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 maître 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."