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MARINA DEL REY, Calif. – Announcer Bruce Buffer remembers the darkest days in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The company's then-owners, Semaphore Entertainment, tried to keep the ship afloat even after their product had been branded as "human cockfighting" and thrown off cable television.
But there were too many nights like UFC 24 in Lake Charles, La., where main eventer Kevin Randleman slipped and knocked himself out on a concrete floor in the locker room.
"It was awful," said Buffer, sitting at the desk in the office of his split-level home overlooking the Marina Del Rey waterfront. "There were maybe 1,500 fans there. They were just there to get drunk and see blood; they didn't care about skill. And then I was the one who had to tell them that they weren't going to get the main event they had paid to see because the headliner just gave himself a concussion."
Not only did Buffer manage to dodge most of the bottles and debris hurled his way that night, but he also stuck around long enough to see the company's fortunes change.
UFC events come and go at a dizzying pace. But the 50-year-old octagon announcer is a stabilizing presence for fans who shell out $40 a pop to watch the fight cards on pay-per-view. Only senior referee "Big" John McCarthy and matchmaker Joe Silva have been with the company longer.
Buffer has become a mixed martial arts icon, so much so that he rarely is even referred to as boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer's half-brother anymore. How does one get to such a stature in such a fast-changing sport?
"You always have to look forward," Buffer said. "You always have to anticipate. You never know when things are going to change, so you have to be prepared."
Buffer first displayed such forward thinking when he dropped out of Santa Monica College at age 19 after starting his first business, which distributed printer paper and toner.
"We had sales via mail order and by direct telemarketing to companies across the country," he recalled. "Which is why we started at 5 a.m. (Pacific) to call East Coast businesses when they opened at 9 a.m. (Eastern).
By the dawn of the 1990s, Buffer already had made his mark managing his brother's business affairs, the two teaming to trademark and license Michael's "Let's get ready to rumble" catchphrase. Buffer was smart about picking his spots and not overexposing the brand, lending it to items like a successful boxing video game.
Buffer didn't grow up looking to become a ring announcer, but he saw his opportunity to become one in the early days of the UFC.
Michael was the announcer for several of the early UFC events. At the time, he also was announcing at major World Championship Wrestling broadcasts. As silly as this may sound today, WCW brass was peeved by the UFC's slogan at the time: "As real as it gets."
"They thought by doing both UFC and WCW, Michael was endorsing the idea WCW was fake," Buffer said. "It was a no-brainer decision at the time to have Michael continue with WCW and drop UFC. WCW was paying more money. But a little light bulb went off in my head, and I thought, 'Why don't I give this a try?' "
Buffer talked his way into announcing the preliminary matches at UFC 8. Semaphore experimented with other announcers, but Buffer used a connection to get written into a UFC-themed episode of the TV show "Friends" as a UFC announcer.
"I called them back afterwards and said, 'Look, I was just on one of the most popular shows in the country as the face of your company. You pretty much have to use me now, don't you?' "
Buffer was back in control for UFC 13 and has been the voice of the octagon ever since.
HIS OWN STYLE
Like any other professional worth his salt, Buffer is looking to adapt and improve on his delivery as time goes on.
"I don't like to listen to (tapes of) myself (from) when I first started," he said. "It is kind of like listening to your own voice on a voice mail recording. Sometimes I'll watch on my DVD and just go (Buffer closes his eyes, puts his fingers in his ears, and starts making noise to drown out the sound)."
"The thing is, you can't really rehearse this," he continued. "I can't sit here in my house and yell 'The Iiiiiceman, Chuck Liiiid-dell!' The only time you can go 100 percent is when you're in front of the crowd and feeling their energy. You have to adjust. You don't announce an undercard match, if the crowd isn't into it, the same way you announce a main event, like when Chuck's music is playing and everyone in the crowd is on their feet."
But that doesn't mean Buffer doesn't have a bag of little tricks. "When there's a decision and it was a close fight, you build up the drama," he said. "I announce the first two scores, and then I have a count in my head, right up to the point where everyone is on the edge of their seats thinking 'Come on!' and then I hit them with it."
There are nights when things don't quite go well, like one show in New Jersey shortly after the current ownership took over. Buffer was so sick that night he barely could muster the energy to get into the octagon.
"After one of the fights, Big John looked at me and said, 'Are you OK? You're soaked with sweat.' I said, 'John, be quiet,' " Buffer recalled. "It's like they say in show business, 'The show must go on.' I was going to get through that show one way or another, and I didn't want anyone to know anything was wrong.
"Once the show was done, I basically collapsed into a wheelchair backstage. I got myself back together and tried to go to the after party, but I just turned around and went back to my room."
As the grandson of former flyweight boxing champion Johnny Buff, Buffer has fighting in his blood. While he dabbled in boxing, he gravitated toward the martial arts, eventually earning a black belt in tang soo do.
"Like other guys my age, I liked Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee," he said. "Bruce Lee really was the original mixed martial artist."
In his 20s, back in the days before martial arts competitions were overseen by athletic commissions, Buffer participated in underground events called "smokers" and in gym challenges in which they threw open the doors to the dojo and let anyone come in off the streets and fight.
The aspiring fight career came to a conclusion when Buffer got a reality check after one fight in his early 30s.
"I had a match which I won but took a lot of damage – the guy belted me pretty good," he said. "The next day, I was hurting all over, and I was slurring my words. The doctor asked me if I was making any money off this, and I told him, 'No, I'm a businessman and I do this for kicks.' He told me straight up that if I didn't stop, this is what my life would look like when I was 50. I did a lot of soul searching and decided to give it up."
But not before he tangled with a man who would go on to become a legend.
"I was invited to have a private sparring session with Royce Gracie," Buffer said. "This was 1992, a year before the first UFC. It was just me and him in a room on the mat.
"He told me before we started, 'I want you to hit me as hard as you can.' I said, 'Are you sure?' He said, 'Yeah, go all out. I want you to really lay into me.' "
Buffer dished out his best shot. However, the man who won three of the first four UFC tournaments soon was in control.
"Thirty seconds later, he had me wrapped up in knots," Buffer said. "I've never breathed so hard or sweated so much in my life. I could have told you he was the real deal before the UFC started."