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December 1998

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Issue cover SMOOTH OPERATOR

We all recognise top MC Michael Buffer, but who is he really? GRAHAM HOUSTON attempts to uncover the man behind the microphone and discovers an interesting personality with an intriguing character


Photo shot

MICHAEL BUFFER: the most famous and financially successful ring MC ever - Get Big Pic

The boxing world knows Michael Buffer for his debonair appearance and famous catchphrase "Let's Get Ready to Rumble!" that have combined to make him the most famous and financially successful ring MC ever. But apart from that he is a bit of a mystery to the general boxing public.

To me, Buffer has always seemed charming but a little distant. But we shared an early-hours taxi ride to the airport at El Paso, Texas, the morning after Kostya Tszyu had stopped Rafael Ruelas - a fight at which Buffer was master of ceremonies, or "ring announcer" as they say in the States, and I found him to be not only the entertaining conversationalist one would expect but also knowledgeable about boxing and rather passionate in some of his views. He was, for instance, concerned at the amount of punishment Ruelas had been allowed to absorb the previous evening.

He is a cool customer, too, in the true sense of the word. He discovered when he went to tip the driver that he had left his wallet in the hotel room. Without missing a beat he enquired if the driver could take him right back to the hotel. "I know exactly where I left it," he said of the wallet. A plane connection had to be made and clearly a return trip to the hotel was something Buffer could well have done without. But he was, to all outward appearances, unruffled. I was impressed, knowing that my reaction to a similar situation might not have left me unagitated.

The following month, at the Oscar De La Hoya rematch with Julio Cesar Chavez at Las Vegas, Buffer's calm exterior was disturbed when introductory music for Chavez cut across his final celebrity announcement. The miscue was unprofessional and Buffer made a gesture of annoyance. But within moments his composure was regained and he was smoothly back in his stride, which is polished and professional.

His style of announcing has been called "prophetic" but when Buffer is making the introductions it adds to the big-fight occasion.

"Ready to Rumble" was introduced as a means of re-energising his announcements after the long introductions of the officials from sanctioning groups and state commissions had caused the fans' attention to drift. He has taken to prefacing the catchphrase with the words: "And now for the thousands in attendance and the millions watching around the world, the moment you've all been waiting for," lowering his voice before raising it again to dramatise the famous slogan that follows. There is a definite frisson in the arena when Buffer's delivery picks up steam, a sense of: "Finally - here we go!" in the crowd.

With no disrespect to the other boxing MCs, Buffer is generally considered the best in the business, and the fact that he is in demand in other areas - he is highly paid to announce big-time wrestling events, for instance (see sidebar) - goes to prove this.

He looks younger than his 54 years, a divorced father of two adult sons who is engaged to be married after a prolonged spell of bachelorhood. He has an engaging line in self-deprecation and one can imagine him being a popular dinner-party guest because the conversational flow at table surely would never flag.

Buffer is one of those men who always seem to be travelling to and from professional engagements, but I finally caught up with him for a telephone conversation.

His announcing career began, he said, when he was watching boxing on TV with his oldest son, who was about 13 at the time. "This would be back in '81, '82," he said. "An announcer took a split decision and, as he gave the scores, after the second score you already knew who won the fight. He took the drama out of the presentation.

"My son, Michael - not a junior - was a very astute sports fan, and when that happened he said: 'Dad, you could do that! [the announcing job]'. And I thought: 'Well, that's not a bad idea. It might be fun.' And that was the beginning."

He added: "My very first job was for Alessi Promotions, out of Florida, it was Atlantic City and it went on to become the Tuesday Night Fights on USA [the cable network] - but it was Friday night at that time, the early days of the USA boxing on cable television.

"At the time I lived in Philadelphia and a lot of boxing was going on in the early '80s in Atlantic City - every weekend on national TV. Not knowing that the promoters hired the ring announcers, I contacted each hotel and sent them a picture. I was modelling at the time, and I guess I sort of fancied myself as presenting a dapper appearance, and I suggested to them, as an idea, that their image as a hotel-casino would be perhaps a little more glamorous with a James Bond sort of an appearance.

"I gave them an idea that no one had tried before, and I'd never been a ring announcer before, although I lied and said I had. Every hotel in Atlantic City got back to me and said: "We love the idea, but we don't hire the announcer', and they all gave me the names of Don King, Bob Arum, Butch Lewis - all the promoters. And then I went through the promoters. At the time and even still today the boxing promoters were more or less all using someone, and I kinda had the door closed in my face. But [promoter Phil] Alessi decided to give it a shot. [But] I wasn't too good, and I went maybe another five months before I had another chance.

"As fate would have it, a ring announcer who was like doing almost all the fights, drove the networks crazy because he would just go on and on and on, and they found themselves running over [the allotted broadcast time] at the end of the day. So they [the TV networks] told the local promoter in Atlantic City: 'You can't use this guy, he's driving us nuts, find someone else.' And there was my letter and picture sitting there, and I got another shot."

Yes, he experimented with other slogans before coming up with Ready to Rumble, saying: "I tried 'Man your battle stations, because we're going to war'. That was on the first night. I didn't remember it until I saw an old clip on USA [on the network's Tuesday Night Fights final show in August]. And 'Batten down the hatches' and 'Fasten your seatbelts', that sort of thing."

He does not specifically remember the first time he used the Ready to Rumble line except that it was in 1983. It is now a registered trademark around the world, he said: North America, Britain, Australia, Germany. He has successfully sued to protect the copyright. "I'm about 12 for 12 right now," he said of court cases. "Actually, I just finished up my last lengthy litigation, which went for two-and-a-half years with a motion picture company."

Buffer has, he said, always been a fight fan. "My paternal grandfather was world bantamweight champion back in 1921, his name was Johnny Buff," he said. "It's not that long a story, but I actually did not know that he was my grandfather, nor that I had a world champion in my background, because I did not meet my biological father until 1988 or '89. And then I learned that his father was Johnny Buff. I was one of those war babies - World War II - and a 19-year-old guy in the navy and a 19-year-old mom . . . and by the time he [his biological father] got back from the Pacific they didn't even know each other and I was being raised by foster parents.

"As fate would have it, he [his biological father] saw me on TV as a ring announcer, with the last name Buffer, and that's how we met.

"I'd been raised by a wonderful family. I know a lot of people have problems where they don't get to meet their real folks, but I never had that problem. So when he made contact, I thought: 'Well, this is interesting. If he's a nice guy, we go from there. If he's not, I just walk away, it doesn't make any difference.' It turned out he was a super guy. He has two sons - he's been married for over 40 years to a lovely lady who's my step-mom. So now I have two sets of parents, and one of my brothers [Bruce] is now my manager and business partner.

"I keep in touch with both sets of parents all the time. My mother and father - which is how I refer to the people who brought me up - live in Philadelphia, they're in their late 80s and I try to see them as much as possible. Joe Buffer and his wife Connie live in L.A., so we're in touch all the time. I just bought a house in Encino Hills [an area of Los Angeles], the first house I ever bought and I did it right, with a [swimming] pool."

His son Michael is 31, the younger son, Matthew is 28. Buffer got married young. "I was 21, in the army, when I got married," he said. "The marriage lasted about six years." He does not wish to discuss this part of his life. "Let it pass - ancient history." Likewise, he does not talk about his military service, which was during the time of the Vietnam conflict. "You can just say I was in the army for three years, from '65 to '68, and that pretty much tells it all," he said. "That's another thing that's just ancient history."

He boxed a little when he was in the army, saying: "I did all right, but I hated that rule where they say the other guy can hit you back. That was the part I wasn't too thrilled with.

"I got out of the army, I was 23, I was a car salesman. Not that I was a good salesman, but it was great to get a free car. I did that - very unsuccessfully, but I kept doing it - until I was around 32, 33, and I started modelling, and it just took off, and I really haven't had a real job since. Announcing has been a full-time job for almost 10 years now. I'm the only person ever to do this for a living in the history of the sport."

And the modelling? How did that start? He said: "I found myself unemployed - which I did frequently, selling cars. I never had any voice training but I went to see an agent that handled models - I also thought he also handled people for broadcasting, and I thought maybe I could do some spots for radio commercials, because I used to do character voices and things like that, and I went to see the guy and he said: 'Well, how tall are you? What size do wear? Let me see your hands.' And three days later I was in a fashion show, and never looked back.

"I was doing a lot of fashion work, which sort of led to TV commercials as a model, and since I wasn't like a kid - I was in my 30s - I got to be friendly with the producers and directors of these commercials and they started giving me speaking parts, which gave my son the idea of, like 'Well, if you can speak on TV in a commercial, you could be an announcer for the fights.' One thing led to another, accidentally - everything was an accident."

He said he enjoyed his modelling jobs, most of which he described as "local", in Philadelphia or New York. "I never really had any national exposure," he said, "I wasn't the most aggressive person. I thought: 'This is great, they're paying me to do this,' and I just sat back and let it happen. I didn't go out and beat the bushes or try to go to Hollywood or anything like that; I couldn't care less.

"I've had much more exposure as a ring announcer. We did a spread for GQ for dinner jackets, smoking jackets, a few years ago. This year I'm Budweiser's boxing spokesperson: we've done national commercials with Budweiser for the past five or six years. I was part of Pepsi's pop-culture promotion, with radio, TV and print ads through the summer."

But despite the busy schedule he has been able to establish a lasting relationship. He said: "I've been single for 25 years, I've been working in Germany a lot lately for the last few years, and I met a girl in Germany a few years ago and we just got engaged. Her name's Alina. We're probably going to get married in April. At first we kept in touch every day with a fax, or travelling [to be with each other], but she moved here last year."

And how does he keep so young-looking? "I've always thought that avoiding stress was important," he said. "I can always remember when [Richard] Nixon got into his later years in the presidency, and [Jimmy] Carter, and they aged so much in those four to eight years, and that's just the stress of the job. I've always been a fan of avoiding stress, trying to take things easy as they come. Kind of like taking care of yourself mentally and physically."

But finding the time to keep in trim physically is a problem for Buffer. "You get over 50 and you've really got to watch

it more than ever," he said. "I'd really like to lose a few pounds right now. I always joke around and say: 'The most exercise I get now is holding my stomach in.' I try to do sit-ups and push-ups. When you travel, that's the best you can do. Occasionally I say to myself: 'Let's skip the escalator and walk up or down the stairs.' But - just a lot of travelling. The last few years especially, it's been just unbelievable."

Buffer gave his schedule for a typical week, this one in September: Friday night, 18th, in Las Vegas to announce the Oscar De La Hoya-Julio Cesar Chavez fight, Sunday at Edison, New Jersey to sign autographs at a sports memorabilia show; Monday in Boston to announce wrestling; Tuesday in New York to MC the boxing show featuring Shane Mosley and Angel Manfredy in title bouts; Thursday in Norfolk, Virginia for wrestling, Saturday night (the 26th) in Connecticut for Lennox Lewis-Zeljko Mavrovic. Six cities in eight days: no wonder he has no time for workouts.

Of all the fight fans he has come across on his announcing trips he says that the British seem "more into it", especially when Naseem Hamed is boxing.

Talking about British fans, he said: "I was shocked at how familiar they were with Michael Buffer. That really surprised me - to walk down the street in London, just wearing a sport coat and pair of sunglasses, with my fiancee, and have people stop and say: 'Are you Michael Buffer?' and ask for autographs. And this happened everywhere, and that was a pleasant surprise. I'm kinda used to it in Germany, because I've had a lot of TV exposure in Germany, huge ratings [for TV boxing]. The British fans - I was impressed with their support of local fighters, when local fighters would fight on the undercard. And then, the support for guys that have had their day but are still out there, like Chris Eubank. I was impressed with that."

Do the attentions of fans ever get trying? "It's good news, bad news," he said. "You don't get to where you are without having support like that. I do a lot of National Football League games, NHL [National Hockey League] games, the home openers and playoffs. The last five years I've done a lot of NBA [National Basketball Association] playoff games. So there are fans from all over. But it's great - I love it. I'm flattered. Sometimes you kinda want to be able to come and go, have your dinner in peace but, God bless 'em, I've never really encountered anybody that's been a problem, they're always real nice."

His first big fight was the electric night at Madison Square Garden when Roberto Duran stopped Davey Moore in June 1983. He recalled: "I remember, in the afternoon, at the weigh-in, I walked into the Garden and they were putting the ring up, the echoes of hammers were rattling around the room, workers' voices, and I thought: 'My God!' This big, empty room. And of course it turned out to be a sellout - the biggest [Garden] crowd since Ali and Frazier. I was nervous as hell, and I can honestly say from that day on I have been excited but never really nervous. The crowd was so great, it was just a great way to get things started doing a big fight.

"I probably was a little more careful in those days with every little word and detail written down to make sure I wasn't losing track, but what was one of the most exciting things about that night, and in my entire career, was they had a great line-up of champions that had come to the fight, and I was introducing them, and we had Ray Mancini and [Marvin] Hagler and Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney - a great list of national and New York fighters, and Muhammad Ali was there, and everyone knew it, and they were all going crazy. And I kept introducing fighter after fighter, and they [the boxers] stayed in the ring, like the old days, from one side to the other. And then I brought up Ali, with what I like to remember as a fantastic introduction, and he went down the line and shook the hands of all the fighters, and it was just such a moment, it was so unbelievable."

And what of some of the other great moments, memorable fights, of his MC's career? "My favourite fight, for an absolute war, was Roberto Duran and [Iran] Barkley in 1989 - the best fight I ever sat at, at ringside," he said. "And when [Daniel] Zaragoza went down that final time [against Erik Morales] and, from his elbows, just saluted the kid. That was pure class, a great moment.

"One of the most exciting moments, of course, was when [George] Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer, when he landed those two left hooks, and stepped up the pace, threw twice as many punches from that moment on as he had in the fight, and finally caught him."

Favourite fighters? "As a schoolboy, it was the end of Sugar Ray Robinson's career - I loved him," he said. "And [Floyd] Patterson was like my hero. In essence he really was a great fighter, for a teeny heavyweight, and he came back and defeated [Ingemar] Johansson in that second fight, when he was supposed to be finished. That was the moment that really hooked me on boxing. And, of course, a kid named Cassius Marcellus Clay, from the Olympics on. He's still the greatest.

"He's got a of problems now, but I really loved Riddick Bowe. He was such a sweetheart. I'm really sad with what's happened over the last couple of years with him. I really loved him. Evander [Holyfield], same thing. When those guys fought it broke my heart because they had to hit each other.

"I always liked Iran Barkley, because when I started doing fights on ESPN he was like in his sixth or seventh fight and on guts alone went on to become a three-time champion. Big George [Foreman] - what's not to like about him? Vincent Phillips, just like Barkley, a blue-collar, take-me-to-the-gym-and-keep-me-in-shape kinda guy, that finally came back - no way he was he supposed to win that title [when Phillips stopped Kostya Tszyu in May 1997]. He's never lost at 140 pounds, so I hope people start to recognise he's a hell of a fighter."

As to the future, Buffer said: "I feel good, and healthy. I've got some political connections and I'd like to be part of some reform things that would get some good things done. If I can accomplish some things like that, I can walk away happy - say at 60, 62. How's that? It's closer than it sounds, though I don't like to admit it.

"I'm not addicted to doing this. It's become lucrative for me now. I came up with a catchphrase that's become a trademark that has turned into a business all its own, so I'm blessed in that way. Maybe it's easy for me to say it, but the spotlight doesn't mean that much to me."

He can see himself eventually just doing three or four boxing shows a year "if they're big and somebody wants me to do it".

No, he said, of course, he had no idea when he first started to announce boxing matches that it would lead to what it has. "I always get asked how many championship fights I've done," he said, "but I never thought that this [his enormous success] would happen, so I never kept track. It's something that I was doing for, like, fun, and a few extra bucks."

 

"BOWE WAS NEVER DULL" - Of the many fights Buffer has seen, the two most memorable featured Big Daddy

Michael Buffer has been MC for many big fights, but two in particular stand out - for the wrong reasons, as he puts it.

One was the evening outdoors in Las Vegas when The Fan Man - an attention-seeker wearing a motorised contraption and parachute - descended from the sky during the Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe rematch at Caesars Palace.

The other was the night of the riot at Madison Square Garden after Bowe had won by disqualification over Andrew Golota.

First, the Fan Man episode (in November 1993) when Buffer's appeals for calm helped prevent the situation from getting out of hand. He recalls: "Caesars has good security people [but] obviously all hell was breaking loose. People couldn't tell what was going on, if anyone was injured, and I just tried to keep everybody calm because we wanted to go on with the rest of the night.

"We - myself, security people, the boxing officials - could see where we were, that we were going to get this taken care of in 15, 20 minutes hopefully and get the fight back on, [but] you have 14,000, 16,000 people, you just don't want anything to break loose.

"So I just kept saying: 'Stay calm, stay in your seats, everything's under control, we'll be underway in a few moments' and I can remember it was cool that night, I kept telling Rock Newman [Bowe's manager] and Holyfield's people: 'It looks like this might be a while, stay warm, put blankets around your guys' and we got it going again.

"The same thing happened in the Garden when that riot broke out with Bowe and Golota [in July 1996]. I had to do the same thing. What I kept doing, between 'Stay calm, stay calm' was announcing for any New York policemen in the audience, because they didn't have policemen there, they had security people wearing blazers. No one knew who was who. So I kept asking for off-duty [police] to please come to the ring and help us out.

"Eventually an emergency call went out and cops, like, swarmed into the place in uniform.

"That [the riot] was the worst thing I ever saw, very frightening. I've never seen faces like that up close. You see things like this on films and newsreels, soccer events in Europe, riots with revolutions. It was mass hysteria, people panicking in fear trying to get away and those that like want to be violent.

"A flattering moment came about two hours later because they asked a lot of people to stay and give statements to the police, and one of the detectives came to me and he said: 'The mayor [Rudy Giuliani] would like to meet you.' And I went in there with the mayor and the chief of police, and we talked boxing for 20 minutes."

 

BOXING vs WRESTLING

Michael Buffer has been announcing at World Championship Wrestling promotions for four years and said: "In that time, wrestling has just taken off - an unbelievable amount of [TV] coverage and huge audiences. Our ratings on television are gigantic."

Buffer has a clause in his contract that the grapplers cannot use him as part of their routine. "They've got to keep their hands off the old man!" he says, laughing. "It's either that or I've got to start wearing old clothes."

He adds: "Everything in wrestling is appearance and all that, and my thing is to be Michael Buffer, not to be one of the wrestlers or get knocked around or bumped around - that's part of the deal."

There have been lucrative spin-offs to the announcing. He said: "From a demographics point of view, Let's Get Ready to Rumble and Michael Buffer have reached a whole new audience. A lot of kids can watch that [wrestling]. That's been parlayed into, oh, toys, microphones where you push a button and my voice says: Let's Get Ready to Rumble. Talking mugs, and, of course, hats, T-shirts.'

Does he have any preference when it comes to announcing wrestling and boxing? "I like wrestling because it's real," he said, adding quickly: "Just kidding!"

But he adds: "I've got to tell you, I really enjoy the wrestling because of the response from the fans - a small house is 12,000 - and you have to really go some to get 12,000 people to a fight these days. And we do this [big crowds for wrestling shows] every night of the week, all over the country, sometimes 30 or 40,000. So I love that atmosphere. And they are what you would call hard-core fans. They're there to enjoy the entire three hours. It's a lot of fun.

"And boxing, of course - for 10 years I did the fights on ESPN [the American cable TV network] practically every week somewhere in the country, and I enjoyed that. I haven't done it for four or five years because I have been doing just so many other things, basically to make a living. Whereas I used to do 75 fights [promotions] in a year in America, now I'll do maybe 18 or 20 boxing events and make five times as much money. So I'm really getting to be there just for the bigger fights, and that's a lot of fun, but I do miss the so-called smaller shows, watching fighters grow and develop and become champions. It's, you know - business is business."


Also available to read from issue:

Magazine Contents:
Full details of the December 1998 issue - the complete contents listing.

World Rankings:
See where the top fighters were rated when December 1998 went to press...

THE LOW POINT
Amidst the nightmare, there was a fight. But was Prince Naseem Hamed's curious behaviour in and around his WBO title defence against Wayne McCullough the worst showing of his career? GLYN LEACH reports from Atlantic City

PRESENTING THE BIG ONE
Mike Tinley is like the cat who's got the cream and understandably so - after less than two years of operation, Tinley's company, America Presents, will be promoting the first two bouts of Mike Tyson's latest comeback. So who is he? STEVE FARHOOD pins him down for a Q&A


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