As Boston Celtics radio play-by-play announcer Sean Grande related stories from his first 17 years with the team to a Bangor audience last week, another sports entity he covers was making its own statement.
Several stars of Bellator MMA were in New York City hyping that promotion’s June 24 pay-per-view show at Madison Square Garden.
The move into MSG and into pay per view — Bellator has aired just one previous PPV card, opting instead to make its product available on free television — are seen as the latest steps in its efforts to challenge the Ultimate Fighting Championship as the top name in mixed martial arts.
“There are people in the UFC that want Bellator to go away. There are people in Bellator that think they’re going to take over the world one day,” said Grande, the play-by-play voice of Bellator MMA on Spike TV for the last year and a half. “I am of the belief that a strong Bellator makes the UFC better and makes the sport better. It’s better for the fighters, it’s better for the two companies, it’s better for TV slots, and most importantly it’s better for the fans.”
Grande — whose career also includes a lengthy stint as national radio voice of the NCAA men’s hockey Frozen Four, play-by-play for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, fill-in duties for the Boston Red Sox and sports director at WEEI sports talk radio in Boston — added Bellator MMA to his resume in 2015 after receiving a random phone call about his availability.
“I had never contemplated it before then,” he said. “When I say I wasn’t a fan [of MMA] before, it wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it, but how many hours in a day are there? I’m doing the Frozen Four, I’m doing the Celtics and I’m doing a lot of college basketball for CBS at the time.
“But as time went on and I looked at the TV production they were doing and were capable of doing, I started to consider it a little more and it really became a great intellectual challenge to say, ‘I’ve done the Red Sox and I’ve done the Celtics and I’ve done college football for ABC and I’ve done a lot in the ‘big four’ sports.’ Could I do it at the same level starting from scratch in a brand-new sport?”
Grande made his Bellator MMA broadcasting debut in 2015, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut, where Andrey Koreshkov and Douglas Lima fought for the welterweight title in the main event of Bellator 140.
“There were things that I wasn’t going to know but I’d learn them as I go along and hopefully get better with every show,” he said.
“I couldn’t have done it when I was younger because I was so impatient and so much a perfectionist. But I knew the first night it was Koreshkov against Lima at Mohegan Sun, and I knew everything there was to know about the fights that night.”
Since then Grande has continued to build his knowledge of mixed martial arts and its history. He is able to join color analyst Jimmy Smith in tinging their Bellator broadcasts with references both well-known and obscure about the sport — much as he does with Celtics radio analyst Cedric Maxwell throughout the basketball season.
“I think MMA fans get a bad rap,” said Grande. “I had a lot of people, even in the MMA community, say the fans are terrible but they’re just very protective of their sport.
“So not only was it a great intellectual challenge to do it and do it well, I was jumping onto the deep end of the shark tank with people who were waiting to tear me apart, and I had no problem with that. If you can make it there and have the sharks in that tank say, ‘I get a kick out of this guy, he’s OK,’ it’s really rewarding.”
Grande joined Bellator MMA at a time of change in the sport.
Not only is Bellator flexing its broadcasting muscles by adding pay-per-view shows, MMA is beginning to experience the same type of free-agent frenzy prevalent in other professional sports.
In the last two weeks Bellator MMA has signed former UFC contenders Lorenz Larkin, Ryan Bader and Michael McDonald, with Larkin already set to challenge Lima for the Bellator welterweight title on June 24.
“It takes a while for people to accept what’s happening,” said Grande.
“Does it cost a lot to run Madison Square Garden? Does it cost a lot to run a pay per view? Yes, but there’s a reason you do it. You’re sending a message that this is a two-horse race.”