Shawnee broadcaster calls action cageside
Wheelock breaks through calling fights for Bellator in addition to BBC job
Kansas City, Mo. It’s 5:15 p.m. on Thursday, and Sean Wheelock is a man at leisure.
Wheelock has been on site at the Power and Light District for nearly three hours already. Now that it’s less than an hour until showtime, Wheelock is kicking back, sipping on a half-empty two-liter bottle of Diet Coke and soaking in the atmosphere before his busy night of work begins.
The Bellator Fighting Championships are in town, and Wheelock — a veteran broadcaster — will be calling the action cageside for a nationally televised program and Internet live stream. It’s a rare opportunity for him to broadcast close to home, and he’s not taking it lightly.
“It’s just fantastic,” he says with a grin. “We’re doing a national show out of Kansas City, and I take great pride in that. My crew teases me all the time about it when I talk about my hometown of Kansas City because they’re largely a New York and LA crew, but I will say it on the air tonight. I’m really proud to be here. I think we’re going to have the best crowd of the season, and that means a lot to me.”
BUILDING TO THIS
Wheelock jokes that he’s more known in England than in Kansas City, but there’s some truth to it. Even though he maintains a home in Shawnee with his wife and daughter, his broadcasts are primarily heard outside of town. He has been working for the BBC since 1996. Now 40, Wheelock has called three Super Bowls for the network as well as the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and he hosts a weekly 90-minute call-in sports show.
Recently, he turned down an opportunity to call games at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when he was invited to be a play-by-play man for the new season of Bellator. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for the 1988 Shawnee Mission Northwest graduate.
“I’ll be honest with you, I feel like it’s been building to this,” he says. “Bellator is amazing. Our founder and CEO, Bjorn Rebney, creates a culture where you’re doing MMA like a real sport, which is the way it should be done. It is a real sport; it’s not pro wrestling. The results are real; the fights are real. This is a straight athletic competition, and it’s amazing.”
LOVE OF COMBAT
Wheelock was a tennis player for coach Ken Clow while at SMNW, and he also played baseball recreationally. His favorite spectator sports were soccer and boxing, however. After attending Arizona State University, his broadcasting career quickly leaned toward soccer. His early years in the business were spent calling Major League Soccer games and contributing to the BBC, but around the same time he was introduced to mixed martial arts.
“I was one of the people who bought the first UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) back in 1993,” he says. “I saw a poster for it at my gym and thought ‘I’ll try it.’ I thought it might be fake; I wasn’t sure. I very quickly realized this is real, and I’d heard about some hybrid stuff in Japan that was developing in the late '80s and early '90s. I still have the VHS tape (of the UFC fight) at home.
“I fell in love with it and thought ‘this is what I want to do.’ It took me about 10 years before I had the opportunity to do MMA, but I was hooked.”
Wheelock began to study MMA and watched as many events as he could. He also sought out opportunities overseas and served as an announcer for “Affliction: Day of Reckoning” in January 2009, as well as “Pride 33: The Second Coming” in Japan and then moved on to the M-1 Challenge series.
With each opportunity, his love for the sport grew.
“(MMA) has almost diminished my love for boxing, because boxing to me is just one thing,” Wheelock says. “This is like the decathalon of fighting. You’ve got to be so great at everything. There’s so many ways to win and so many ways to lose.”
Finally, Wheelock received his dream opportunity this spring when he was hired by Bellator.
Wheelock attributes much of his rapid rise in the world of sports broadcasting to a love of sports that aren’t mainstream in America. He pursued opportunities with soccer while others dreamed of calling games for the NFL or Major League Baseball. It was the same with MMA.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he says. “I chose two sports, soccer and MMA, in which there weren’t a lot of people that have the ability to do them and — probably more beneficial to me — there aren’t a lot of people who want to do them.
“Bob Costas doesn’t want my job. I personally think this is the best job in television, but Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Jim Nantz and Greg Gumbell would all disagree. They don’t want my job, so by pursuing those sports — which wasn’t a calculated decision — it’s worked out.”
Now that Wheelock has broken through in the MMA broadcast market, he hopes the sport continues to catch on with audiences locally and worldwide.
Whether it’s through an increasing number of pay-per-view events, television contracts or actual attendance figures, all indicators are that interest in the sport is growing even though many fans are still just learning what it’s all about.
“It’s still a learning curve,” he says. “There will be people in the crowd tonight who know every single move as well as my color commentator, (professional fighter) Jimmy Smith, and I do. There also will be people here who literally won’t have a clue, and that’s fine. It’s the whole spectrum. So much of (a fan’s understanding) is shaped by your background. If you come from boxing or you were a boxing fan, you understand the punches and strikes. If you come out of wrestling you’re going to appreciate certain things. There’s still a learning curve. But if you think about it, this sport realistically isn’t even 20 years old, and there’s more people coming on board every day.”
Wheelock also sees the sport continuing to thrive as the talent level of fighters increases. On this night, the winner of the main event is Ben Askren a two-time national champion wrestler at the University of Missouri and a 2008 United States Olympian. Wheelock says athletes such as Askren who come from high-level wrestling backgrounds, as well as Olympic level boxers and martial arts competitors, should improve the quality of fighters as the sport grows. Ultimately, he may be catching his break at the perfect time.
A FEW DECADES TOO LATE?
If Wheelock could have his way, he’d have made MMA exist when he was younger so he could have been in the cage instead of in the broadcasting chair.
He hones some hands-on knowledge of the sport and maintains an athletic physique by training like a fighter. He grapples with a trainer at his gym and does everything but punching, throwing elbows and kicking.
He guesses he’s one of the few non-fighters broadcasting MMA events who trains like a fighter.
It gives him the feel of being a fighter, but without sustaining any physical damage. As a broadcaster, his facial appearance is important.
At the same time, he’s close enough to the cage to know that if he was a little bit younger, things might be different.
“Oh my god yes. This is everything that I love,” he says. “I’m more naturally attracted and inclined to the grappling. I would’ve approached it from the grappler’s angle rather than the striker’s angle; it’s just what speaks to me what I’m better at. But oh absolutely, no question about it (I’d have been in the cage). I’m not saying I would’ve been great, but I would’ve been doing this.”