym for (the event) and was absolutely hooked from that point forward. I remember reading about this hybrid sport. I think it was an article in Sports Illustrated, where it was referred to as ‘real pro wrestling.’ I was intrigued as all hell by that.”
Wheelock has been intrigued enough by combat sports that his passion has caused him to leave his chair in order to take on a more active role at times. A licensed boxing referee, Wheelock presided over 200 fights during an eight-year career as an official. Additionally, he currently practices grappling under former U.S. Sambo Champion Steve Scott and also studies jiu-jitsu and Judo.
Despite his combat sports resume, Wheelock was careful during the course of our conversation not to position himself as anything more than a broadcaster. His current athletic pursuits are merely an attempt to help improve behind the microphone, as his dream has always been to call the action as opposed to being a part of it.
“The commentators can either make your experience better, or they can make it worse. But you’re never the star,” Wheelock said during our interview. “And I think as a commentator that you always have to understand that. You’re there to make people’s viewing or listening experience more enjoyable and add something to it. But you’re not the star. Nobody is there to watch you.”
Working in the broadcast business at the time of the UFC’s inception, Wheelock began to make overtures to start covering the sport during its infancy in the U.S. However, without contacts in the world of what was known at the time as “No Holds Barred Fighting,” Wheelock’s requests to get involved fell largely on deaf ears. It wouldn’t be until later in which he would be finally given the opportunity to start broadcasting MMA several years ago when he began to cover regional shows.
The regional work would eventually pay dividends, as Wheelock would eventually receive his big break in MMA in 2007 after being hired to do play-by-play for the PRIDE Fighting Championships.
“After doing some shows for regional cable networks, I was able to put together a tape and just cold-called (then PRIDE U.S.A. and now former EliteXC executive) Turi Altavilla,” Wheelock revealed. “I was able to get to Jerry (Millen) and sent Jerry a DVD. I was in Los Angeles doing soccer and he was nice enough to invite me down to the PRIDE offices… We talked for a long time and he said he’d be in touch. A few weeks later he called and offered me PRIDE 33.”
Unfortunately, Wheelock’s window of opportunity closed fast, as PRIDE 33 was his first and last event with the promotion after Dream Stage Entertainment completed the sale of the company to Zuffa. But when one door opens, another one closes. Millen would eventually reunite with two old friends from PRIDE, Vadim Finklenstein and Fedor Emelianenko. Millen was brought on board at M-1 to help produce its television and when it came time to find a English-speaking play-by-play announcer, the search began and ended with Wheelock.
While Wheelock and Smith have displayed good chemistry since beginning their broadcast partnership this past February, they have vastly different backgrounds. While Wheelock is a professional broadcaster by trade, Smith had no broadcast background up until recently.
Smith background is in fighting and you could say that it’s a background in his blood, as his grandfather boxed in the military with his father also having boxed as well. But Smith chose a different combat sports path, instead opting to train heavily in jiu-jitsu, where he holds the rank of purple belt. Jiu-jitsu ultimately led to MMA, where Smith is viewed as a talented welterweight prospect with a 6-1 record.
Currently on hiatus from competitive fighting over a contract dispute with a trainer, Smith has experienced a quick ascension in the world of broadcasting. Despite having only been on camera for a year and a half, Smith’s credits already include “Fight Quest,” the international version of Affliction’s “Banned” event this past July, and the M-1 Challenge.
“I was a fighter before I did any broadcast or entertainment work,” Smith began. “I never really thought of it as a career or anything that I wanted to necessarily get into but when it came up, it’s just been great. I can’t think of a better job than talking about fighting and getting paid for it.”
Smith attributes his background as a fighter for a big reason why he’s been able to move up the broadcast ranks so quickly.
“I come from a different vantage point,” he began. “So when I watch other fight broadcasts, what I find funny is when they try and sell the end of a fight. They’ll try to get you overly excited and as an MMA fighter, I know when a fighter is closed to being stopped. I know when someone really has a submission and when they don’t. I’ll watch a fight a lot of times when certain announcers are screaming about a submission that I know a fighter doesn’t really have. I know they’re just trying to hype a fight, but it’s so funny because I know they’re going to get out.”
Smith got his start in broadcasting with “Fight Quest,” a documentary series on the Discovery Channel that he co-hosts alongside Doug Anderson. Launched in January of 2008, the show follows Smith and Anderson as they travel around the world learning different martial arts styles. The show is similar to that of The History Channel’s “Human Weapon” series, and interestingly enough, Smith just happens to hold a win over one of the rival show’s co-hosts, Jason Chambers.
While there is some uncertainty whether “Fight Quest” will return for a second season, Smith is certain that he wants to resume competing early next year after the legal situation with his old coach is resolved. Upon his return, he believes he’ll be able to show how his experience on “Fight Quest” made him a better fighter.
“The experience was awesome,” Smith said of his time on the show. “Not only did it make me a better fighter, but it made me a better coach. It made me see the sport in a totally different way. At the end of each show, I’d have to fight an expert in a style that I often times had no background in. In a lot of ways, I was being thrown to the wolves. It made me a lot tougher mentally. A regular fight one-on-one in a style that I know is practically a vacation now.”
Guiding Wheelock and Smith is Millen, a veteran television producer and a former Vice President with PRIDE USA. Currently a Vice President with M-1 USA, Millen was a local sportscaster and producer in Detroit and had worked on-air for entertainment shows prior to being tapped to produce the U.S. version of PRIDE’s PPV events.
Serving in an almost identical capacity with M-1, Millen knew what Wheelock and Smith were capable of when he brought them together for the English-language version of Finkelstein’s M-1 Challenge. Despite the fact that the two had never worked together, Millen believes the chemistry between the two has been instant.
“In my opinion, Jimmy and Sean are the best broadcast team in MMA right now,” said Millen. “They’re very hungry; they understand the sport; and they understand that the broadcast is not about them and that it’s about the fighters. They’re humble guys that do a great job.”
Drawing on his background in mainstream sports television, Millen has pushed to deliver a broadcast that is more in line with what a sportsfan has been accustomed to seeing from ESPN, as opposed taking a page out of the WWE.
“If people watch the M-1 Challenge on HDNet on Friday nights, they’ll see Jimmy and Sean doing play-by-play and color and they’ll see how we approach it and how others approach it,” said Millen. “We present it like a real sports broadcast. We have an hour of fights and you don’t even see Jimmy and Sean on camera, and they’re fine with that.”
But Millen inadvertently raises a critical issue with that comment, which is getting more people to watch Wheelock and Smith. To date, Millen’s biggest challenge in working with the new team has been trying to increase their profile and get more people to take notice of their work. The hope is that with a strong showing at “Day of Reckoning,” Wheelock and Smith will no longer be known as the broadcast team you’ve never heard of, but one of the best teams that you have.