His heaven is an octagon, its rising black cyclone fence and foam padding his sanctuary, his sandbox, his theater. It’s where no one can touch him and where he touches millions, where he’s never deterred. Neither a blown-out balloon of a knee, nor or a raging, spittle-flying 250-pound menace, nor a ritualistic slap in the face can stop him in there. It’s where the world knows him. From his trademark “It’s Time” catchphrase and his leap to his wacky body gyrations and his energy and passion, his widespread appeal has grown from the condo-living jeans-and-T-shirt crowd and the tattooed lot to the pinky-out, café au lait-sipping sculptures that sit at sidewalk tables in rattan bistro chairs thinking they live in Paris.
Bruce Buffer is part of that pioneering troupe that made believers. The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s iconic ring announcer carries a larger-than-life personality and to a large extent is one of the faces that made the sport. He was there when mixed martial arts was at its nascent stage, there at the nadir when he was in front of half-empty arenas, auditoriums and closet gyms yelling names above the din of crickets. The fans that would fill the seats would look at the fighters as if they were a traveling band of Martians. They didn’t even know what MMA was back then.
That, however, was where MMA was over 20-some years ago, before Jeff Blatnick masterfully coined the phrase “MMA” and the mainstream sports world, after some initial reluctance, grabbed on.
MMA was once a nitty-gritty world. Buffer should know. He has been there at literally every turn of the UFC, when it was owned by Robert Meyrowitz and Semaphore Entertainment Group and now under the current reign of the Zuffa umbrella, with Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White. Buffer recalled the pushback MMA received from the government (Sen. John McCain) and the doors slammed in its face from the old-school thinkers in the passé sports media.
“You never know what it’s like to succeed until you know what it’s like to fail, and believe me, there was a lot of struggle in what I like to call those early days,” said Buffer, who worked his first show at UFC 8. “When I first got involved with the UFC, I knew it was going to be great. I knew MMA was going to be one of the greatest sports around. It just needed to be refined, because it was a spectacle back then. It needed to refine rules, which gradually did happen. You couldn’t find MMA, or [the] UFC, anywhere. Mainstream sportswriters didn’t want to write about us. You couldn’t read anything anywhere. No one cared. I watched [the] UFC rise, it did great and then it went downhill. The SEG offices in New York used to have a ton of employees, and one time I went to New York there was a skeleton crew.
“Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana bought it for $2 million and then went into a $44-million hole,” he continued. “It reached a point where Lorenzo thought it was time to sell. Then the Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar fight turned everything around on the first season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ That got the marketing machine rolling. UFC is in the billions today, reaching millions of fans and only growing. It has been a rollercoaster ride, with Dana, Frank and Lorenzo at the front, and I have a first-class seat on this ride. I cherish every moment that I’m part of this team and literally bow mentally to Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana for putting it together.
“I firmly believe if they didn’t step in, MMA would be an underground sport,” Buffer added. “I still feel that I’d be announcing, but the sport wouldn’t be at the worldwide level that it is today, where you have Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor being featured on mainstream TV. It’s to be a part of history like that. With greatness comes great responsibility, and we all have a responsibility to show respect and be the best we can be because of what we’ve built. We believed in something a lot of people didn’t believe in and didn’t want to believe in.”
The smile is going to come. It is inevitable. Sometimes it appears in mere seconds, other times maybe a minute. Buffer is someone who loves life. At 58, he should. A self-made man, Buffer has made a lucrative living managing the career of his brother, hall-of-fame boxing announcer Michael Buffer, while branding his own name in the MMA world. A future UFC Hall of Famer himself, he received the MMA Lifetime Achievement Award at the World MMA Awards on Feb. 5, just 11 days shy from his 20th anniversary with the UFC.
“I fought as a kid growing up, and there’s nothing more pure and inspiring than these fighters,” Buffer said. “I think it’s why I have a John Wayne theory of life. I like to treat people the way I would like to be treated. I remember the early days when you’re walking through arenas and it was like crickets. It was. The fans are the reason why our sport is great and why we’re doing well. It’s why I never refuse an autograph or a picture. It goes back to when I was a child and met Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay. He spent time with me and my brother Brian, and that had a huge effect on me. He was the greatest fighter in the world taking the time to talk to two little kids in Philly. I remember that to this day. I’ll always remember it. It’s why I try to give back to the fans, because of everything they gave and continue to give us. It goes with the job. It’s part of the responsibility of being in the position that we’re in.
“Being awarded the MMA Lifetime Achievement was a culmination of everyone that’s helped me along the way and the pioneering efforts that made this sport possible today,” he added. “We all have to be a team and support each other. It’s why I have no time for liars. I can’t stand arrogant, conceited people. I have no time for a-holes. I’m a brutally honest person. You have to be in this brutally honest sport. Let’s face it, and I say this for boxing, too, this is the loneliest sport in the world. You can train with your trainer, you can train with your team, but when you walk into that ring or octagon, it’s you and him. That’s a single-person moment and some of those moments are just phenomenal. You have to be inspired by that.”
Watch the Bouncing Buffer
One of the things upon which Buffer prides himself is never missing a major UFC fight. Sure, through the years, there have those moments where he was not at his best physically, but it has never stopped him. He has announced fights with laryngitis, the flu, a 104-degree temperature where the paramedics were standing by ready to take him to the hospital and a blown-out back. In over 20-plus years, Buffer has announced over 300 UFC shows and thousands of fights.
He has many adages by which he lives, one of them being, “The show must go on.” His mentality does not allow for failure or weakness. His thought process is to always muscle through, no matter what -- like at UFC 129 on April 30, 2011, before a UFC-record crowd of 55,000 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. The main event featured Georges St. Pierre against Jake Shields. There was no way Buffer would be left out of that. There was just one problem: He could hardly walk.
Buffer is an avid, accomplished poker player. A week before the fight he walked through the casino where he was playing and twisted his right ankle on a dip in the carpet. The next day his right ankle was filled with blood, swollen like a grapefruit. He saw a doctor to reduce the swelling, went back and cashed in on the $30,000 he won in the tournament -- “which made me feel a lot better for the time being,” he said with a laugh. He then buried his ankle in ice and went on crutches to heal up to call UFC 129.
“I wasn’t about to tell anyone,” Buffer said. “Really, I’m the announcer. I tell myself that I’m not fighting; these guys are fighting. They’re the ones going through hell. I can muscle through this. I get to UFC 129, and everything is great. It’s a great atmosphere, the fans are going wild. I got in the octagon and then, of course, my adrenalin took over. Everything is going great. I do the whole show and I come out to announce the main event. I did all of my usual stuff, too. I turn and do my 180s, everything, right, and once I introduce Georges, I go ‘Georges Rush ...’ and as soon as I say that, Georges has a tendency to leap out to the center of the Octagon, as he always does.
“I bunny hop back, like I usually do with Georges to get out of his way, and the bad ankle wobbled,” he continued. “I land wrong and my whole knee explodes. I sever my ACL [and] tear my meniscus in three places, and luckily I didn’t fall, but I will tell you I gave my most painful yell of ‘St. Pierre’ ever in my career because literally the pain just shot right through my body as I said his name. I turned to referee Herb Dean, and I have my announcer face on, but inside my head I’m saying to myself, ‘I just blew my freakin’ knee out.’ My knee was literally going side to side as I was walking. If you watched the video as I walked out of the Octagon when Herb was separating the fighters, you’ll see me literally hop out on one leg. ‘Big’ John McCarthy told me he thought I blew my ACL.
“I guess you can say I left a piece of myself in the Octagon, and I don’t know how many announcers that left a piece of themselves in the Octagon or the cage,” Buffer added. “The ringside doctor gave me an ice pack to put on my knee with my tux pants rolled up. So you have two of the greatest fighters in the world going at it and the announcer is the one sitting with an ice pack on his knee. It was a beautiful event, held in the biggest venue ever for [the] UFC. The other problem with that is it was longest walk back in my life. I spoke to Dana and told him I blew out my ACL. It was a little scary, I’ll admit, because I actually questioned what was next with my career. I don’t have time for downtime. I have total confidence in what I do, but for me, it was a personal quest to be the iron man and never miss a major show. I wasn’t about to let that happen.”
Buffer remained true to his word. Major reconstructive knee surgery, which Buffer had performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the same doctor who operated on New England Patriots’ star quarterback Tom Brady when he blew out his knee in September 2008, usually takes around four months to heal. The next Ultimate Fighting Championship show, UFC 130, was on May 28, 2011. Buffer was there, wearing a knee brace with a UFC logo on it over his right knee.
“I had a streak that I had stayed solid up until the last three years, when I’ve missed around 15 shows [due to logistics and scheduling], but I would swim through shark-infested waters to make a show,” Buffer said. “I remember what it was like to get this job and I wasn’t about to miss any time. I suppose it’s why I questioned what may have been next, because you just never know. I suppose it’s why I fight for everything.”
In the Buffer Beginning
Buffer and his brother Michael have been blessed with those booming, sound-of-God voices. They will tell you it comes from their father, Joe Buffer, a former U.S. Marine drill instructor at Camp Pendleton.
“My dad always said the first intimidating factor -- or the first strike factor -- that you have is your voice,” Buffer said. “I walk into a room and say, ‘Hi dad,’ and he would say, ‘Son, project your voice,’ in this deep commanding voice. I would get this all of the time as a little kid. My whole announcing thing started when I was watching TV and I see this guy. He’s a classy looking, James Bond-ish type, and it was my brother Michael, before I even knew he was my brother (the Buffers did not actually meet each other until later in life when their father introduced them). I was a fan of his work. I thought he gets to travel the world and meet these amazing people. I found myself imitating him from time to time, and it grew from there.
“I’ll be honest, though. When first started, I didn’t like the way I sounded,” he added. “My voice is a tool, and over time, I learned how to play that instrument and it got better and better. It’s a maturation process, but someone telling me I have a great voice? No, oh no, I wasn’t getting those comments when I first started my career.”
Before UFC 8, Buffer had done only one other show. It was a kickboxing event with his brother. They were up in the ring in their tuxedos, and Michael introduced Bruce as his brother and his best friend and informed the audience that Bruce was making his debut as a ring announcer. Bruce returned to announce the winner of the fight.
“I’m thinking, ‘Boy, I hope I did a really good job with this,’” he said. “The winner walks over and shakes my hand and tells me, ‘Thank you so much for announcing me, but I have to tell you, all I’ve been waiting for the last month is to be announced by your brother Michael.’ Geez, I felt like I let him down. At one point I’m on a high after announcing this guy’s fight and then I’m on a low for ruining this guy’s night.”
Buffer was not discouraged.
In the mid-1990s, he had been pestering Meyrowitz, the former UFC owner, to give him a shot at announcing in the Octagon. The calls fell on deaf ears. Ever persistent, Bruce found an angle to at least get in the door. He was managing a fighter named Scott Ferrozzo, a 340-pound mountain of a man of whom he had sent tapes to the UFC. The organization slotted Ferrozzo in its UFC 8 lineup on Feb. 16, 1996 in Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
“I called Robert Meyrowitz and said I was coming down with my fighter and I’ve got my tuxedo, let me announce the prelims, which he did,” Buffer said. “That was my first time stepping into the Octagon. I remember, even though the arena had 9,000 or so people, at that point, MMA was the fastest-growing PPV on TV, getting around 200,000 to 250,000 buys, which was pretty spectacular back then. I told Robert I wanted the job in the Octagon; I wanted to help Meyrowitz build the UFC brand, but I needed to be the announcer and grow with the sport.
“I announced the prelims and I thought I would get the job. Again, no calls,” he added. “So now a couple of shows go by and it’s now UFC 10. I’m in the hospital with my mother Connie after she had this serious operation. The whole thing was like the scene in ‘Rocky II’ when Talia Shire tells Rocky to go win from the hospital bed. I’m sitting by my mother’s side and my cell phone goes off. It’s one of the heads of the UFC at the time to tell me their announcer can’t make it and that they needed me in Alabama in two days to announce UFC 10. I told them I was in the hospital with my mother, who means everything to me. I looked at my mom and she asked what happened. I told her, and I’ll remember to this day when she raised her hand and gave a thumbs up. I called them back for UFC 10 and I thought I did a good job to where they’d call me back.”
Instead, the UFC hired another announcer, a friend of one of the producers. Putting it in the kindest terms, he was not Buffer. Not even close. Buffer bristled. For over a year he had fought over the announcer’s position. In the opportunities that were given to him, he thought he did well. Then something strange occurred.
Finish Reading » “It was like a barroom movie brawl. It was hilarious, because no one was really hurt among all of the chairs and people flying. That’s why it’s a habit of mine that whenever I walk into a room, I look for the exits, whether it’s a restaurant or a hotel or a movie theater. I always sit with my back to the wall to protect myself and look for a safe spot.”
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