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Q+A: Sean Wheelock

- July 10, 2014 |

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by Michael Sones and Oritt Blum

Sean Wheelock is currently the play-by-play announcer for Bellator Fighting Championships.  He has also commentated on the Super Bowl, FIFA World Cup, and tennis US Open. On July 1st, Sean and Art Davie released their book, ‘Is This Legal?’  We recently had a chance to catch up with Sean about the book and much more.

Can you talk to us about where the idea for the book, ‘Is This Legal?’ came from, as well as your role in the overall process?

Sean Wheelock: Art Davie and I have been really good friends for a few years.  He’s absolutely – and I think the book shows it – the rightful creator of mixed martial arts.  He wasn’t the first person to have the idea, but he was the first person to be able to make the idea work.  I knew for quite a while I wanted to do something with Art, and I wasn’t sure exactly what that was, but I felt like this was a guy who has lots of history, which is crazy since the sport is only 21 years old.  Several years ago I started getting him to talk on my digital audio recorder, telling stories and pitching around ideas of what to do with them and it evolved into, “Hey, there has never been a written account of how all this got started, let’s do a book!”

My two key contributions as Art’s co-writer are 1) taking all of Art’s great stories and putting them into a cohesive narrative, and 2) making sure that we’re spot on with all the details, because memories are a funny thing, a slippery thing.  To try to get somebody to recount in order, in detail, stuff that happened over 20 years ago is obviously a difficult process.

I knew I wanted the book to just be the story of the first UFC, not a sweeping comprehensive thing. It’s something that reads as timeless, you can read it now or you can read it in 50 years.  It begins on November 12, 1993 and ends with the party the next night, November 13.  We build up to the fights, but the whole book encompasses Art’s dedication to launching the UFC – he quit his day job, threw in his money, did everything to get this going.  It’s really about his four year struggle – and I don’t use that word struggle lightly – and all the rejections.  HBO said no, Showtime, ESPN, Prime Ticket in LA. One thing that was really fortunate for me is that Art, aside from being an amazing story teller, is a very prolific saver.  We have these original faxes- these rejection letters, these pitch letters, his original business plan, the original contract with Semaphore Entertainment Group, I mean all of these really historical documents.

You touched on it a little bit but can you talk more in depth about the collaboration, from start to finish, between yourself and Art on this book?

SW: Art and I talked a lot about, how do we write this?  We discussed making it an oral history, where we interview twenty or twenty-five key people, and the whole narrative is driven that way. There’s a really good book on the American Basketball Association that’s an oral history, as well as a book on the anniversary of Saturday Night Live.  But I kept coming back to the fact that my best character is my guy right here, Art Davie, and it’s going to be the most compelling book if it’s told through him.

Art would write sections, I would rewrite sections, sometimes I would leave them alone.  I would pepper him with questions and he would write up answers for me.  We would go back and forth on it to where we didn’t really have individual ownership of paragraphs or sentences.  It’s funny, as I read the book now, I can’t remember which lines he wrote and which lines I wrote – we really became a writing team.  Art was there, even on the finished manuscript, going back and rereading everything. The fact that we already had a close friendship made it a lot easier than if I was just a hired gun.  It’s working with somebody as a close friend and it really was a total collaboration.

Another thing, too, is that because I’m such a hardcore MMA fan, aside from being a commentator, I was asking questions that I would want to know if I was reading the book.  I was driving him crazy with questions- why this date, why here, why this guy, why not that guy?  That’s something that Art, working with a different writer or by himself, probably wouldn’t have anticipated.

I really could not be more proud of this book.  A friend of mine, who’s a writer, said you really become more of a rewriter than a writer and that’s so true.  You finish your manuscript and you think you’re done but you’re probably 20% done.  And you shift and you move and you write and you rewrite and you rewrite some more.  It’s a very interesting process.

How did you and Art come up with the book title, ‘Is This Legal?’

SW: The title actually comes from Chuck Norris.  During the summer of 1993, when they were closing in on that first event in November, Art and his business partner Rorian Gracie were looking for commentators.  Gracie had done a few seminars with Chuck Norris, so they were able to schedule a meeting at Norris’ mansion in LA.  Norris was in his 50s back then, and they didn’t think he would fight, but they were offering him essentially the keys to the kingdom- he could commentate, hang out, sign autographs, anything at all.  They just wanted him involved.  While he was being pitched, Norris just kept asking the question, “Is this legal?”  He was in disbelief that they were going to put guys bare-fisted in a caged enclosure, with virtually no rules.  He didn’t see how they would be able to make this happen without the police shutting them down.  We kicked around different titles for a long time and we kept coming back to ‘Is This Legal?’ and it’s been 100% positive- people really seem to respond to that title.

Take us through the process of how you got the book published.

SW: I had a lot of publishers tell me that it was a cool story but MMA fans just don’t read.  I think if you talk to any of the TV people at Spike or Fox Sports 1 or NBC Sports Network, they would tell you that the MMA demographic is educated and literate.  But for whatever reason, the publishing world hadn’t yet jumped on it.  We found a really nice publisher called Ascend Books that basically does all sports non-fiction.  They didn’t know anything about MMA but were open to the idea.  They liked the story so we just started rolling.

Yesterday I saw that on Amazon’s rankings, for whatever this is worth, we were number 30 for all sports biographies.  I think there was a Jackie Robinson bio that was 29 and we were right after, so it felt like we were in pretty rarified air.  The book has only been out since July 1st, so I don’t know what it means or if this is the next Harry Potter, but it is a cool little feeling.

One of our main takeaways from reading this book is that you don’t have to necessarily be a UFC fan to enjoy reading it.

SW: I was really aware of the fact that I had to write this book for a broader audience, so someone who doesn’t like MMA can be sucked in.  It’s more than a dry book about the sport, it’s a story about someone being an entrepreneur on a four year quest, being told no over and over.  It also helped that Art happened to be in Los Angeles during the late ’80s and early ’90s, where there were a lot of interesting characters to filter through.  You look at the index of the book and it’s amazing the boldfaced names: Chuck Norris, John Milius, Mike Tyson, Hulk Hogan, Charleton Heston, even Donald Trump.

Were you inspired by any particular authors or books while writing this?

SW: There were a couple of books that were inspirations for me.  One was Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball because if you think about it, what a pitch to a publisher.  Lewis is a great writer but a book about the baseball economics of the Oakland A’s – I mean, that’s just about the worst topic ever.  And yet, baseball people love it, Brad Pitt made a movie out of it, and people who have zero interest in baseball, let alone baseball economics, ate the book up.  It’s an amazing book because it’s not really about baseball, it’s about people, it’s about characters, relationships, and innovative thinking.

Another book that really influenced me, David McCullough’s book on American Revolutionary History – I’m midway through and I think the British might actually win, I think they’re going to kill George Washington and crush the Continental Army.  He wrote it so compellingly and it was such a page turner that even though obviously you know how it’s going to turn out, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Sort of like what James Cameroon did with Titanic.

The early reviews that we’ve been getting suggest that people are picking up on what we tried to do above all else, which is make this a page turner.  This was a house of cards, it wasn’t predestined to succeed.  Everybody was against Art- the martial arts community, the sports community, the television community, even Chuck Norris.  Everyone was telling him it was the worst idea, that he wouldn’t be able to pull it off. And I’m writing it like that.  It’s living in the moment, being sucked in, saying this is a complete house of cards, this is probably going to collapse at any second, this is probably not going to happen.

You can purchase a copy of Sean and Art’s book in stores or find it online here.


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