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Ready to Rumble

by Bill Donahue
Going a round with Michael Buffer, the voice that launched a thousand fights.

Michael Buffer’s career wandered, from car salesman to fashion model, before he recognized his greatest gift: his rich, iconic baritone. Now, Buffer is best known as a ringside boxing announcer, famously firing up pugilists with his trademarked refrain, “Let’s get ready to rumble!”—a phrase that has, reportedly, brought him more than $400 million in revenues. But his celebrity transcends the world of professional boxing. Since the early 1980s, his voice has been kick-starting games for Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Hockey League, as well as high-profile events such as the Indy 500, World Championship Wrestling matches and even an episode of American Idol. A Philadelphia native who cut his teeth in Atlantic City boxing rings, Buffer has remade himself a pop culture touchstone. We caught up with him between rounds at his home in Los Angeles.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: You took a rather circuitous route to fame. How did you become a ring announcer?
MICHAEL BUFFER: Me and my oldest son, who was 13 at the time, were watching a fight on TV, and the ring announcer delivered what was a very amateurish split decision. My son said, “You could do that, Dad.” … I’m a sports junkie, and I thought it might be a great way to get in and see the fights. I contacted each of the hotel casinos in Atlantic City and sent them a head shot and letter telling them I had experience as an announcer, which may have been stretching the truth 100 percent. I suggested their image would be enhanced by having—and I actually wrote these words—“a James Bond type” making the ring presentation on behalf of their hotel. A couple of them got back to me, and one of them gave me the list of the boxing promoters to contact. It was 1982 when I got my foot in the door, at the Playboy Hotel and Casino, and my performance was quite horrible. I was probably 37 at the time.

SJM: From baseball to hockey to wrestling to American Idol, you’ve announced just about everything. What is your sport of choice, either as a viewer or a participant?
MB: It’s my primary source of income, so I’m supposed to say boxing. My favorite sports would be college football and pro football, but I’m still a Phillies junkie. Now, courtesy of DirecTV, I would say I probably haven’t missed an Eagles game in 50 years, even when I was in the Army stationed at Fort Knox [in Kentucky]. And when I moved [to Los Angeles], I never imagined life without the Phillies. With cable and satellite and the computer, you never miss a thing; I still tune in and listen to Angelo [Cataldi] and the guys on WIP.

SJM: You were a fixture in Atlantic City in its boxing heyday. Good memories?
MB: [Mike] Tyson was such a huge international thing, the ultimate superstar who just destroyed everybody. There were at least four or five major Tyson fights in Atlantic City in the late ’80s, and the fight scene there was just insane. One of my best memories was when he fought Michael Spinks, who also laid claim to the title. Tyson was considered the champion, too, so it was a battle of undefeated champions.… That was the golden age of boxing in Atlantic City, the late ’80s or early ’90s.

SJM: You were diagnosed with throat cancer a few years ago, which had to be terrifying, especially for someone in your line of work.
MB: I’m part of a five-year program, and I’m three and a half years in and everything is good. I don’t know if the word is “ironic,” for someone like me to get throat cancer, but it’s almost like an Olympic fencer who gets a disease that affects his right hand. I thought retirement was right around the corner and that was it, and I even did a farewell letter. My wife worked the phones and found the best surgeon and I went to see him … and 30 days after the surgery I was back in the ring [announcing a fight] in Las Vegas. … It probably was a turning point in my life, where you respect what you have and how you look at life. At this point I look at it like it was almost an exhilarating experience.

SJM: What’s next for you?
MB: I’m going to be 67 in November, so I think I’ll keep going for a couple more years. This year I’ve had only three or four weekends off, and I’m booked for the rest of the year. The future looks good: I’m married to a beautiful woman; I have five dogs and a cat; and I have a beautiful home that’s paid off. I’m looking forward to doing a little less.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 7 (October, 2011).
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