The Latest Episodes of INSIGHT with Chris Van Vliet
Dec. 23, 2021

Sean Ross Sapp - Fightful's Managing Editor On How He Breaks The Biggest Wrestling News

Sean Ross Sapp - Fightful's Managing Editor On How He Breaks The Biggest Wrestling News

Sean Ross Sapp (@SeanRossSapp) is the managing editor of the pro wrestling and MMA website He joins Chris Van Vliet to talk about how he got started in journalism, how he was able to break the news that CM Punk had signed to AEW, his favorite interviews, working with Denise Salcedo, how he trained and worked as a pro wrestler, his favorite and least favorite parts of the job, what he learned working for Bill Apter and WhatCulture, his thoughts on whether or not kayfabe is dead and much more!

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Is Ross actually your middle name?

“Yes, and I hated it growing up. I almost wouldn’t acknowledge it, but then professionally I thought that it would be more memorable if I went with a 3 part name.”

Did Ross from Friends not make it cool?

“It absolutely encouraged me to not use it. When I was growing up, that show was huge, and there weren't a whole lot of people around with the name Ross. But then by the time that was out there people were like ‘Sean? You mean like S E A N? Like Puff daddy?’ I’m like ‘Yeah, it’s the same way. We are exactly the same [sarcastically thumbs up].’”

At what point did you think to yourself ‘I’m going to be the 3 name guy?’

“I think a couple of years into it maybe, I can’t think of a defining point. I remember a point where I decided to go with it, I wrote for Bill Apter, and he put something like SappoMania as the header. I said that doesn’t work for me, brother, so I figured that maybe something else would work a little bit better to define that difference, and thankfully it did.”

“I pitched to Bill Apter’s website, also to a website called Obsessed With Wrestling, that had a bunch of profiles and some articles. At WrestleZone, I pitched a column that I was going to do for January 4th 2010 actually, which was the TNA Monday night show and the Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels thing [on Raw]. I was getting so into MMA, I had fallen out of love with wrestling a bit, so I pitched a column. I would wait until WrestleMania and see if I still loved it and decide if I want to keep watching it, knowing full well that I was probably going to still keep watching it. But Bill Apter said yes and OWW said yes, and I wanted to write for Bill Apter, that was what I wanted to do at that point.”

So your pitch was ‘Can I write an article for you for free?’

“Yes. So at that point it was a weekly column, and it was absolutely for free. I didn’t make a dime off of pro-wrestling writing for years.”

When was the first time you made money off of pro-wrestling?

“Maybe when I did some freelance stuff in 2012 or 2013, I got $20 if that. But I would ghostwrite a lot of stuff for entertainment articles and stuff like that, anything to keep me afloat. But gosh I was working 10 different wrestling and MMA jobs for free at that point anyway. Through 2009 to 2013 or 2014, I wasn’t making any money doing this, I was surviving on student loans and stuff like that pretty much.”

What were you doing to make money?

“Just trying to freelance. Any little thing that I could get to live within my means as best I could, I was broke. I would be checking my bank account before I ordered pizza, there was not a lot of money coming in. I taught kickboxing locally and that made me a little bit of money here and there, but at the start I did it so I could get free gym memberships. They aren’t going to say to you ‘Oh you teach kickboxing but you’ve got to pay your monthly fee too.’ Then it became that I got cut in on the revenue, so I stepped it up from once a week to two or three times a week to increase revenue. But it was a lot of living within my means and just the bare essentials.” 

You made the decision that this was going to work no matter what though?

“I mean kind of. In 2009 I started to train in MMA and pro-wrestling, I just wanted to see what it feels like and how I do. By then I had decided that I was going to do something, but I was afraid of my own failure. That was what prevented me from writing for the first time or going on camera for the first time, I was so afraid. I knew I could be good, but what if no one cares? What if I am not as good as I think I am? It kept me from it a lot longer than it should have, and I don’t regret that because if you see me on Twitter, I am not the most mature person, but back then I really wasn’t the most mature person. But when I taught that first MMA class, this was when it was something that I knew I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”    

You still have a passion for MMA, even though we all see you as the pro-wrestling guy.

“That was one of things, I didn’t miss covering an MMA event for over 10 years. It is so different from pro-wrestling, the audience is so much worse in MMA. It is so much more angry, which Shayna Baszler speaks about a lot. Then when there is someone like Ariel Helwani, you won’t beat him on scoops or interviews. I so badly wanted to be the best at anything for a period of time. I don’t care if I was the best at mopping a floor, just as long as for 10 minutes, a year, 10 years, just the best at something. I looked at MMA news and am I going to be the best at it? I don’t think so. I was very realistic with my skillset there.”               

Does wrestling feel like a job to you?

“There have been a couple of times, like when I was going through depression it did. There are a lot of times where I will be making an observation about a show, someone won’t like it and they will go ‘Well why do you watch?’ And I will say ‘Because it’s my job.’ Then they will say ‘Well I wouldn’t do a job that makes me miserable.’ I would much rather watch and cover terrible wrestling than do anything else. If I did a normal job, what would I do when I get home? I would probably watch wrestling and wrestling interviews. But I am very fortunate that I have got to this position and to where people care about it. The travel sometimes, I don’t know how the wrestlers do it, I travel a couple of times a month, and it zaps me for a week.”      

What was that thing that really stepped you up to that next level? You are working for free and working freelance, but then finally someone sees the value in your work, or they just take a chance on you.

“I saw the value in my work. I worked for 4 years for Bill Apter, before that there was a local gym where we learned all the MMA stuff. I would do their social media, their YouTube, promote their house events for them. All of that would lead to MMA promoters getting me to coordinate their fights, tape up wrists, do commentary, that was a big help too. When I got paid for commentary, I was like maybe I am not terrible at this. I still wasn’t getting paid for wrestling or MMA writing. Then it was 2014, and I got hired by FanSided to be a shift writer. Then I got hired at WhatCulture, and within a couple of weeks, their guy hired me and he went ‘Hey I want you to do this full time, you’ve got a knack for news writing.’ I’m like well that’s awesome, that’s what I need. He told me the amount, and it was enough for me to live comfortably. But then I realized the amount was actually in GBP, so I was making more than that because of the conversion rate. I almost cried because I was so excited. That’s when from this point on, this is what I am doing. However within a couple of weeks the vision did not quite go the way that he wanted, it really put me at a low point. But fortunately after that, I’m like I am not going to give this up, I will keep at it and a couple of weeks later I was at Wrestling Inc, one of the biggest wrestling websites in the world. In 2014, I had put a firm if I am not making full time money, I’ve got to do something that will make it happen.”  

What exactly happened with WhatCulture?

“Oh boy. I just want to establish that none of the former video personalities were there when I was there. Simon Miller, I have nothing but love for him, great guy. Adam Blampied and Adam Pacitti, I never knew them until last year. There’s a fellow by the name of Matt Holmes, I don’t normally care to name him. He runs the site and he was the one who hired me and interacted with me directly, and I was hired to be a news writer. If you remember WhatCulture back then, that wasn’t really what they did. They did top 10s etc. I had put myself through media journalism school with student loans, and there is no real top 10 class that you take, you have to learn their format. Within the first day of me doing writing full time he was like ‘Hey you’ve got to step back and do some top 10 stuff.’ I’m like well you are paying me, so I will do whatever. That wasn’t to his liking, but they were trying to expand into the US, so they hired me and David Bixenspan, who was my editor. The idea was that the people in the UK office are out by 5pm local time, that’s noon over here, and wrestling does not stop at noon on a weekday. So the idea was let’s have some US people to contribute over there. The final conversation after weeks of criticism, and it wasn’t constructive, was ‘I don’t think you should be news writing anymore. I don’t think it’s going to work out, you are not very good at it.’ It was basically Matt Holmes encouraging me to get out of this completely. I was looking at the work, and I sent it to Bill Apter, who is like the kindest guy. He said to me ‘That guy doesn’t know what he is talking about, keep doing what you are doing.’ After a couple of weeks, this job where I signed a contract, he cut me and I thought I was the worst in the world. Fortunately I had made enough high level contacts to send my work to them and be like, please be honest, and they said that he [Matt] didn’t know what he was talking about, but he wanted to aggressively expand into the US. When he didn’t see immediate results from wrestling news writing, he was like `let's nix the whole thing.’”

So you were at Wrestling Inc. and then Jimmy Van, who owns Fightful saw something in you?

“Kind of. I’ll preface this by saying that I will never ask anybody to work for free ever. But if they offer, I might give them that opportunity, that’s what I did with Bill Apter. So after that 2014 that was really integral in me positioning myself, I got at Wrestling Inc. and they put me on screen, which is very important to me obviously, that was where a lot of people got to discover me. I got to expand into ROH and New Japan news, because somebody was already covering all of the WWE stuff, so I had to find my niche. In finding my niche, I made a lot of contacts because I was covering something that nobody else is, that goes a long way. I remember very vividly that I was going to write for Bill Apter for free, out of respect and what he has done for me in giving me an opportunity. I don’t care if nobody read it, the fact that he associated himself with me, that meant a lot to me. In January 2015, I just joined Wrestling Inc. and he hit me up a message asking if I had left. I said no I will still contribute, and I didn’t hear back from him up until about 10 months later to promote his book. Other than that we didn’t really talk much. Jimmy Van came to me and said that he got a nice recommendation from Bill Apter, that’s what made him reach out to me. I was not a prominent name, but Bill Apter said it would be right for me, you never know what might come from that work.”      

There’s a lot of people who want to be doing what you are doing, and in the last 2 years the cream has really risen to the top. You’ve risen to the top, how?

“I always find that it is important to be versatile, do everything. Anybody can start up a free Patreon account and post things. I would start taking photos, making videos, editing, learning the ins and outs of it all. Also, I would learn how to news write, do opinions, transcribe interviews… There is no job at Fightful that I have not done myself. When I am able to teach each person this, I can find out what they are great at. We hired a guy 5 years ago who had no experience, he did our social media and he made it the fastest growing wrestling Twitter. So I said to him ‘Ok, you are going to do this full time.’ That has branched off into him doing a clips channel. Jeremy Lambert is great at finding quotes and making headlines that will make you smile. That allowed me to focus on the podcasts, media and wrestling interviews, because that’s what I am good at. Even though I can do the other tings, getting information and determining what is true or false, podcasting and interviews are the 3 things that I should focus on. When you have crafted all this, it is hard to delegate, but when I delegate to those who are better than me, the results speak for themselves. As far as expanding the news stuff, don’t lie and don’t be hurtful. If you make something up, then you will get found out.”  

What was the first big story that you broke when you were breaking your way out of just being another writer?

“I can tell you the first story I ever broke was that Brock Lesnar was going to take a curb stomp at the end of Night of Champions 2014. I was there and I happened to know somebody who was teaching Brock Lesnar how to take a curb stomp, it wasn’t Seth Rollins. But there were a bunch of people who confirmed it to me, I sent it to Raj, who ran Wrestling Inc. But I think the first story outside of an interview was that Ronda Rousey was training to be a wrestler about 6 months before she debuted at the Royal Rumble. I knew she was going to be at WrestleMania when she did that thing with The Rock, but then I was getting pictures sent to me of her training and also some footage, so I was able to confirm that. I broke that and I was fortunate that it got picked up by a lot of major media outlets too.”   

To get it straight from the source, how do you do that?

Ok there were a couple of people initially, who I won’t name because people will be like ‘Oh they’re his sources.’ A couple of people early on in wrestling would treat me like a normal human being, and they would tell people I’m a good guy and not screw up anyone’s career. That helps a lot. Now I am fortunate where Fightful is 5 and a half years in, people who were reading Fightful 4 or 5 years ago did not grow up in the Meltzer copy and paste era, they know Fightful is reporting accurate news. A lot of people wanted news to change in wrestling, the fact that we were reporting accurate stuff says a lot.”  

What’s in it for the sources? If I give you a scoop, then what’s in it for me?

“Well that’s the thing. You have to decipher the agenda of people. Some people, it just makes them happy. Some people I ask and they tell me. Then there are some that the company wants out there. The CM Punk news getting out there wasn’t the worst thing for AEW. Then I hear Goldberg is coming back, and they don’t care that it got out. You have to determine if the source has an agenda, and if they do, you have to consider that before running with it. I’ll get someone saying a wrestler is problematic, and then they sign with somewhere else, oh they are saying they are problematic because they didn’t re-sign. I am talking to the best liars in the world, and that’s not an insult. They make you think they are hurt when they are not, care about stuff they don’t and vice versa, all that in front of 10,000 people.”

You said before that your goal was to get to 69,000 followers, and now it has almost doubled. Do you think that is down to the CM Punk story?

“Unfortunately I think it is mostly down to the WWE releases. I won’t put that behind a paywall, if someone is getting fired I will tweet that out. However, if there are supplemental details, I’ll put it behind the paywall. But unfortunately I get the release before other people, I don’t like that it makes me feel all scummy and dirty. I am reporting the news, but I think that has a lot to do with it.”

You recently put out a tweet saying that you are going through depression and if something was said that wasn’t very nice you were sorry. Where did you collect the self awareness to realize you were going through this?

“Well first of all I want to say that everyone I have been mean to absolutely deserves it and they are terrible people. A lot of people say I am not self aware, and a lot of times I am not. But I went through some depression for the first time last year, I think a lot of people did during the pandemic. I was fortunate enough to recognize it, early on I told my wife that I am depressed and I have to do a few things. So I switched my business out of a dark and drab room and into a lighter and more vibrant room. I familiarized myself with some things that made me happy, and that helped out a lot. So now when I face these bouts of depression, I have ways that can pull me out of it a little bit more. I am very fortunate to have a good support system, and yeah sometimes tone doesn’t reflect through social media. Sometimes, unintended responses can happen, and things are lost on Twitter. But the sides get deeper when you have a break throughout the day, am I looking forward to this? Am I looking forward to that? Am I devoting the right amount of attention to the people who care about me as opposed to the people you will never convince otherwise. Taylor Hendrix and Wale gave me the same advice of don’t pay attention to them, you will not change their minds or say anything to make them feel a certain way. And coming from people who have been under the microscope, that means a lot. I have had dozens of people reach out to me and give me nice words. I’ve had a lot of wrestlers reach out to me too, I don’t want to name names because they will be accused of being sources. There was a lot of positivity out of that and I really appreciate it.”

I realized recently that you are not going to change people’s minds on Twitter. People respond to my tweets with something that is blatantly incorrect. There was a version of me that 6,12 or 18 months ago would go ‘Well actually…’ And I would waste my time and waste my energy. Now I’m like ok, they are wrong and it’s ok that they are wrong, but I don’t need to point that out.

“That’s the point that I am trying to get to, I will not argue with someone over their wrestling opinion. I love that someone cares about my wrestling opinion, but it means as much as everybody else's. My wrestling opinion means as much as the guy up the road who doesn’t watch wrestling, it’s just an opinion. As long as they don’t doubt my wrestling news credibility then ok, but then people are still going to do that, despite a positive track record. If they do, that’s ok, there’s other wrestling media to ingest, that’s where media literacy is employed. We are doing good, they can do good, you can block people on Twitter if it improves your experience, you don’t have to have a reason for it. Whatever makes you happier and doesn’t hurt somebody else, that is what I am ok with.”  

AEW have always been very transparent with their media scrums since back in 2019. Do you ever think we will get to that stage with WWE?

“Well Triple H did, he set the trend. Triple H did those media calls before and after the TakeOver shows, and I loved those, I miss them. I think Triple H set the trend, but Tony Khan is from a sporting background so was always going to do that anyway. Some people are like ‘Well why doesn’t anyone ask any kayfabe questions?’ We do cover wrestling in kayfabe as well, it’s about getting that good headline. If Triple H gets more control then we might see that happen. But WWE did do it briefly for international media years ago, but they kind of stopped doing it. If they give it to one outlet, then it gets picked up by all of the others.”

Does it bother you that you are going to make some people upset with your reporting? Enemies is a strong word, but you are going to have some people that will be upset with you because of this.

“So as I pointed out earlier I live in a town of 200. This has put it in perspective for me, if someone in this town doesn’t like me, I had to do something wrong, like my dog got loose and killed a cow, it hasn’t happened to me. But in wrestling, I can just report news about them in general, it can be positive, and people get mad. To put that in perspective, no matter what I write, dozens of people are going to be mad. That is not the easiest to come to grips with when you come from a small area.”

What would you say is the best advice you would give for someone who wants to be in your position?

“Produce content, do a lot of it and don’t lie. Do not lie, not to your staff or not to your people. Don’t take it too seriously, I mean it’s pro-wrestling, it won’t all be hard hitting journalism. A lot of people are like ‘Why are you reporting this story?’ Well it ain’t always going to be CM Punk coming back to AEW. Sometimes I will find out information that I find interesting and I will relay it to the world. If you find it interesting, other people will find it interesting to some degree. Be familiar with everything, but find out what your wheelhouse is and zone in on it.”

What are the goals as we head into 2022?

“I never thought that being the most viewed wrestling website was realistic. Now, not in 2022, but somewhere down the line. We are at 3 or 4 million a month, Wrestling Inc. are at like 20 million. But we have doubled recently, and we are the most subscribed wrestling  product on Patreon in history. Eventually we will get off that platform, that is a goal, but we will take a financial hit. Also I want to get to 100,00 subscribers on YouTube. At first we hurt ourselves by producing too many videos, too short videos, putting everything on one channel. If I could do it again, I would split it up and maybe the numbers would be higher.”

I end every interview with gratitude. What are 3 things you are grateful for right now?

“My family and my wife. I don’t put my wife out on social media a lot because people are weird. But a lot of support in a period where people wouldn’t have supported me, telling me to keep going because I can be the best. Our following I am so thankful, because we came out of the middle of nowhere, if you are subscribed to Fightful Select, I can't tell you how important that is, because you are investing in what we do. And finally Jimmy Van, the guy who founded Fightful. He financed Fightful and said ‘Whatever you want to do, go for it.’ He had his own ideas but he allowed me to hop on to this right now. He has trusted the vision, we have lost money for a long time and he could have pulled the plug. I got a lot of offers from other places, he told me to stick with us and I have. I have remained loyal to him and he has remained loyal to me. I’m very thankful that I got a once in a lifetime opportunity to do this.”                    

Image credits: Instagram