IF THIS STORY WERE a prizefight, Bruce Buffer would get introduced first. He's the challenger, after all, the baby brother by 13 years. Coming up in the shadow of a legend drove him to find his own voice, conquer his own sport, be his own Buffer. And so he should enter the arena to something suitably UFC, something suitably Bruce. "Jump Around," by House of Pain, let's say. Bruce jumps around. Nods his head. Raw energy wafts off of him in squiggly lines.
And now it's time for the champ. The lights dim, and as he makes his way toward the ring, the speakers blast something suitably Michael Buffer. "Diamonds Are Forever." The Shirley Bassey version, not the Kanye one with just the hook that the kids prefer. Michael takes his time. He knows how to enter a room. He makes the VIPs at ringside feel glad they dressed up. He doesn't have to charge himself up once he enters the ring because he was born for this. It's effortless. All he has to do is open his mouth.
What a family story, right? Two brothers who've scaled different peaks in the same range, Michael in boxing, Bruce in UFC. A pair of mountain GOATs. The full story, though, is more like a great American saga, not quite rags to riches but close enough, filled with money and guns and fights, foster homes and family mysteries, global plagues and cancerous tumors, Dana White and Donald Trump and James Bond, beer, bourbon, celebrity poker and -- date TBD this fall -- officially licensed bathroom products. If the Buffer brothers' lives were a movie script, it would come back with a note to tone it down about 25%. Yet every word is true. Almost every word.
So enough with the formalities, let's get on with the main event. Fight fans, are you ready?
FROM HIS VANTAGE POINT at cageside, all Bruce Buffer could see by the very end of Conor McGregor's obliteration of Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone this past January was the backside of referee Herb Dean, who was crouched beside them like an obstetrician trying to decide when to take over and pull the rest of this baby out himself. Cowboy took a foot to the face in the fight's opening seconds, and McGregor pounced like a cheetah and bashed Cowboy's head until Dean had seen enough. McGregor by TKO.
Forty seconds! It took longer for Bruce to introduce the fighters, and it wasn't as if he was milking it. Bruce's trademark catchphrase, the two little words he has used to open more than 200 UFC main events, might not seem like much: "It's time!" That's it. But he delivers those two words in a primal growl that has become famous across the sport, a crescendo-decrescendo one-two punch, like he's scaling a cliff and then BASE jumping off of it, elongating each "I" within an inch of its life:
And then everybody loses their damn minds. In the run-up to his climactic roar, Bruce bounds around the ring, getting in the fighters' faces as he introduces them to audiences around the world, executing 180-degree spins that make his bright paisley smoking jacket shimmer. (A word about the jacket: It's custom-made, let's call it $4,000, from his go-to clothier, King & Bay, and it's such a densely packed combo of blue, lavender and purple that it sort of blurs into blavendurple.) On a dare years ago, Bruce landed a 360 spin, but he is 62 now, and those were the spins of a younger man. Twice he has blown out his knee in the ring, and he takes pride that neither blowout kept him out of duty. He is an announcing autodidact, and one of his tricks is to add an "H" to as many words as possible. "FHIGHTING out of the blue c-horner!" -- Bruce spins 180 degrees and points to the blue corner. "FHIGHTING out of the rhed c-horner!" -- Bruce spins 180 degrees back the other way and points to the red corner.
"Listen -- catchy little f---ing things like that I'm not really into," UFC president Dana White told me over the phone. "But Buffer's 'It's Time' -- the way he delivers it is incredible. And it's become a thing. This guy is a total professional, perfectionist. This guy doesn't miss a show, never, no matter where it is, how close the shows are together, he will fly anywhere. He's always very prepared and kills it every single time."
In the days leading up to the McGregor fight, Bruce cautioned me that he'd be kind of locked in during the action, and I planned to keep my distance and let the man work. Over the course of the fight card, though, he texted early and often, mostly passing along promotional materials for official Bruce Buffer product lines, including a mock-up for his forthcoming line of deodorant and eau de toilette, called It's Time By Bruce Buffer; his forthcoming batch of bourbon, Puncher's Chance; and his online gaming slot machines with his likeness, called It's Time!!, which came out last October.
To be fair, it was a long night. Thirteen fights. Six hours. Bruce seemed to know something about every fighter. Before one of the under-under-under cards, he swung by and said this would be a good match -- talent versus experience. He was right! Three-quarters of the arena was getting beer. Between rounds, he'd duck his head and play some poker on his phone. During rounds, his attention never wavered. Locked in. Loving it. In one ghastly match toward the upper half of the card, Maycee Barber, a promising young female fighter, blew out her knee and kept going, then took an elbow to the head that opened up an octagon-sized gash. Blood poured everywhere, all over the fighters' faces, all over the apron, collecting in a giant crimson puddle that Bruce leapt all over with mad glee for the rest of the night.
As Conor-Cowboy drew near and the VIPs began to arrive, Bruce shifted into schmooze mode, extending his gladdest hand to Christian McCaffrey and Baker Mayfield and Myles Garrett and Kristaps Porzingis and Steve-O and Tyson Fury and Jeremy Renner and then, finally, the big fish of the night, the future ex-Patriot, Tom Brady himself. By himself, no Gisele. I watched Bruce chat up Tom, and when he returned, he had a dazed look on his face.
"He just told me I'm the greatest," Bruce said, his eyes flickering like the facets in his fat, diamond-studded UFC ring. "Wow."
Bruce Buffer is a relentless salesman, and UFC fight nights call upon all of his gifts for salesmanship. Not unlike The Dude's rug in "The Big Lebowski," he really ties the room together. But his TB12 encounter knocked him off his game, and he stared off into the middle distance as he absorbed it. Less than five minutes into my first phone conversation with Bruce, he told me that "some people say I'm a legend -- that's not for me to say, but some people have said it." This wasn't some people, though -- this was Tom Brady. And he didn't call Bruce just a legend. The greatest quarterback of all time had called him the greatest ring announcer of all time.
Undisputed GOATs like Tom Brady only mix with the hoi polloi for so long; if he was in the arena, it meant the fight was about to begin. Matthew McConaughey snuck in even later. And then, before either of them had time to settle into their seats, it was all over. For the UFC, it was a roaring success: It had rebooted the sport's most famous and controversial star after he'd faced multiple criminal allegations. Behind the scenes, UFC fight nights are a bit of a shoestring operation. Bruce doesn't have a dressing room. He arrived in his blavendurple jacket, and he'll leave in it. Before he departs, though, he finds a quiet spot in the bowels of the arena and pulls out his phone.
Because now, as per longstanding tradition, IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT'S...TIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIME for Bruce to call his mom.
THREE WEEKS LATER, Michael Buffer, the world's most legendary ring announcer, stood in Sheffield, England, to introduce the main event, a non-title super welterweight bout between British former IBF champion Kell Brook, who was aiming for an impressive knockout to earn another title shot, and American Mark DeLuca, who was aiming not to get knocked out. Boxing is big in Sheffield, and the cups of beer are even bigger. It's less a cup, more a bucket. Everyone -- everyone -- was drunk. It was a tough crowd, lots of shiny bald pates and a general deficit of necks. Earlier in the day at his hotel, Michael raved about the fight fans here as some of the best and most knowledgeable in the world. "Let's say there's a fighter here tonight from Manchester -- someone deep in the undercard, maybe in his fifth or sixth or third fight," he said. "You have hundreds of fans take the train or drive from Manchester. You're not going to find that anymore in the States. It's just amazing." Before main events, the English raise their buckets of beer for a "Sweet Caroline" sing-along, and Michael, who's here at least once a year, gets super into it, cutting loose in a way he does nowhere else: At the chorus, he cups a hand to one ear and leans that way, then he cups his other hand to his other ear and leans the other way.
Normally, Michael stands ramrod straight, and as soon as Neil Diamond sings his last, Michael returns to his preferred mode of being the calm at the center of the storm. Michael is tall and lean, and his trim burgundy formal jacket and black tuxedo pants seem to add an extra inch. (A word about the jacket: "An off-the-rack piece from Macy's that fit perfectly," he texted me weeks later, though before you read too much into that, most of his jackets are his own custom design.) Before Donald Trump insisted that Michael announce every single fight at Trump's Atlantic City casinos in the 1980s, Michael was making a nice living as a model. He understands lines, the power of stillness and holding a pose, and so his mere presence brings a shimmer of elegance to, well, Sheffield. With his golden skin, sweep of silver hair and remarkably even blood pressure, he gives off an air of Sean Connery-era James Bond enjoying the semi-retired life in Calabasas, California.
Which he sort of is. Michael is 75; he's been doing this for nearly 40 years. If at any point during those 40 years you watched a boxing match on television, and especially if a title belt was on the line, the odds are strong that Michael Buffer was the ring announcer.
Tonight, though, he was here for just one: the main event. He came all this way -- from Calabasas to LAX, LAX to London, another three hours by hired car from London to Sheffield, a day's journey -- to say five words. You know the words, and I'd invite you to say them along with me, but it might be a trademark violation, and so, ladies and gentlemen, viewers around the world, LUUUH-ets GET RRREADY TO RUMMM-BULLL!
That'll be $5 million, please, Michael joked in the dressing room postfight to his boss at Matchroom Boxing, Josh Roy, the wunderkind who runs all fight operations for Matchroom as well as the guy who cuts Michael's check. They both guffawed. If you Google the question of how much Michael makes per fight, Google will spit back a report claiming that Michael makes, yes, $5 million per LGRTR (that's Bruce's acronym, BTW). Michael is a skeptic by nature, and he's stunned that so many people can't do simple math. Don't get Michael wrong, he loves Sheffield, and thanks in large part to his brother's business acumen, LGRTR has made him a very rich man. In 2017, Forbes estimated his fortune at $164 million, and various media outlets have put the trademark value of Let's Get Ready to Rumble at $400 million. But if he made $5 million a fight, he wouldn't be here tonight watching a 33-year-old former welterweight champ stop a human-shaped heavy bag in the seventh round. He'd be watching the fight in his private theater on his private island. Even $100,000 would be kind of absurd, they agreed. "I'd be paying you more than the fighters!" Roy said with a laugh.
The real figure is closer to $30,000, money Michael doesn't really need, but he loves his work. He also says a lot more than five words for his money. In fact, a neat little secret is that Michael really shows his chops at the end of a bout when it has gone the distance and it falls to him to announce the winner. It's even more fun when you don't know what he's going to say.
BRUCE BUFFER GREW UP in the Philadelphia area and then moved to a middle-class surfing town near Malibu with his World War II veteran father, mom Connie, now 91, whom he still calls after every fight, and his big brother -- Brian.
As far as young Bruce knew, and teenage Bruce, and young adult Bruce, Michael Buffer did not exist. And in a sense, he didn't. His name then was Michael Huber, and he got the surname from his foster parents, or as he calls them, his parents. Michael didn't know about Bruce either, and he never would have if it hadn't been for a snap decision made for him by the Army officer who took his enlistment papers in 1965. The officer took one look at Michael Huber's birth certificate, noticed that it said Buffer, not Huber, and issued an order: You're Michael Buffer now, soldier. Michael Buffer did as he was told.
For much of their lives, Bruce and Michael led separate existences, Michael with his foster parents, Bruce with his birth parents -- with their birth father -- connected and unconnected, as intertwined and radically different as boxing and ultimate fighting, the same and the opposite.
IT DOESN'T SEEM LIKE an unusual surname, but it is. At least it was. In fact, neither Bruce nor his father had ever encountered another Buffer until they noticed this silver-haired ring announcer named Michael Buffer, who seemed to be on TV every time they sat down to watch a fight together. Until Michael met Joe and Bruce, he'd never come across a fellow Buffer either.
Joe Buffer died in 2008, but he remains an outsized, hard-to-know-the-truth kind of figure in Bruce's life. "Old breed to the hilt -- a combination of John Wayne, Errol Flynn and Steve McQueen rolled up into one" is how Bruce described him to me. "When he walked into a room, people were fascinated by him. They wanted to meet him. They wanted to talk to him. They wanted to be his friend, or maybe they wanted to fight him. He just had amazing charisma." Joe was a former Marine drill instructor who survived brutal combat in the Pacific theater during World War II -- or maybe he was a former naval officer, who saw even more brutal combat in the Pacific theater? Definitely one or the other. Joe Buffer's father -- Bruce's grandfather -- was a flyweight and bantamweight champion during the Prohibition era named Johnny Buff, who may or may not have been mixed up in organized crime, and who may or may not have been Joe Buffer's actual father. Joe was an imposing man, and he taught Bruce that the world is a dark and fearsome place, and that to survive and succeed, he needed to impose his will on it. "I would walk into a room at a young age and I'd say, 'Hi, Dad,' and he would say, 'SON, PROJECT YOUR VOICE. LET THEM KNOW YOU'RE IN THE ROOM. SHOULDERS BACK. CHEST OUT." Bruce Buffer did as he was told.
Joe Buffer was the most gifted salesman in a family line stuffed with disarming silver tongues who could sell your own car back to you, and his greatest sales job of all was his own life. It was Joe, Bruce said, who "taught me how to hock and schmock and deal and work." Both Bruce and Michael choose their words carefully on the subject of their father's backstory, but it's a different kind of care. Whereas Bruce is cagey about it, protective, Michael is more circumspect, as if he's reserving conclusion until all the facts are in.
In the tone of a grateful pupil, Bruce tells me the kind of formative grade-school story you often hear from boomer-aged men -- the one where you have to go up to the bully and punch him in the face. Bruce has been steeped in fighting and poker and guns and martial arts and all manner of manly pursuits from birth. His big brother, Brian, still runs their family's gun-show business, but Bruce is an active participant and an avid collector. In his airy Spanish-style house at the top of a small rise in Playa Del Rey, he has not one but two rooms filled with firearms, one dedicated to glass-cased collectibles from various global conflicts and another locked behind a keypad whose plentiful contents he asked that I keep off the record but which he summarized as "self-protection shotguns." Get Bruce going on the subject of self-defense and his blood really starts to pump and his expression turns to steel. He's ready for home invasion, ready for the purge, ready to rumble. He prides himself on being a perfect gentleman from a slightly bygone era, a peaceful man who is nonetheless at peace with the knowledge that "if anyone comes after my family, I'll blow their f---ing heads off." (Note: Bruce lives alone.)
That's all Joe Buffer.
By his late 20s, Bruce had already built his own telemarketing business, and he was his own star closer. ("You've heard of the Wolf of Wall Street? I was like the Wolf of L.A.") He sold Herbalife products, printer toner. Big volume, small margins. "Yeah, we might have charged more money for the product and all like that, but it's just the way it was," he said. "We did it legally, not illegally." Telemarketing in those days was even more primitive than it is now: His office was filled with dozens and dozens of phone books, and you just made your way through the pages, one number at a time. That's why Bruce was so sure there were no other Buffers out there. Every time he opened a phone book, he checked for a Buffer. Never found a single one.
Boxing was still a major American sport in those days, and Mike Tyson was about to make it even more global. Bruce and Joe Buffer still watched every big bout together, and before one fight, Bruce has no idea which one, the ring announcer caught his eye. "He was so different than the other ring announcers," he recalled. "Very handsome, debonair-looking. Had the tuxedo with, like, this James Bond flair. I was fascinated because I thought, 'What a cool job that is!' Traveling the world, dressing up and announcing what was my favorite sport, aside from surfing and martial arts."
Then they put the ring announcer's name at the bottom of the screen and it said MICHAEL BUFFER. "And I'm like, What the f---?"
Could it really be a coincidence? This Michael Buffer loved boxing too! And so handsome! How weird was this? Maybe they were distant cousins? There had to be a connection. Bruce couldn't get it out of his head, and once Bruce Buffer gets something in his head, there's no getting him to submit. People kept asking too. Are you related to the Michael Buffer from boxing? No, he'd answer. My brother is Brian. "But now it's getting even more in my head," Bruce said.
For six months this went on, until finally, during a road trip up the coast to San Francisco with his father in 1985, Bruce asked from the passenger seat whether Joe had any idea who this Michael Buffer guy was? His father took his eyes off the road just long enough for a quick glance at Bruce. Then he said, "I think that's your brother."
ANOTHER FAMILIAR STORY from boomer-aged men about life as a boy during wartime: birth parents who met young, dated long enough to conceive a child but not long enough to spend a lifetime together, then military duty, a lengthy separation that becomes permanent, and soon enough the father and the son are lost to each other, severed, and only the basic fact of their existence remains.
It'd be a tragic story, except that Michael Buffer had what he describes as a perfectly magical postwar, middle-class suburban American upbringing. He knew his birth mother too, saw her often as a boy, which is why his foster parents never formally adopted him and his name never officially stopped being Buffer, no matter what he wrote on his math tests. It might seem like a thorny arrangement from the outside, but from the inside, it was just Michael's normal life, and he was extra fortunate. More family! His relationship with his birth mother started to unravel, though, when Michael was 13 and she decided it was time for him to come live with her; he didn't want to go, and his foster parents didn't want him to leave, but it wasn't up to him, or them. When I asked Michael how they took it, he said, "Stiff upper lip." They were crushed, and so was he. It was the house he'd grown up in. The bed he'd slept in. The living room where the Christmas tree went. The experiment with his birth mother didn't last. After just a few months, Michael packed up his stuff and moved back home with his parents, and his mother didn't fight it, and then gradually they fell out of touch.
Michael got lucky with his military service. The war in Vietnam was escalating fast, but Michael never left Fort Dix. He took pictures -- banquet dinners, officer portraits. He went home to Philly after his discharge, got married and had two boys, got divorced, and sold cars for a while until it became clear he had absolutely no gift for selling cars. "I was so terrible at it," he confessed.
Luckily for him, he was super hot, and he started getting modeling jobs for print ads. This was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which just so happened to be the greatest time in human history to be a male model. "We'd work two, three days a week, maybe for three or four hours," he said. "An agent gets you the work. I was single. I got to work with all these beautiful ladies." The job left him with lots of time to watch Top Rank Boxing on ESPN. One time he was watching with his sons, and the nitwit ring announcer muffed all the drama on a split decision by announcing the winner's two cards first, followed by the lone dissent. Michael and his then-14-year-old son, Michael Patrick, were both outraged.
"I found out later that that was pretty standard," Michael said. "You can go to look at YouTube for these old fights, back in the '40s. They'd give the decision like that. But it's just -- he was just a ring announcer." Who really cares? Michael did. Atlantic City, the boxing mecca of the East Coast in that era, was just 60 miles from Philly, so Michael began writing to all of the hotels that were hosting fights, and he slipped in his headshot before he mailed the envelope. He had all these professional-quality photographs of himself in Gucci tuxedos, and this was the casino business, right? Maybe, he reasoned, one of them would want "a James Bond-type of thing. One of them took a nibble."
Shoutout to Toby Berlin, then the director of entertainment and special events at The Playboy Hotel & Casino, who gave Michael his first shot in 1982. "It was dreadful," Michael said of his debut on USA Tuesday Night Fights on the nascent USA Network. "I was nervous. I was shaking. The old story -- that you dream you're naked in front of a thousand people?" It was like that. "I got through the night. Saw myself on video tape. Saw myself." The way he said it the second time, the sheer disgust, made me laugh. Tighten it up, Mike. Tighten it up. As he dove deeper into the stagecraft, he came to detest the ring-announcer convention of winding up the fans for the start of the fight ... and then name-checking fighters' friends, trainers, ring doctors, judges, the state commissioners, and on and on. Only then would the fight start, once it was nice and quiet as a crypt in the room. Michael shook his head. "You go to an NFL game -- they don't name the front office before kickoff."
He decided he needed a way to signal to the fans that all that blather was done with, and now -- now -- the fight really was about to begin. The boxing equivalent of "Gentlemen, start your engines." His first few stabs were stillborn. Fasten your seatbelts! (Eh.) Man your battle stations! (No.)
Michael Buffer is every bit the boxing docent you'd imagine, and while he's reluctant to name a favorite fighter, it's clear his heart belongs to Sugar Ray Robinson. He tells mesmerizing stories about Robinson -- how he fought 14 times in 1965 alone, how he was stopped only once in his 199 career matches, in a light heavyweight championship bout against Joey Maxim, and only because cornermen in those days didn't understand the connection between drinking water and hydration -- boxers spit it out back then -- and he collapsed to the canvas in Round 13. Not far behind Sugar Ray, though, was Muhammad Ali, and of course when it came to showmanship, no one could touch Ali. Michael loved the lyrical way Ali and Drew "Bundini" Brown would fire each other up before the fight: Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! ... I'm young, I'm handsome, I'm fast, I can't possibly be beat! One particular line of Ali's, though, gave Michael the inspiration he needed. Rumble, young man, rumble -- whooo!
LUUUH-ET'S GET READY for some linguistics, shall we?
Prosody, to be precise. Defined by Merriam-Webster as "the rhythmic and intonational aspect of language." Why stuff sounds good. In prosodic terms, let's get ready to rumble has fantastic "feet," which is an academic way of saying pleasurable bursts of syllables. There are 28 different feet in classic verse, and Michael's coinage has particularly strong spondees (two stressed syllables) at either end, and a run of neatly alternating breeds of consonants -- soft, stretchy L's and R's, hard, snappy G's and T's -- split by perfectly placed caesuras (pauses). Michael noticed that audiences were reacting to it, and he liked saying it, even though his delivery at that stage would be unrecognizable from how he does it now. He just kinda said it. Sometimes he stepped on his own line. Let's get ready to rumble for 12 rounds of boxing! Then an old supper club singer who used to open for Ella Fitzgerald gave him some advice. "After you say let's get ready to rumble," the guy told Michael, "shut the f--- up. People want to react. Take my word for it. Just pause and then go on."
"I tried it," Michael says, "and it was the best thing that ever happened. That one little suggestion. Best advice I ever got." It was only then that Michael began to deliver it as he does to this day. "I couldn't just say it anymore," he said. It was time to open up his pipes, go a little bigger. "Sing it more."
And then Donald Trump entered his life. "He had a big heavyweight fight, and I wasn't the announcer, but I was connected through Budweiser, to get a front-row seat. So I showed up, and Trump came over to me. He said, 'Didn't my people call you?' I said no. He said, 'Well, we're going to have a lot of big fights here, and you're going to be the ring announcer.' From that day on, it was pretty nice for me."
Trump really cottoned to the Bond stuff. Everyone did. Bruce's obsession with the Connery and Roger Moore eras of the franchise is all over the walls of his house -- giant, vintage, hand-painted, absolutely gorgeous silk posters -- but the connection to his brother isn't just his own hero worship. Lennox Lewis called Michael "the 007 of boxing." "Used to crack me up," Michael says now.
All the same, he was now world famous. LGRTR was becoming a prefight institution, and he knew he needed to trademark it. He'd heard about Pat Riley trademarking "three-peat," and he definitely wanted in on that, but he had no idea how. He talked to four or five lawyers and couldn't find the right one, and if he's being honest, he couldn't really rouse himself to find the right one. For a while, he just told people he'd gotten the phrase "incorporated," which is not the right word. "I kept trying to let people think I own this, without having the finances, actually, or the knowledge actually how to do that."
And then out of nowhere, his long-lost brother Bruce showed up and solved everything.
IT WAS JOE BUFFER who made the phone call, not Bruce. The father-son thing trumped the brother-brother thing.
"Let's see, how old was I? Well into my 40s," Michael said. "I had a great life. Everything's cool." He was doing a gig at a country club theater in Reseda, California, the same one, in fact, that was used for the opening tracking shot in "Boogie Nights." The fight that night was broadcast on local television in Los Angeles, and between fights one of the waitresses handed him a slip of paper from a viewer watching at home who was hoping Michael might call him back. "It said Joe Buffer, with a phone number. I knew exactly who it was. I knew his name."
Michael remembers his exact thought: Well, this is interesting.
BRUCE REMEMBERS HOW IT FELT when Michael Buffer -- the Michael Buffer -- walked into the restaurant in Brentwood to meet his birth father and his half brother for the first time. "The feeling that overtook me was (A) I'm a big fan of his work and a fan of what he does, but (B) this is my blood. This is my brother. I'm hit by a kind of double whammy. It was a wonderful night. I was just so happy we all got along."
The brothers give much the same account of how natural it felt, how easily the conversation flowed, how much they had in common. No bitterness, no recriminations. Just three guys hanging out, talking boxing history. Of course they got along. If Michael has ever felt wounded by his separation from his birth parents, he betrays no hint of it. More family! House money! But also, by the time he met Joe and Bruce, Michael Buffer was already Michael Buffer. He'd already planted his own roots with the name and grown his own family tree. By the time he arrived for dinner that night, he was already a self-made man in a way that few who claim to be actually are. The only moment of awkwardness came when Michael and Joe tried to sort out what to call Joe, since Michael wasn't comfortable with "Dad" and Joe wasn't comfortable with his son calling him Joe. They landed on something from Tennessee Williams: Big Daddy. Bruce's mother -- Michael's stepmother -- he calls Little Momma. Within a year, the two brothers who had never met before were business partners for life.
The night that sealed it was Nov. 13, 1992, after the Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield fight in Las Vegas. Bruce and Big Daddy and Little Momma were all there, and for what must've been the hundredth time, Bruce beamed with admiration when his newly discovered brother delivered his now-world-famous catchphrase. This time, though, Bruce says, "I had an epiphany." He went right back to his room after dinner and he started furiously jotting down pages of notes about all the sports and entertainment spaces where he and Michael, together, were going to spread Let's Get Ready to Rumble. "Not just the boxing ring," he said. "Make that the nucleus, but build them out. Make this phrase so popular that it becomes part of American culture and on the tip of everybody's tongue."
And that's exactly what he did. Bruce arrived in Michael's life as if he'd come bearing the missing piece of his brain, and he told Michael that he was kissing off millions of dollars that Michael had earned with his own blood, sweat and prosody, and then he finished what Michael had gotten a headache trying to start. He locked down the LGRTR trademark so tight that I'm actually a little nervous about using it too much in this story. Scroll all the way down to the bottom of Michael's official website and you'll find a button where you can narc on people if you spot any unauthorized LGRTRs. That was all Bruce. And true to his word, Bruce has made his big brother a filthy rich man.
And then Michael returned the favor by getting his little brother his first big break in ring announcing. It happened fast, on one of their first business trips together, to a kickboxing event in Battle Creek, Michigan. Everyone wanted Michael Buffer by this point, and there was only so much Michael Buffer to go around, so before they left Los Angeles, he said to Bruce, "Bring your tuxedo and try announcing one of the fights. Might as well cut your teeth on this trip." When Bruce told me this story, he had the same look on his face that he had after he bro-hugged Tom Brady. "I'll never forget it. I announced the winner, and the guy came up and he shook my hand. He said, 'Bruce, thank you so much for announcing, but I've been looking forward to your brother announcing me for two months.'" Bruce's laugh can fill a room too. "Oh, I felt like crap. But it was just the first time. And then ..."
UFC had launched in 1993, and at UFC 6 in Casper, Wyoming, during a trip to drum up work for Michael, Bruce Buffer realized he'd found his tribe. "It was a spectacle. It was blood sport. It just resonated with me so much," he said. "This is the world I'd grown up in, trained in. I understand this mentality. I've fought this way in the streets, my own street fighting experiences." UFC has always resonated, shall we say, far less with Michael Buffer, and in any case, Michael's benefactors at the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling drew a line at UFC: Them or us, they said. Michael Buffer stuck with wrestling. Now all Bruce had to do was sell his way into the job the same way Michael had cracked Atlantic City 13 years earlier. The gigs came in a dribble. He'd get a call from UFC's original owners to announce a fight night (paycheck: $750), but then the next couple would pass in silence.
The turning point for Bruce, in fact, had nothing to do with UFC. A producer from Warner Bros. Studio had caught one of the episodes he'd announced, and he told Bruce that this newish NBC sitcom called "Friends," then in its third season, wanted to do an Ultimate Fighting episode with Jon Favreau, and was he maybe free to play himself? As in play the UFC ring announcer? Yes. Yes, he was free. It was Episode 24, "The One With the Ultimate Fighting Champion."
"HIS STYLE, HIS PRESENTATION, his delivery, everything that Bruce Buffer does -- he's become an absolute master, and he's the absolute best in the world right now," Dana White declared to me. "There's nobody better than him."
As he notes the size and scope of Bruce Buffer's growing legend, White credits Bruce's willingness to do what he was told many years ago and cut his intros way down as the real secret to his continued employment today. "When I took over the production, you had these guys who had been doing their thing for a long time and some of the guys in the production staff weren't listening to me. So they didn't last long. I think they lasted one or two shows. Buff was the exact opposite. He adapted very well to what I wanted. Now 19 years later, he's perfected it."
Bruce's popularity and cultural relevance probably have surpassed his brother's -- but all that attention for Bruce is both a blessing for UFC and a bit of a conundrum. White and his company would prefer for the spotlight to shine brighter on their fighters than on, say, Bruce Buffer, and as a marketing strategy, that seems reasonable. Still, they're paddling against a very strong current. Bruce is now a fixture on virtually every UFC fight night and has been for more than 20 years -- of course fans feel a deeper connection to him than to every patzer who pops for six months and then gets his ass beat. The UFC's challenges in the star-making department aren't Bruce's fault.
And although White might be correct that Bruce is the best in the world right now -- even if he's saying it only to needle Michael, and by extension the sport of boxing -- Bruce is not the GOAT, and one of the most endearing things about Bruce is that he knows it and he can't believe his luck that he's the GOAT's little brother. He worships Michael. Michael is his James Bond. Imagine growing up modeling yourself after 007 and then finding out he's your brother. You were 008 all along!
It's not easy, though, being born into this particular octagon, living in the shadow of a larger-than-life father and a larger-than-life half brother. Bruce lives alone -- "never married, almost divorced twice" is his go-to line -- and he has no children, though he's godfather to the kids of Buffer Enterprises Inc.'s sole employee, Kristen Greulach, and is so close to them that he refers to them as "my boys." Most nights, though, he's falling asleep to a Jimmy Cagney flick in his big, empty, very, very secure house. Even though he has always known the truth of his name, he's had a much greater challenge transcending it and making it his own. He's not a natural in the same effortless way as Michael. He's a worker, a grinder, a primal roar. He didn't set out to do the job this way. It's just who he is.
IT TOOK THE CORONAVIRUS to ground Bruce Buffer. As the plague swept across the world earlier this year, and then into every corner of America, Bruce retreated from his plans to do his job and get on a plane for the UFC's London show. In a few days, it would no longer be up to him. The UFC event in Brazil went on as scheduled on March 14, though under surreal circumstances -- an empty arena, every word audible, like a sparring match in a comically oversized gym. It was a ho-hum card, so Bruce wasn't booked for it, but he wouldn't have gone even if he had been. It's a measure of what a force majeure this virus is that it could force a majeure like Bruce Buffer into isolation. Many times in the weeks before the pandemic struck, he'd told me "I don't get nervous," and I believed him, and I still do, at least on the terms that he meant it. He was nervous now.
We began a COVID-era relationship. Texting, occasional check-in calls, shared links. Like the rest of us, he was wrapping his head around the new world that awaits us. "Empty arenas are in our future & I will still bring the heat," he promised, but like the rest of us, his spirits began to flag by the day. He and his brother, these grandiose men with storybook lives, are sheltering at home like the rest of us, an hour apart by car, pried apart all over again. Two of the sports world's most iconic voices, and for weeks we communicate in spurts of text bubbles.
According to Cardplayer Magazine, Bruce was the eighth-ranked celebrity poker player in the world, which I know because he texted me the link, but he has had to cancel his treasured weekly poker game. He hosts it in his card room on the second floor next to his home office, and the games typically run 10 hours; he keeps a massage chair at the table so he and his buddies never even have to stand up. Bruce knows he's lucky. Like a lot of us, he has found his blessings easy to count. He's surrounded by a lifetime of accumulated treasures, he's got a pool in the back and a portable sauna in the garage, and hopefully he has enough Puncher's Chance to get him through the solitary weeks to come. But still. A perpetual motion machine has been brought to a sudden halt. And as if things weren't already lousy enough, now the new Bond movie is delayed too.
Because of his age, Michael is in the high-risk category for the coronavirus, plus he's a cancer survivor. It was 2008, and because he's a Buffer, it couldn't just be any cancer, it had to be a tumor with a flair for theatrics -- it had to be throat cancer. It had to threaten to take away his voice. But because he's a Buffer, the tumor was gone as quickly as it arrived. He had surgery, and then 10 days later he gave his vocal cords a try and they felt and sounded the same as ever. He was back in the ring in a month. He glided through cancer just like everything else in his life, so what's a little COVID-19 to a legend like him?
And anyway, he's kind of been sheltering at home in Calabasas for years now. Next month, he and his third wife, Christine, will celebrate their 12th anniversary -- the union that stuck after his first one came apart following the births of his sons, and the very brief second one that Michael waved away hilariously while we talked, like Oof. He's been in so many movies over the years, he could do a weeklong marathon rewatching all of his cameos, though his favorite screen performance of all is the one time he got to be someone other than Michael Buffer: He played the villain (named Walbridge) in Adam Sandler's criminally underrated Israeli-agent hairdresser comedy, "You Don't Mess With the Zohan." Michael isn't the type to push his own product, though, and he feels no compulsion to revisit his past glories. So no Zohan for Michael and Christine, no "Rocky" or "Creed" sequels. No Bond.
Instead he's rewatching a comedy favorite for the third time, "Derry Girls," a sitcom set in 1990s Northern Ireland, featuring a cast with accents thicker than a Sheffield fight fan's. "You're gonna need to do closed captioning," he warned via text. And then in lieu of the new Bond movie, he strongly endorses "Babylon Berlin," a dark thriller set in 1929 at the dawn of the Nazi era. "Production quality is the best you will ever see," he gushed. "The detail -- wow. Acting, direction, editing all supreme!" He praised the wardrobes, and in my head I heard waaaaaaard-rooooooobe! I tried to imagine the words in that rich, luscious voice of his, the second best in the Buffer family, and it made me ache for the day when we're all safe and ready to rumble again.
Devin Gordon is a freelance writer based in Boston. His first book, "So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin' True Story of the New York Mets --the Best Worst Team in Sports," will be published by HarperCollins on Aug. 4.