Photo: Ed Mulholland
For credence that Saturday’s ‘Auld Enemy’ WBO World Lightweight championship between Scotland’s Ricky Burns and England’s Kevin Mitchell is a truly serious happening, you need only know that Hall of Fame MC Michael Buffer shall be calling the fighters to battle. A grandson of 1920s world bantamweight champion Johnny Buff, but raised by foster parents in Philadelphia, the man with the trademarked ‘Let’s Get Ready To Ruuummmmbbble…’signature line is truly the voice of boxing, and an icon way beyond. A soldier in the US Army during the Vietnam War, Buffer has featured in 18 films – often playing himself – been animated in both The Simpsons and South Park, starred on the Jay Lennon and David Letterman shows and announced at World Series baseball, Stanley Cup (ice hockey) finals, NFL play-offs and NBA championships. But the man who was seemingly born to play James Bond chose to pursue his love of boxing and, earlier this week, he spoke with boxing writer Glynn Evans about his passage to the Hall of Fame.
Michael, you were born in that great fight city of Philadelphia. What are your earliest memories of the fight game? Who were your heroes growing up?
My formative boxing memories came courtesy of the TV in the 50s. I caught the tail end of the great Sugar Ray Robinson’s career and also loved Floyd Patterson and later Rocky Marciano. I actually did a spot of boxing in the military long before I became active as a ring announcer. It was all just two minute rounds, with head guards and I was quite useful but there was one rule I could never take to ….and that was that the other guy could hit you back! I had 11 contests and went 10 (wins) and one ….the one being the last one!
I understand that your initial 30 odd years on this planet were rather less productive than the last 35 as a ring announcer.
Yes, that’d be correct. After leaving the military, I sold cars rather unproductively then, around the age of 32, 33, I got into modelling which paid the bills and was a lot of fun; certainly beat working for a living. The modelling led to TV commercials and, from that, my eldest son persuaded me to consider trying out as a ring announcer.
We were watching a fight together on TV – I forget the principals – but it was a split decision and my son became upset because the working ring announcer took away all the drama by declaring the two scores of the winning fighter first. Knowing I’d used my voice in TV commercials, he persuaded me to try out. I practised a lot, at least 5,000 times before my debut on a Phil Alessi ESPN Friday Night Fights promotion in Atlantic City, back in 1982.
Your legendary ‘Let’s Get Ready To Rumble’ signature line – which is trademarked in the US, Britain, Germany and Australia and has featured in several films and computer games – has reputedly netted you $400 million!! What are its origins?
Dating back to the 60s, the ring announcers in the US tended to be local folk who happened to be friends of the local state athletic commissioner or, later, someone on the world governing bodies. Consequently, they felt a need to introduce a zillion people from the doctors, to timekeepers, to commissioners; people the live and TV audiences had absolutely no interest in.
Suddenly, all the energy generated from the music and drama of the fighter’s ring entrances subsided. I felt strongly that something was needed to restore that energy, similar to in automobile racing when the announcement is made: ‘Gentlemen, start your engines!’
I was keen to find something comparable. Initially, I tried stuff like ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Man Your Battleships…’ or ‘Fasten Your Seatbelts…’ but got very little response. Initially there was a ripple of interest when I tried ‘Let’s Get Ready To Rumble…’ which persuaded me to pursue with it for a while. I’m kinda glad that I did!
Its origins sort of date to Ali, another big hero of mine, who often spoke of being ‘ready to rumble’. Muhammad also did the ‘Rumble, young man, rumble’ thing with Bundini Brown. The word ‘rumble’ has long been in the lexicon of boxing language.
Later, a good friend of mine from the world of entertainment advised me: ‘Once you’ve delivered the line, you need to shut the heck up…’ That’s where the long pause came from, and it proved fantastic advice. I’m never, ever satisfied with my intro. I’m always tweaking and fine tuning it. I’m my own worse critic and repeatedly watch it back and consider ways that might improve it.
You broke through very quickly and were announcing world championship contests within a year of your debut. Even given your looks, voice and talent, you must’ve copped a few lucky breaks.
Absolutely and the luckiest was my early involvement with Top Rank and the exposure their shows enjoyed on the ESPN cable network. Around the time I started, the network’s boxing coverage exploded during the early to mid 80s. I did two live shows every month which meant that pretty much every fight I announced was on TV, and then broadcast several more times, via repeats. That really assisted me in getting myself out there. Never underestimate the power of TV.
What are the secrets to becoming a good MC? What do you deem good practise and what makes you cringe?
Firstly, I feel you need to establish a relationship with the audience through the way you announce. You need to have a little bit of flair. Personally, I try to keep everything short and sweet now. I used to linger a bit myself in the past and now see that as a failing. Also, it’s imperative that you take care to pronounce the fighter’s names and hometowns accurately. That’s very important to them. Presentation is also important. You need to be well dressed and stay within the seasons. In the US we have a saying; ‘No white after Labor Day (first Monday in September)!’ Personally, I like midnight blues and dark greys. The only downside of featuring on Frank Warren Promotions is that you’re always aware that, at best, you can be the second best dressed man in the house. Frank knows how to dress. Always immaculate.
I’m loathe to criticise my peers. Occasionally some say things that are quite redundant or unnecessary such as ‘The referee will now give his instructions’ which is blatantly obvious. However, I have to say that most announcers who do the big shows at present, do a fine job.
What’s your assessment of the other leading ring announcers on both sides of the Pond? How do you get along with Jimmy ‘It’s Showtime!’ Lennon Jnr, who most would perceive as your key rival?
(Chuckles) I have to say Jimmy’s a real gentleman and a fine announcer. I can’t say anything bad about him and, whenever I see him we greet and wish each other well. Hey, I can’t be everywhere and do every fight!
I’ve a certain admiration for the UK ring announcers. In the US we have a thing about your British accent; it’s so formal and classy sounding, as if you’re about to introduce the queen! As the great Oscar Wilde once commented: ‘Britain and America are two identical nations separated only by their language!’
What has been the high spot of your 30 year career?
There’ve been so many great, great fights that I’ve had the privilege to sit ringside and witness. Probably my favourite, still, is the night in ’89 when Roberto Duran and Iran Barkley really went at one another for the (WBC) world middleweight title in Atlantic City.
The most exciting moment was probably when George Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer in 1994 and became the oldest man ever to win the world heavyweight title, at 44. Partly due to shock, partly due to elation, the MGM simply exploded when the final punch landed. In a way it was kind of depressing, because I was quite close to Michael Moorer, a good guy and a friend.
It was similar the night that Ricky Hatton lost to (Floyd) Mayweather but at least I could get into the ring quickly, check Ricky was okay and convey that information to his mother and girlfriend, re-assure them. No one likes to see guys like Ricky or Roy Jones Jnr, who’ve given so much to our sport, lying flat on their backs.
Being inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota this year, alongside other non participants such as the late, great Eddie Futch, was a huge honour. I think only one other ring announcer ever made it and that was way back in the 20s and 30s.
Ring announcing has also permitted me to meet so many really incredible people and one who I must point out is Oscar De La Hoya, not only a really fabulous champion but also a truly remarkable human being, outside of the ring. The man has invested so many million dollars into schools and cancer clinics around his original neighbourhood in South Central and East LA, that he’s saved thousands of lives and inspired so many kids.
Finally, I have to say that the leading British fighters such as Naseem, Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton have left me with some fabulous memories because of the great atmosphere that their fights always generated, whether they were competing in the UK or the US. When I gave my Hall of Fame induction speech, I had to mention the British fans who are truly the best. You guys don’t hesitate to travel in your thousands to wherever, to support your heroes. You’re very loyal, very vocal and always really make the hall ‘Pop’!
On three occasions there have been fatalities, the most high profile being the sad night when Jimmy Garcia from Columbia passed following his WBC super-featherweight title challenge to Gabe Ruelas (in May 1995). Those stay with you forever and make you doubt your involvement. I also despise all bad decisions and, particularly, mismatches. I’m still a fan and always want what’s best for the sport.
After the completion of a close, fantastic championship fight, it must be a real privilege knowing the decision before everybody else in the hall and watching at home.
You got it! That’s when you ‘own’ the crowd. The judges will pass their card – they only know their own score – to the referee who’ll give it to the official in charge. You rely on the supervisors to clear the fighters and their entourages away. Once the scores have been tallied and checked it’s passed to me. Everybody is anxious to get a peep but, as an announcer, you want ‘that’ moment. I turn the cards into my body, the hall because as quiet as a church, then you pause and build the suspense…..
A serious part of your job description, which is often overlooked, is the responsibility of orchestrating a crowd when there is crowd trouble or one of the fighters has been seriously injured. Have you had such experiences?
Two really stick out. The first was at the second Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield (WBA/IBF) heavyweight title fight at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas in 1993. Fan Man! The guy flew into the open air arena, got far too close and crashed into the lights covering the ring…..Utter chaos. I got right on the mic and asked the crowd to remain calm and stay seated which, by and large, they did. I also advised the seconds to wrap their fighters in blankets. There ended up being a delay of somewhere between 20-25 minutes. It was all quite surreal.
The second instance also featured Riddick and occurred at Madison Square Garden, New York three years later. His opponent, Andrew Golota of Poland, was way ahead on points but repeatedly landed low blows. There was a pretty crazy crowd that night. Finally, Bowe’s entourage stormed the ring to attack Golota, several Poles in the audience then stormed the ring and suddenly we had a full scale riot between the rival factions! There was just regular security on hand and they were proving fairly ineffectual so quickly I got on the mic and called for any off duty police officers in the arena to make themselves available. Finally the riot cops turned up but, for several minutes, it was a really dangerous situation. At the time I was rather more angry than frightened and didn’t realise quite how bad things had gotten until I started to witness all the blood!
As the world’s foremost ring announcer, you must enjoy a fantastic lifestyle; first class all the way!
Let me tell ya, the last 15 years have been considerably better that the first 15! But yes, now that I’m established, I get surprised at how very well I’m treated and how I’m able to make such a fantastic living from this. Exposure to performing internationally has certainly been one of the biggest plusses. I’ve worked on every continent and gone to places I’d never have dreamt of visiting, such as Beijing and Moscow. I’ve been all over Britain and Europe. This shall be my second time in Glasgow, a real fun, fight city.
When is it tough being Michael Buffer?
Though it’s a great feeling when, having worked the main event, fans recognise you and crave an autograph or a photo, it’s tough not being able to pose or sign for every single one. I’m not as young as I was and I do suffer from fatigue. I truly wish I had the energy to shake every hand but the crushes that ensue can be dangerous and sometimes I need to find a big security guy to hide behind!
To what extent are you a fan of boxing?
Oh I’ve been a big fan most of my life from the days when I’d stay up late at night to watch the big fights on a black and white TV. I used to buy all the magazines and today I’ll be on the net three or four times daily, checking the latest news. Unfortunately, because of my profile these days, it’s problematic for me to attend cards live if I’m not actually watching working because everybody wants an opinion or a piece of your time. Consequently, it becomes very difficult to actually watch the fight. But I certainly like to keep an eye out for which prospects are coming through. Right now, I’m really excited about Adrien Broner, the young lightweight from Cincinnati. He’s outstanding, a real hot prospect. At just 23, I see exactly the same talent that Floyd Mayweather was showing at that age but Broner has even better power. He’s going to be really something.
What can you tell us about your life away from boxing? How do you relax?
Today, I live in Los Angeles with my beautiful (third) wife. We’re surrounded by canyons and enjoy a fantastic garden. Because I’ve a bad back, I can’t play golf or anything like that so I’m restricted to a spot of walking and light exercise. I’ve four dogs and a 19 year old cat and I guess they’re my hobbies. I’ve also quite a few luxury cars and really enjoy washing and taking good care of them. Recently I purchased a Bentley. That’s my new baby!
What does the future hold for Michael Buffer, the ring announcer?
I’ll be 68 in November so, naturally, I think about retirement. Unfortunately, all the travelling is beginning to take its toll. However, every time I start to contemplate cutting back my schedule, something really exciting pops up and I can’t walk away. Last weekend we had Sergio Martinez against Julio Cesar Chavez Jnr at The Thomas & Mack in Vegas, this Saturday we’ve got Ricky Burns up against Kevin Mitchell in Glasgow.
I think I’ll try to cut back to about a dozen premium promotions a year, provided my health prevails and my voice holds out. Problem is, I still want to guarantee my seat at ringside for all the biggest fights because I’m such a huge boxing fan.
Finally, how would you like boxing fans to remember you?
I like to imagine a father and son, maybe in the car or getting the tube home together and saying: ‘Do you remember that guy at the boxing who used to go ‘Let’s Get Ready….?’ Those were real exciting moments.’ I get very flattered whenever I hear people trying to imitate me!