Verbal Sparring: Jerry Millen & Sean Wheelock of M-1 Challenge (Part 2 of 2)

In part two of my interview with M-1’s Jerry Millen and Sean Wheelock, we discuss M-1’s plans for continued expansion, cohesiveness in MMA (including the idea of international rules), and where fans can find “The Next of the Best.”

JT:  What can you guys tell us about the plan for 2009 and afterwards, such as the strategy for expanding regions, new TV outlets, and more teams?

JM:  One of our guys just got back from Sportel, which is the international television market, in Monaco.  There’s a lot of interest in the M-1 Challenge and the “Fighting Fedor” program.  So this year I would assume we’re going to pick up quite a few more countries.  This first year was just our chance to get out there and show the world what M-1 was and our concept of team challenges.  So we definitely plan on 16 teams, 10 events again in 10 different countries.  China and Bulgaria have been mentioned.  And we’ve been working on some bigger M-1 Global shows as well.

Also, we’re working with Affliction Entertainment with Fedor and his fights.  I’m not sure if everybody knows but Jimmy [Smith] and Sean will be the commentators on the Affliction pay-per-view on January 24th, with Fedor and Arlovski.

And we’re finally getting this “Fighting Fedor” reality show off the ground.  People don’t understand how difficult an endeavor doing a reality show is, especially based in Russia.  It’s a very difficult task.  But we’ve been working on it for quite a long time.

JT:  Would the show be made up of M-1 fighters?

JM:  I wouldn’t say M-1 fighters, but it’ll be fighters that we bring under our umbrella.  If we’re going to give them this type of exposure, they’re going to have to become an M-1 fighter at that point.

JT:  Sean, besides Gegard Mousasi and Daniel Tavera, who else is going to emerge as the top international stars?  Are there fighters that we should be looking for to emerge from M-1 Challenge?

SW:  It’s a great question.  Jerry and I have seen some of these guys now, three and four times over the course of this season and seen their growth.  I think Kiril Sidelnikov, who’s from Stary Oskol, which is the same hometown as Fedor, is a kid to watch.  He’s the one they call “Baby Fedor,” and he really worships him.  I think Fedor takes a lot of pride in Kiril as his protégé.

Jason Jones, who is 26 years old, fights at middleweight for Holland.  This is someone who people need to watch out for.  He’s got great hands, and is one of the most explosive fighters I’ve seen in the history of this sport.  He’s Dutch, but both of his parents are from Aruba.  So he speaks perfect English, almost with an American accent.

Daniel Tavera, who I talked about, has fought for us twice at 205 pounds.  He’s a world class fighter.  His only loss was a very close decision to Roman Zentsov, when he gave up about 30 pounds.  I actually thought he won the fight.

Bogdan Christea, who fights for Holland, is the toughest person I’ve ever seen in this sport.  I like him a lot.  He was hit by a car when he was on his bicycle. He was left for dead and they almost amputated his arm.  In his fight against Daisuke Nakamura, he lost on decision.  I’ve never seen anybody withstand those types of submission attempts.  On the air, I think I said that this was gruesome.

I think Karl Amoussou, the 23-year old middleweight from France, is fantastic.  Mikhail Zayats, of the Red Devils, in Russia . . .

We’re seeing these guys coming through, who are now getting on this international stage.  Again, how does the UFC find Karl Amoussou if he’s only fighting in Europe?  How do they find Mikhail Zayats if he’s only fighting in Russia?  This is what’s great about this opportunity.  Nothing against the UFC, because they have incredible fighters, but there are so many good fighters out there.

I think the analogy is to be the college basketball fan and to look at your conference, like the Pac-10, Big 10, Big Twelve, or ECC, and say “all the best college basketball players play in my conference.”  Well, that’s not true.  You might have a high level of talent, or better talent than others, or the majority of talent, but that doesn’t mean you have the best.  And I think some people have seen with M-1 that there are world class fighters that they just haven’t had a chance to see until we put the TV cameras on and show them globally.

JT:  And you think that these guys have the potential to develop that star power like a Fedor, Shinya Aoki, Rampage Jackson, or Anderson Silva?  They can be known on that higher, recognizable level?

SM:  I think there’s only one Fedor Emelianenko.  I think he’s the greatest fighter in the history of this sport and a unique individual. I think he’s Tiger Woods, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, or Pele.  But I think that everybody that I talked about has the potential to be absolute A-level fighters.  If they’re not already, quite frankly.

JT:  I know it’s a very broad question, but where do you guys see MMA from now?

JM:  In a perfect scenario, it would be as big as the NFL.  But the NFL wasn’t built over a 15-year period.  I think the NFL took like 30, 40, 50 years to become the powerhouse that it is.  I think it’s really hard to say.  It took PRIDE ten years to reach the level of PRIDE.  It’s been one year in M-1.  We’ve learned so much from PRIDE and other organizations.  Hopefully we’ve learned some shortcuts to get it to the next level where it needs to be without rushing it.

UFC is the big dog right now, and I’m ecstatic that the UFC is doing as well as it is, because that means the sport itself has that chance to grow.  But unfortunately, there needs to be other organizations that work, even hand-in-hand with the UFC, for this sport to survive.  Otherwise, you have one entity trying to control the sport, trying to control the rankings, trying to control the match-ups you see.  When one company drives control into the ground, it hurts everybody, except that one company.

SW:  You see Jerry’s passion.  I have that same passion.  There are other sports that I could announce, but the sports that I choose to announce are sports that I’m passionate about.  I love mixed martial arts. If you hear me on television, you know that there’s no place in the world that I’d rather be.  If it’s just a job, if you’re just getting a paycheck, you’re not going to last.  I think that’s why a lot of people have fallen out of MMA.  And they’ve lasted 18 months, a year -they didn’t have a love for that.

In terms of where I want to see this sport in five years, I think we all learn a process where we have to educate.  We take this so seriously.  I’ve announced the World Cup; I’ve announced three Super Bowls for the BBC.  I treat this sport the same.  This isn’t two guys ripping off their shirts and fighting in the back of a grocery store parking lot.  And I think unfortunately there’s still people that see that –  they don’t understand the difference between two world class fighters competing in MMA and a couple of 17-year olds beating each other up on a YouTube video.  This is a legitimate sport with world class, highly-trained special athletes.  People need to get educated on this sport.

The fact that you can’t do mixed martial arts in certain provinces in Canada, states in the U.S., or countries like France – I think it’s just a lack of knowledge.  I think every single one of us, who loves this sport, who cares about this sport. . .we have to continue to put forth the best product and show the general public that this is a legitimate sport.

JT:  On the heels of that, I would think that one of those things which needs to fall in line would be the rules.  To be an international sport, there would need to be international rules, so that everyone plays on an equal level.  Given how hard it’s going to be to affect the rules that the Big Dog uses, how do you reconcile the discrepancies?

JM:  Until the UFC gets on board, it’s going to be very difficult to have a standardized set of rules.  As soon as Dana White understands that there are going to be other players, rather than fight against them, work with them for the good of the sport.  If you really care about the sport, then work with those that also care about the sport.

They don’t want anybody else playing on their block.  At some point, you have to let your child grow, so that it becomes what it needs to be.  If UFC works with another company, does that mean that UFC is going to go out of business?  No, that does not mean that.  It means that maybe at that point they will truly have the best fighters in the world and they can prove that fact by saying “look, we took on those guys that said they were the best.”  Whether they cut it or not.  The proof is in the pudding.  But international rules won’t happen until they’re ready to play with some other people.

SW:  Look at other global sports.  Soccer, basketball, which is the second biggest participation sport globally, even baseball.  All those sports have a world governing body, and maybe that’s something that we’re moving to.  Boxing has escaped from having a world governing body, but saying that, there is a world governing body at the amateur level.  So you do have that system where guys are coming through and they’re fighting under uniform rules.  Even if there are variations in boxing, it’s still essentially the same sport.

Also, there are a lot of promoters who hate each other and yet they put aside their differences to work together for the good of the sport.  They hate each other, but they see not only is it good for the sport, but it’s a way to make a lot of money.  And that’s something we have to head to.

I just think it’s the evolution.  You can spin it any way you want, but for all intents and purposes, modern MMA started with UFC 1 in 1995.  We’re talking about a sport that in essence is a 15-year old sport.  I read a ton of sports history and see how other sports have evolved and where they were 15 years into their evolutionary process.  I think we’re already well ahead of that curve.  It just has to take time.

JT:  And M-1 is one platform where it’s evolving on the international level.

SM:  There’s no question about it.  M-1 is just doing everything correctly.  We have great fighters, we go to great venues around the world, and we’re exposing great fights on television programs in over 80 countries.  We’re bringing fighters that people have never seen before to countries that are not that exposed to MMA.  That’s what I think grows the sport.

M-1 Challenge can be seen on HD-Net every Friday at 5pm, with repeats throughout the weekend.  Check your local listings for airings outside the U.S.

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