Michael Buffer lives in an echo chamber. The world's most famous ring announcer—make that the world's only famous ring announcer—walks down the street and through airports, restaurants and hotel lobbies, and everywhere he goes he hears his own words called back to him. "Ladies..." intones a busboy. "...And gentlemen..." says a cabbie. "Let's..." booms a guy in the elevator. "...Get ready..." offers Bill Cosby, celebrity to celebrity. "...To rummmmmmmble," shout dozens of people in the crowd every time Buffer steps into the ring.
"Let's get ready to rumble" (hereafter referred to as LGRTR) is Buffer's bread and butter, a catchphrase so essential to his persona that he has trademarked it as a logo of his own Ready to Rumble, Inc. To the casual boxing fan, from Atlantic City to Las Vegas to Paris to even Bismarck, N.Dak., when Buffer stands in the center of a ring in his tuxedo and rolls out LGRTR, it means, quite simply, Fight Time.
"Buffer is by far the best," says fight promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank. "There's nobody even close to him. They can kid him about how vain he is, how full of himself he is, but he's also the only professional around. He plays a subtle, but very crucial, role in a fight." Of course, Arum is also the one who dubbed Buffer "Ham Bone."
Buffer may look as if he just stepped off a wedding cake, but don't be fooled. True, under the ring lights he can appear to be made of nothing more substantial than glossy plastic and hair spray—and though 47, he looks unnaturally young. But consider what he does, at more than 60 fight cards a year. Anybody can intone names and weights. What Buffer does is energize a crowd. "Wow!" said one spectator at a recent fight after Buffer had unleashed a particularly muscular and sustained LGRTR. "Can you imagine him coming home from work?" The guy lowered his voice two octaves and rumbled, "Hi, honnnnney. Let's get ready for dinnnnner!"
Buffer has been called the Vanna White of boxing, but that's unfair. For one thing, Buffer dresses better. For another, Vanna doesn't talk. No, Buffer might best be likened to a good ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d'. He gets everyone settled, hands out menus and makes the patrons feel that they are in for something special. The amazing thing is that he more or less reinvented the role of ring announcer.
In the old days, of course, there were giants: Harry Balogh, Johnny Addie, Jimmy Lennon Sr., the guys in the baggy tuxes, with the microphones that came down from the ceiling on a cord. They were more like waiters—all business, little glitz—and they brought a touch of solid dignity to fight nights. But theirs was the age of radio and scratchy black-and-white newsreels, and few fans really knew who they were. By the time Buffer came along, most ring announcers were faceless local guys, hired for an evening by the promoter. Buffer changed all that. He made himself a part of the traveling team, a part of the show.
"I think I made it more of an exciting role, certainly a more visible one," Buffer says. As proof he offers his boxing trading card, number 139 in the Kayo card series. MICHAEL BUFFER/RING ANNOUNCER it reads across the bottom, under a photograph of Buffer in action. The words on the back say it all: BOXING PERSONALITY.
Watching Buffer in action, fight after fight, one begins to imagine that he must have risen fully formed (and formally fitted) from a cornerman's sweat bucket one day, microphone and celebrity guest list in hand. Nothing could be further from the truth. Buffer is a self-made mannequin—er, man. He grew up in Roslyn, Pa., near Philadelphia, where he enjoyed what he calls "an ideal suburban childhood." After a three-year stint in Vietnam as an Army photographer, Buffer found himself, at 23, with a wife, a one-year-old son and no job. He tried selling cars. "I was the worst car salesman in the world," Buffer says with no hint of regret. "I got fired from every job I had." Buffer was saved from a permanent spot on the unemployment line one day in 1976 when he went to a talent agent's office for an audition. The guy asked, "What size do you wear?"
"Three days later I was in a fashion show," Buffer says. "I haven't done a normal job since."
At age 32, Buffer settled into the life of a professional model. "I always was something of a clotheshorse, but I could never afford to indulge my tastes," he says. "Suddenly, I was in new suits and formal wear every day." Buffer had a second son by then and soon after purchased a comfortable home in Philadelphia. He let the lean and hungry 18- and 19-year-olds battle each other for the high-fashion jobs in Paris and Milan. He did print work and an occasional TV commercial in Philadelphia or New York. "But never a speaking part," Buffer says. "There was an unwritten law that models did not talk."
In time, though, Buffer got to know a few directors and producers, one of whom cast Buffer in a 30-second TV spot for a department store. Buffer smiled, he held up a minitelevision, and most important, he spoke. Buffer's voice—resonant maple syrup—was unleashed. He began to do more TV commercials, both onscreen and voice-over work, and he might well have continued indefinitely but for the carelessness of an anonymous ring announcer one afternoon in 1982. An avid boxing fan all his life (though he never knew him, his grandfather was Johnny Buff, a bantamweight champion of the '20s), Buffer was watching a fight on TV with his son Michael Patrick, then 14.
"It was a split decision," Buffer says. "The announcer got up, and instead of reading the judges' scores one at a time—one for fighter A, one for fighter B and then the deciding vote—he announced the two judges who had voted for the winner first. He killed all the drama."
Michael Patrick, with the extraordinary insight children sometimes exhibit, said, "You could do better than that, Dad."
The next day Buffer sent out rèsumès and photographs to the casinos in Atlantic City. "I lied a little," he says, with a shrug. "I said I'd been an emcee and that I'd done some fights. I tried to sell them on the idea of upgrading their image. I pitched a kind of James Bond style."
The casinos wrote back, explaining that while they were intrigued by the 007-with-a-microphone concept, it was the promoter who hired the ring announcer. So Buffer sent out another set of rèsumès and photos, and this time Alessi Productions gave Buffer a chance. "It was late '82, at the old Playboy Casino in Atlantic City," Buffer recalls. "Just a small local fight card. I was nervous and awkward, and I thought I stunk the joint out." Frank Gelb, Top Rank's fight coordinator, didn't think so. In February '83, Gelb hired Buffer to do the Marlon Starling-Jose Baret bout in Atlantic City, on CBS. The rest is ring history.
Buffer began inserting LGRTR into his fight introductions almost immediately. He had heard Sal Marchiano, then a broadcaster with ESPN, use the phrase, and he liked it. "I didn't have as much confidence in it back then," Buffer says. "I just kind of said it." The audience responded, though, and Buffer realized he had a winner.
Of course, Buffer has brought more to the job than his now-famous battle cry. He has brought a new level of professionalism. "I understood about things like time frame, blocking, cues; I knew what a stage manager was," Buffer says. "If the producer wanted, say, 60 seconds more lead-in time, I gave it to him. Exactly."
"Some of the guys we used would go on forever," Arum says. "Or they'd get flustered. Buffer is totally in control in there. He was so good, we wanted to use him on all Top Rank fights."
Not everyone was so taken with Buffer. "Matinee idol," scoffs one veteran announcer, now semiretired. "What I have forgotten about boxing, Michael Buffer will never know!"
While Buffer worked the rest of the country for Top Rank, longtime announcer Chuck Hull worked for them in Las Vegas. When Buffer started working Vegas in '86, Hull's supporters in the boxing community blasted Top Rank for replacing their local talent with an outsider. The controversy was played out in the local press. "It was silly," Buffer says. "I mean, there were people starving in Ethiopia."
Buffer began to work the bigger HBO fights and then the pay-per-view shows. These days, he is on the road constantly, often doing two cards a week, and makes what he calls a "comfortable living."
He once got a call from Cary Grant in 1985 seeking sartorial advice. Thinking the caller was an impersonator playing a joke, Buffer subjected him to several minutes of his Cary Grant impersonation—until Grant said, "You know, you're doing me quite badly."
"I shut up quick," Buffer says.
Grant, a boxing fan, had seen Buffer on the telly the night before and had taken a fancy to the yellow bow tie Buffer was wearing. Buffer was delighted to tell Grant where he could get one just like it.
Buffer is moving in heady circles these days, hanging with celebrities. The Buff, as he is sometimes known, is good friends with the Donald. Trump likes Buffer's style and uses him for all his Atlantic City fight cards. "He's great, he's the choice, he has a unique ability," says Trump. "I told my people, 'We got to have him.' " During the action Buffer often sits ringside with Trump, and with Trump's fiancèe, Maria Maples, who is a big Michael Buffer fan. "Michael has real professionalism," Maples says. "He makes people feel good and credible. Also, he has the warmest, nicest eyes."
Lately Buffer has been expanding his horizons. He had a part in his pal Eddie Murphy's movie Harlem Nights (Buffer played a radio announcer), and he was also seen in Mickey Rourke's Home Boy (Buffer played a ring announcer). Then there's the new syndicated television show Grudge Match (Buffer appears as himself). When the producers began casting the show—a sort of American Gladiators meets The People's Court, on which ordinary people with real-life grudges battle it out using oversized boxing gloves and custard pies—Buffer was the only man they considered for the announcer's role.
Of course, that's just show biz. When it comes to the real thing, Buffer takes his job quite seriously. Before February's James Toney-David Tiberi main event in Atlantic City, Buffer—as he does before all fights—visited the dressing room of every boxer on the card. He made notes on the fighters' names, hometowns and stats. With the Hispanic fighters, he went over pronunciation, trilling his r's with great style. It is this sort of preparation that makes a Buffer introduction sing.
From the dressing room, Buffer moved back to the arena, where he went over details with the television people and checked in with the round-card girls (names, hometowns, stats). A quick dab of pancake makeup ("I never used to do that," Buffer says. "But one day a director told me, 'Michael, your nose is strobing every time you turn your head' "), and he was, well, ready to rumble.
"The hard part of the job," Buffer says, "is not introducing the fighters. It's introducing the celebrities." At big fights, the roll call of the famous and the near famous on hand at ringside can go on forever. The record, says Buffer, was the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks fight in Atlantic City in '88, when he did 45 minutes of introductions. This is the test of an announcer. He is expected to know who is there, to get all the names right and in the right order, and most important, to maintain the tension-building and excitement that should precede a big fight. Buffer is the master. Watch him slide gracefully over the unavoidable no-names—all those Trump executives in the big suits sitting ringside, all those Trump relatives, Sonny Bono—and then milk the big ones. His Muhammad Alis bring down the house. "I still remember the Holyfield-Foreman bout [last April], when I got both Ali and Frazier in the ring with the fighters," Buffer says. "The crowd was going crazy."
Ah, but it's dangerous up there in the ring—all alone under the hot lights, your handlers a million miles away on the other side of the ropes. Let your guard down for a second, and you get tagged. When that happens, it's not pretty. Ringside regulars all have their favorite Buffer gaffes. Like the time he introduced musician Grover Washington as Grover Cleveland or the time he had to ask which fellow standing at ringside was Manute Bol.
The classic moment, though, was the one Buffer still refers to as the "DiMaggio thing." Last October, Buffer was working the Pernell Whitaker-Jorge Paez fight in Reno. He had finished introducing a star-studded roster of celebrities when one ringside wiseacre caught his eye. "Don't forget Joe DiMaggio!" the fellow urged. With a Bond-like nod of thanks, Buffer spun on his heel and launched into what some observers swear was a full two-minute introduction of the great Joe D. He recited statistics and delivered an extemporaneous tribute to DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. "Ladies and gentlemen," Buffer concluded with a booming flourish, "Let's give a real Reno welcome to the Yankee Clipper himself, the one, the only, the legendary, Joe DiMaggio!"
It was a moment of surpassing emotion, and the crowd was on its feet, straining for a glimpse of DiMaggio. The only problem was, Joe wasn't there. Never had been. DiMaggio was not within 200 miles of Reno that night.
Since that night, before every fight, Buffer gets some ribbing from the press section. "Don't forget Roger Maris," someone will yell. "What about Babe Ruth?" Like a true champion, he takes it all in stride.
"You know," Buffer says. "I like to think that was the best introduction Joe ever had."