Buffer 'rumbles' his way to the top


The scene has played itself out several hundred times over the past quarter-century, as it will again Saturday at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino-Las Vegas when boxer Oscar De La Hoya takes on Floyd Mayweather Jr. for the Junior Middleweight Championship. The fighters will be bouncing up and down nervously. The sellout crowd will be buzzing with anticipation. And then an elegant man with flawlessly coifed hair, gleaming white teeth and a perfectly tailored tuxedo will take to the microphone to utter the words everybody's been dying to hear: "Ladies and gentlemen...l-l-l-l-let's get ready to ruuummmmbbbbllle!" It can only mean that ring announcer extraordinaire Michael Buffer is in the house -- and if he weren't, many would have to question if a championship fight were actually taking place.

It's the pugilistic version of the clarion call to arms, and as uttered by the golden-throated Buffer, the magic phrase never ceases to whip audiences into an emotional frenzy. It has single-handedly made Buffer a famous man worldwide. But beyond that, it has also made him fabulously wealthy, bringing fresh new meaning to the term "trademark slogan." Along with his half-brother Bruce -- the acknowledged business brains behind the operation -- Buffer, 62, has parlayed a simple crowd-pleasing phrase into an empire with gross revenues in the hundreds of millions.

If one is moved to say "Let's get ready to rumble" (or any permutation of the expression) in public, there's a cost involved -- whether Buffer is hired to say the words or not. It's been that way since 1994, the year that Michael Buffer legally trademarked the phrase. And as Bruce Buffer, 49, asserts in no uncertain terms, if one voices it, posts it, publishes it, records it, paraphrases it, uses it or even so much as thinks about it in any profit-driven context, he or she should be prepared to pay the piper. (Permission has been granted to write it on this Web site, thankfully.) Financial settlements have ranged from four figures to the healthy six figures for unauthorized use.

"We search out and find violations, and we aren't afraid to litigate vigorously," warns Bruce Buffer, president and CEO of Buffer Enterprises and Michael's business partner and manager. "We basically look at it as stealing from us."

Of course, this gets a little bit ahead of Michael Buffer's formal-wear rags-to-riches tale, one that has transformed a mere sentence into a truly remarkable -- and surely unprecedented -- intellectual property bonanza.

The story commenced in 1982. Michael Buffer was earning his keep as a model for clothing and print campaigns. On the side and on a lark, he began announcing at boxing and wrestling rings for $150 a pop. "Let's get ready to rumble" had yet to enter his or any other lexicon. One thing he noticed when introducing people in the ring before a fight was just how much his droning killed the crowd's electricity.

"The P.A. announcers bored people to death," Buffer says, recalling the work of other announcers as well as his own. "I thought it might be good to establish some sort of catchphrase hook to get a little fire back into the audience."

So, Buffer started to experiment with slogans at the microphone: "Now the action's gonna start!" didn't have much oomph. He thought of auto racing: "Gentlemen, start your engines." No, that wouldn't do either, since the fighters weren't in cars. He also tried "Man your battle stations!" and "Fasten your seat belts!"

"I even tried 'Batten down the hatches!'" Buffer recalls with a laugh. "Afterward, I wondered, 'Shoot, where the hell did that come from?' I used to watch old clips of Muhammad Ali, where he'd be talking the jive during interviews, you know, 'Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, rumble, man, rumble.' I liked 'rumble.' So, I started working on that and fine-tuned it until the phrase finally came."

But, as Buffer makes clear, it was an evolutionary process. His distinctive roll of the tongue on the words let's and rumble wouldn't fully emerge until a few years later. He began working nearly all of the big pay-per-view title bouts and by the early 1990s had become the most renowned and in-demand of an admittedly short list of ring announcers. It wasn't, however, until a fateful 1992 meeting with a famed supper-club singer named Jody Berry that Buffer was made to think of his gig as a distinctive piece of theater in and of itself.

"Jody told me that I could really parlay 'Let's get ready to rumble!' into something bigger, because it so excited people -- but I was walking all over it," Buffer remembers. "He said, 'Say it and then shut the hell up. Let the people react. Let a few seconds pass.' It was the best advice I ever got."

Pretty soon, Buffer was hand-picked by Donald Trump as the only announcer the real estate magnate would allow to work fights at his Atlantic City events. "It started to dawn on me there was so much more here than just a boxing intro," Buffer says. Indeed, before he knew it, his catchphrase was everywhere: radio, television, in print, throughout popular culture. Buffer began talking to lawyers about trademarking.

However, it wasn't until brother Bruce officially joined forces with Michael in 1992 that the gold mine began to be tapped. "The light-bulb moment for me was the Riddick Bowe/Evander Holyfield heavyweight championship fight in '92," Bruce Buffer recalls. "I saw all of these celebrities rise from their seats when Michael said the phrase. I went back to my hotel room afterward and my mind was racing with possibilities."

What has followed over the past decade-plus is an extraordinary triumph of business savvy and legal acumen that's inspired a financial windfall for the Michael Buffer brand. Oh, sure, the man will still drop by to announce a boxing event for $30,000 or so, roughly $2,000 for each minute of work. He will also work a private party, birthday celebration, bar mitzvah, wedding, corporate retreat or convention, uttering "Let's get ready to rumble!" to the tune of $15,000 to $30,000, depending on the event. Buffer has also lent his famed phrase to NASCAR events, to NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball games and to TV shows including Fox's "The Simpsons" and Comedy Central's "South Park" (voicing animated characters in his likeness).

But, it's in the merchandising and licensing of Michael Buffer-branded products where the real money has emerged since 1999. Bruce maintains that retail sales for the licensees have exceeded $400 million for using the Buffer trademark and/or voice on everything from talking mugs to key chains to T-shirts to mobile ringtones (now cell phones can "get ready to rumble!") to talking picture frames, slot machines and -- most profitably -- video games. The pair of "Ready 2 Rumble Boxing" video-game titles, designed for multiple platforms, have alone taken in more than $200 million in wholesale revenues. The third in the "Ready 2 Rumble" series arrives Christmas 2008 for the Nintendo Wii system. There are even Rumble Buddies plush toys for kids and Warner Bros.' 2000 wrestling feature "Ready to Rumble," starring David Arquette and Oliver Platt, for which Buffer Enterprises received a commission.

"Our goal is to reach $1 billion in combined retail sales for our licensees," Bruce Buffer says. "The idea here is to keep the phrase and Michael's image in the hearts and minds of people forever. We're hoping it'll never burn out, and we think it has the potential to be like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe -- into perpetuity."

That sounds good to Michael Buffer, the father of two grown sons (ages 37 and 40), whose success has exceeded anything he ever could have imagined. He's happy just to get good tables in restaurants, which is no problem now, given his fame.

"I really do have my brother to thank for turning this into what it's become," Michael says. "I'm not a business person. Bruce put it all together. All I have to do is put my ass out there and do my thing, and he takes care of the rest."

Buffer adds that he's been blessed never to have suffered throat problems, though the demands on his vocal chords extend daily to people who want Michael to recite the phrase for them. "My standard answer," he says, "is to ask if they've got their checkbook with them -- that usually takes care of it."

Mark Taffet, senior vp, HBO Sports and HBO Pay-Per-View, has known the Buffers since the early 1990s and marvels at how their savvy branding turned "rumble" into a pop-culture phenomenon. "They make an incredible team," he says. "Michael's the product. He has this incredibly unique voice that separates him from others in the sport. When he's at a boxing match, his words send shivers down your spine. But, Bruce has brilliantly marketed him."

Adds Glenn Gulino, who works with the Buffers as a former vp and head of licensing for the William Morris Agency and who now runs his own consulting company, G2 Entertainment: "They've created a very powerful, distinctive brand through talent and hard work. They've made the phrase part of the vernacular, but they've also set a standard in protecting it."

That policing extends internationally, Bruce Buffer notes, the vigilance born out of an obsession with making sure "Let's get ready to rumble!" is never diluted or compromised through unauthorized use. In fact, the Buffer Web site, www.letsrumble.com, offers a financial reward to anyone who reports a corroborated unauthorized use that results in actual recovery of any variation of the "service-marked" phrases (including "Get ready to crumble" and "Let's get ready to gamble").

It might seem overly zealous to practice such hyper-supervision of a simple phrase. But in Bruce Buffer's mind, it's all about maintaining control of an iconic piece of Americana as the self-styled "man behind the rumble."

"My brother happens to be the greatest announcer in sports and entertainment history," he believes. "There will never be another 'Let's get ready to rumble,' so I see it as my duty to protect the phrase as I would a rare gem. So far, it's worked out pretty well."