It is extraordinary to hear the most iconic sport MC on the planet does not like the sound of his own voice.
Perhaps it is that internal questioning which still drives Michael Buffer still, at the age of 78. Travelling the world opening fights and sporting events with that universally recognised vocal crescendo “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble” announcing the combatants with drama and aplomb.
Buffer has become boxing royalty – as recognisable as the fighters – and the American arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he will announce the boxing match between Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou which opens the six-month Riyadh Season of sport, music, entertainment and music showcasing the country’s desire to embrace a new age.
Buffer’s master of ceremonies performances are rousing. The pause before the action. The showbiz. The lights. All delivered with elegance and grace (and a spectacular wardrobe). We await those final words, which are patented to his company name.
“I was dreadful to begin with forty years ago,” admits Buffer, who hails from Pennsylvania, raised by foster parents in a loving home.
“I mean really dreadful. The very first time I did it man, oh my god my guts were churning. I was like ‘what am I doing here?
It was in Atlantic City, in 1982, with casinos and gambling having opened up there in the 1970s, an hour away from where he lived. He watched ring announcers and seen a lack of suspense in their delivery. Buffer was modelling and doing tv commercials at the time but had done various jobs including being a car sales man. As a younger man he had been called up in the Vietnam War draft, and took a position as an army photographer but never saw active service due to an injury during his training.
“Brad Jacobs, who’s one of the top executives with Bob Arum’s Top Rank right now, was the guy that hired me and it was at the urging of the entertainment director at the Playboy Hotel in Atlantic City that he did that. Nobody knew me, I’d never done anything, I kind of like bluffed my way into getting the job.
“But I had always been a fan of boxing [he first watched Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott on a black and white tv in 1951] and I idolised Floyd Patterson, then Muhammad Ali and have always loved the sport. In the early 80s I was working as a model at the time and I had a headshot so I sent letters to the Atlantic City casinos and hotels that were having all the fights, literally an hour drive away from me and got a response and they got my foot in the door with the promoter. I suppose the rest is history.
“But honestly, in October of 82 when I got my first gig I was dreadful, I mean really really dreadful, I mean at least that’s the way I look at it, I always kid Brad…he has the damn tape, I’m like can I buy that tape, can we get rid of it?”
What Buffer had, though, was a vision of how announcing should and could be done. And ‘Lets Get Ready to Rumble’ was created.
“I wanted a hook to bring the fighters’ introductions into it. The fighters are the stars of the show, I’m a fan, this is what I want to hear, so a great line is that famous line where before the Indie 500 where they say ‘gentlemen, start your engines’, and 400,000 people go nuts (he has announced that too by the way).
“I wanted to bring that energy. Look back and Mohammad Ali and his co-trainer Bundini Brown used to do that and I realised it had to be said at the end of proceedings...so that’s how it was born.
“Well, I don’t like my voice that you’re hearing right now but I always knew that I had the ability to do this, to be a DJ or weatherman on TV or something like that, but at the start they were just pipe dreams.”
Yet Buffer’s timing, delivery – and that voice – brought showbiz to the fights. And it caught on everywhere. Buffer’s trademark and brand has gone beyond sport to talks shows – Jay Leno, David Letterman, Arsenio Hall, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel; into music videos and lyrics; he was animated in The Simpsons, South Park, and Celebrity Deathmatch; he has appeared on Saturday Night Live, Mad TV and The Howard Stern Show. There have been movies, playing himself in Rocky Balboa, and even in 2019, in a remake of Dumbo, he was the ringmaster delivering the line “Let’s get ready for Dumbo” with his unmistakable delivery, of course.
Through all that, in 2008, he fought throat cancer, and wondered, of course, if his wonderful voice would leave him. But like the protagonists he announces, he fought it and conquered it. Reminding Buffer of this, he pauses, as if he has forgotten much of it.
“That’s really exciting to hear all that,” he said. “Sometimes I forget about that stuff and just hearing you go down the list I’m like oh yeah, I did that. It’s almost unbelievable. Not bad for a kid who messed around at school and was the class clown. Really! It’s been a pretty amazing life.”
We talk for almost two hours about his life and barely scratch the surface. “One of the questions I get asked is about the best fights. I’m the same as you – I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of fights and in 41-plus years there’s one that always stands out to me as a fight – the event was amazing because it was in a blizzard of 18, 19 inches of snow in Atlantic City when Iran Barkley shocked the world and defeated Tommy Hearns for the middleweight title.
“There was a night in 1989 when the PA system failed; the great moment when George Foreman beat Michael Moorer, aged 45 to become heavyweight champion again – and that fight didn’t even sell out the building in the MGM Grand, it had about 12,000 but not the usual 16, 17, 18 thousand. Foreman’s losing every minute of every round and in the 10th round he lands that one-two between the gloves and then follows it up with another one-two and knocks him cold. The moment was so unbelievable, because usually when you have a knockdown – you’ve been there so many times – it’s that spontaneous instant roar of excitement, in this case it was a spontaneous fraction of a second gasp... and then disbelief.
“My lips were quivering, I had tears in my eyes. I could barely speak to make the announcement. I was just so emotionally blown away with the heartbreak and the thrill of seeing this old guy win that fight, and that’s happened many times.”
More recently, Buffer cites the “AJ fight with Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium” as a major night in his memory.
“Wow...where AJ drops Klitschko early and then gets knocked down himself. What a fight and just an amazing night, so spectacular. I’m still and always will be a fan and I love the personalities. I became friends with so many fighters... Joe Frazier for example, yet had always loved Ali. I announced every fight for the Klitschko brothers when they were world champions.”
“These guys are great personalities and people and so you have that thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as a fan, so when we address like how we feel about the sport today, there are things that I want to see. Like you and every fan, I want to see an undisputed heavyweight champion, that’s the number one thing in boxing, that’s the biggest driving thing in boxing, even if the guy isn’t as good as pound for pound Canelo or somebody else, I want to see that because that’s the king of the hill and that makes the whole sport better.”
‘I think Fury will be too much for Ngannou’
Buffer is thrilled, therefore to be involved this weekend with Fury against Ngannou – “I think Fury will be too much for Ngannou but the MMA fighter is strong and dangerous” – and that Fury versus Oleksandr Usyk has been announced as “signed” and will take place in Saudi Arabia, but admits that he likes both men so much, it is hard to think of a winner and a loser.
“Fury is this entertaining guy, he’s irresistible. Without a doubt, first of all, he’s definitely among one of the most interesting, charismatic and fun guys to be around, but as a fighter in a ring, his size, his unbelievable defensive abilities, he has an amazing ability to move and bob and weave, he has an amazing ability to psyche his opponents out. Just ask Wladimir Klitschko about that.
“You do ask yourself how he would have compared to Ali, Frazier, Foreman, the Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis eras. It’s a question in your mind.
“Fury speaks his mind, he’s fun to be around, he’s dealt with personal issues, things that a lot of people like to sweep under the table. He’s faced them and made them public and drawn attention to them and that’s really a good thing. This fight with Usyk is going to be one where I’m heartbroken and happy at the same time If I’m lucky enough to be a part of that fight I’ll just be a nervous wreck cause I know a guy that I love is going to lose, and a guy that I love is going to win.”