WBO welterweight champion Tim Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez had just fought twelve hard competitive rounds at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. Both fighters were on edge. The outcome of their fight was very much in doubt. The winner would be ranked among the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world.
As the fighters paced nervously in their respective corners, a tall slender man wearing a tuxedo stood in the center of the ring, microphone in hand. He was meticulously groomed with perfectly manicured nails, every hair in place.
The man knew something that virtually no one else knew. The judges’ scores were on a piece of paper in his hand. Millions of people around the world were waiting for his next words. He was riding on the back of a tiger that he had tamed.
Michael Buffer is boxing royalty, better-known than all but a handful of fighters in the world today. He’s the gold standard by which ring announcers are judged, having taken his craft to a whole new level. There’s Buffer, and then there’s everyone else. Before the start of each main event that he works, the crowd waits with anticipation as he builds to his trademark phrase.
Five words: “LET'S GET R-R-R-READY TO RUMBL-L-L-L-E . . ."
Those words have become part of the pageantry of boxing. It’s hard to think of a parallel in any other sport. Buffer’s presence confers legitimacy on a fight, making it seem bigger and more important than would otherwise be the case. No other ring announcer in history has done that.
Buffer was born in Philadelphia on November 2, 1944. He began ring announcing in the early 1980s to supplement his income as a model, having worked previously as what he calls "the worst car salesman in the world.” He first used the phrase “Let’s get ready to rumble” in 1984.
I used to watch films of old fights on television,” Buffer recalls. “In the old days, the ring announcer would introduce the important fighters who were in attendance. But that had evolved to announcing five commissioners, three sanctioning-body officials, two ring doctors. And it chilled the crowd. I wanted something comparable to 'Gentlemen, start your engines' at the Indy 500; a hook that would excite people and put some energy back into the arena. I tried 'man your battle stations' and 'batten down the hatches' and 'fasten your seat belts,' but none of them worked. Then I remembered Muhammad Ali saying, 'Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; rumble, young man, rumble.' And when Sal Marchiano was the blow-by-blow commentator for ESPN, he'd say, 'We're ready to rumble.' So I took those ideas and fine-tuned them."
By 1990, ring announcing was a fulltime job for Buffer. Today, he’s a brand unto himself. Retail sales of products that have licensed the phrase “Let’s get ready to rumble” are near the $500,000,000 mark.
Buffer estimates that, during the last three decades, he has been the ring announcer for roughly one thousand fight cards. He has plied his trade in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
Does he hope that someday he’ll be called upon for a fight card in Antarctica?
“No,” he answers after a moment’s thought. “I wouldn’t trust the runway.”
At present, he works thirty to thirty-five cards a year. By the time fight night arrives, most buyers have purchased their tickets. No one calls anyone at the last minute, saying, “You have to watch the pay-per-view tonight. Michael Buffer is going to be on.” But he’s good branding and he adds to the entertainment value of the show.
Buffer also works a dozen conventions and other special events annually, including past appearances at the World Series, Stanley Cup Finals, NBA Championships, and NFL playoff games.
“I enjoy the spotlight,” he acknowledges. “It’s exciting to be there. I was very nervous the first year. Then I got used to it. I’m comfortable and confident now, so I enjoy it more. Where boxing is concerned, I root for a good fight more often than I root for one fighter or the other. There are times when I like both fighters and feel bad for the one who loses more than I’m happy for the winner. But it’s all very gratifying to me. There’s a legacy there.”
What makes Buffer so good?
Ring announcing is an under-appreciated art. It looks easy. It isn’t.
Buffer is consistent and technically sound. He has a smooth silky baritone voice that’s a gift of nature. And the camera is kind to him.
In the old days, ring announcers shouted to the crowd through megaphones.
“I’m lucky,” Michael notes. “I came along at the right time. Television and today’s technology capture what I do and the overall scene very well. I’m a performer. And I’m never fully satisfied. After each fight, I go home and watch the introductions and my announcement of the winner to see what I could have done better.”
“And most important,” Buffer continues, “I always remember that the fighters are the stars. The cheers are for them, not me. I never forget that.”
Buffer appreciates the irony of his celebrity status and also the financial rewards that have flowed from his success. He and his wife live comfortably in suburban Los Angeles in a fashionable home on one-and-a-half acres of land with the mandatory swimming pool, waterfall, and fountains. They have five dogs, three of which are rescue animals. The garage holds a Mercedes S500 sedan, Mercedes SL55AMG, Cadillac Escalade, and Bentley convertible.
Friends appreciate Buffer for his loyalty and also his sense of humor. He has a talent for celebrity impersonations, the best of which is Johnny Mathis singing the national anthem while the public address system keeps cutting out.
He also has strong feelings on a wide range of issues from politics to the less savory aspects of boxing, but keeps them private.
“I’m troubled by the way things have changed for middle class families in America,” Michael says. “It bothers me that people are finding it harder and harder to get by and too many parents are no longer optimistic that their children will enjoy a better life than they’ve had. But I’ve made a conscious decision to not speak out publicly on political issues because I think that my job requires neutrality.”
There are hassles that come with being Michael Buffer. The evolution from occasional fans with Kodak Instamatics to everyone having a cell phone and wanting a photo equates to nuisance.
“And they give their cell phone to someone who doesn’t know how to use it to take the picture,” Buffer notes. “So they have to take the picture three times.”
“I get recognized in New York more than anyplace else,” he continues. “Or at least, New Yorkers are more open about. They’ll come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you’re Michael Buffer.’ About three times a week, someone asks me to say ‘Let’s get ready to rumble’ for them. If I’m in New York or a fight environment like a casino, it’s more like a half-dozen times a day.”
How does Buffer respond to the request?
“Sometimes, I’ll do it for children. Or if it’s red carpet stuff like the season premiere of Boardwalk Empire, I’ll do it for a video camera. Usually, I ask, “Do you have your checkbook with you?” and that ends it.’
But not always.
“Every now and then, there’s some tension. One time, I was having dinner in a restaurant. A guy came over, leaned on the table, and said, ‘Hey; you’re that guy, right?’ Then it became, ‘Say it for me! Say it for me!’ And he’s getting more and more aggravated because I’m not going start shouting ‘Let’s get ready to rumble’ in a restaurant. After a while, his girlfriend came over. She’s telling him, ‘Come on, Vinny. He’s eating dinner. Leave him alone.’ So then Vinny gets pissed off at her.”
In many respects, Buffer has lived a charmed life. But there was one period of crisis.
“In February 2008,” Michael recounts, “I took the dogs out for a walk. I got home, looked in the mirror – I can’t walk by a mirror without looking; that’s the image; right? And I noticed a tiny protrusion on the side of my neck. I went to the doctor and it was misdiagnosed as a blockage in my salivary gland. ‘Suck on some lemon sours and it should go away.’ But it didn’t go away. So I went to another doctor. He dropped a light in and said to me, ‘I want you to get an MRI today.’”
“They did the MRI,” Buffer continues. “They took a biopsy. I was in New York to emcee a press conference for the Klitschko-Ibragimov fight at Madison Square Garden when I got the call. Cancer. I emceed the press conference, worked the fight [on February 23, 2008], and went home to face the unknown. This was my life, and even if I survived the cancer, I didn’t know if I’d be able to talk again. It wasn’t just my livelihood. I didn’t know if I’d be able to talk. We’re talking about my throat. I was a smoker when I was young. I told myself, ‘Well, if this is it, I’m going to do one of those anti-smoking commercials before I go. It’s not the way I want people to remember me, but maybe it will save some lives.’”
On March 15, 2008, Buffer worked the second fight between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Then he went under the knife.
“I got the right doctor. There was one surgery. They opened me up and took out three small tumors – squamos cells – that were attached to my tonsils along with some lymph nodes and part of my tonsils.”
One month later, Michael was in the ring for Joe Calzaghe vs. Bernard Hopkins. In 2013, he passed the five-year mark, which means that, from now on, he’ll undergo a PET-scan once a year instead of once every six months.
“I don’t know how long I’ll keep announcing,” Buffer says. “I definitely don’t want to stay too long at the dance. A while back, I thought that sixty-five would be it. But I’ll be sixty-nine in November. Things are still going well and I still enjoy it.”
On the afternoon on October 12th, Buffer was at The Wynn Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas readying for Bradley vs. Marquez. Earlier in the day, he’d gotten bout sheets for the evening’s pay-per-view fights from the HBO production team. After reviewing the sheets, he went online to Boxrec.com to supplement the information. Next, he wrote the data necessary to introduce to each fight in red and blue ink on 4-by-6-inch cards.
Then he dressed.
Buffer owns eight tuxedos. Once, he had twenty. The tuxedos share closet space in his home with two dozen suits, a half-dozen sport jackets, and fifty dress shirts.
He doesn’t own many shoes.
“I have a wide foot, so it’s hard to find a good fit.”
And he loves watches. Buffer’s collection of fifteen high-end timepieces includes Rolex, Cartier, and the like. But he’s also fond of a one-of-a-kind tourbillon watch that Azad custom-made for him.
In his hotel room at The Wynn, Buffer re-ironed his shirt.
“I’m fussy about my shirts. I usually wash and iron them myself. If I do send them to the cleaner, I touch them up when they come back. Sometimes, when I buy a new shirt, the collar button doesn’t line up perfectly. I’ll take it off and sew it back on myself so it fits just right.”
Then there’s the matter of Buffer’s ties.
“People who are righthanded tie their knot so that the bottom of the knot goes to the right,” he explains. “If you’re lefthanded, it’s the reverse. But a lefthanded knot has a better fit because it’s snug against the top button so you get a cleaner look. I’m righthanded, but I reverse my hands and tie my knot lefthanded. It takes forever, but it looks better when I’m done.”
“I know. I sound like Tony Randall playing Felix Unger in The Odd Couple.”
Buffer also cuts his own hair with a three-way mirror once every three weeks and trims his sideburns weekly.
“I grew a moustache when I was twenty-three years old and in the Army,” he admits. “But it was so sparse that I had to fill it out with an eyebrow pencil.”
At 4:30 PM, Buffer was standing at The Wynn’s south valet station, waiting for his car and driver. Michael was close to trainer Emanuel Steward, who died of cancer in October 2012. Now, every time he works a fight, he pins a campaign-type botton with Steward’s image on it inside his tuxedo jacket over his heart. The button was in place.
The car was fifteen minutes late. A half-dozen fans stopped and asked for cell phone pictures.
Buffer’s gold-and-diamond Tiffany cufflinks and tuxedo studs glittered in the sunlight, as did his rose-gold Rolex Presidential watch with diamond dial and diamond bezel. The diamonds were small, not gaudy. His style is elegance, not bling.
At 5:10 PM, Buffer arrived at the Thomas & Mack Center and made his way to his seat in the technical zone within arm’s reach of the ring apron. The fights on the card that he was scheduled to work would begin at six o’clock.
Bill Brady (chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission) came over and asked if he could introduce Buffer to a friend that he and his wife had brought to the fight. Referees Robert Byrd (who would work the main event) and Tony Weeks approached to say hello. Four roundcard girls seated to Michael’s left smiled enticingly at him.
At six o’clock, Buffer walked up the steps in the neutral corner nearest to him and entered the ring. During the course of the evening, he would make that journey eight times (before and after each of four fights).
The first three fights ended in knockouts, which meant there was little suspense in announcing the result.
Then it was time for the main event. Marquez entered the ring to the thunderous cheers of his supporters. Bradley followed, greeted by boos.
“I get anxious like a fan gets anxious before a fight,” Buffer says. “It’s anticipation. Not nerves.”
At 8:12 PM, Buffer took the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for.”
There were the mandatory introductions of state athletic commission officials and sanctioning body personnel, the referee and judges.
“And now, the officials are ready. The fighters are ready. Ladies and gentlemen, ARE YOU READY. For the thousands in attendance and for the millions watching around the world; ladies and gentlemen, “LET'S GET R-R-R-READY TO RUMBL-L-L-L-E . . ."
The crowd roared.
Buffer introduced Marquez first, then Bradley.
The fight began. Michael watched intently throughout, commenting on the flow of the action.
“Bradley is boxing nicely . . . Now he’s is getting countered . . . Marquez is controlling the distance between them . . . Good shot by Marquez, but Bradley rolled with it . . . There’s not much body-punching by either guy . . . The swelling around Marquez’s eye is starting to cause him problems . . . Bradley is telegraphing his right hand every time he throws it.”
It was a close fight between two highly-skilled boxers. At the final bell, Buffer rose from his chair and entered the ring. Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Keith Kizer handed him a sheet of paper with the judges’ scores on it. Bradley had won a split decision.
Announcing a knockout is fairly straightforward. Decisions, particularly after a close fight, are another matter.
Buffer read the commission sheet carefully to himself and organized his thoughts. Whenever there’s a split decision, the first two scores that he reads are one for each fighter. Then comes the deciding tally.
“I try to read the first two scores the same,” he says. “Then, on number three, I give it a big pause. I knew there would be a bad reaction from the crowd on this one because it was a pro-Marquez crowd and the decision could have gone either way.”
“Ladies and gentlemen; we go to the scorecards. Glenn Feldman scores the contest 115 to 113. He scores it for Marquez . . . Robert Hoyle scores it 115 to 113, and he has it for Bradley.”
A pause for drama.
“Patricia Morse Jarman scores the contest 116 to 112 for the winner by split decision . . .
There was dead silence. Buffer was holding history in the palm of his hand.
“And STILL WBO welterweight champion of the wor-r-r-r-ld, from Palm Springs, California, Timothy ‘Desert Storr-r-r-r-r-r-m’ Bradle-e-e-e-e-y.”
There was a post-fight press conference. Members of the boxing community would congregate and discuss the fight into the wee small hours of the morning. But Buffer was not among them.
Minutes after the fight ended and he’d announced the winner, he slipped out of the Thomas & Mack Center and returned to The Wynn. One could imagine Buffer as James Bond, walking into the casino and sitting down at a high-stakes baccarat game, every hair still in place. Beautiful women would stare. A casino host would bring him a martini; stirred, not shaken. Across the table, perhaps, Auric Goldfinger would be cheating.
But it was not to be. Buffer went directly to his room, ate a granola bar, drank some hot tea with honey, and went to sleep.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (Straight Writes and Jabs: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) has just been published by the University of Arkansas Press.