HIS VOICE RUMBLES AGAIN

Times Staff Writer

Michael Buffer knows how to put an exclamation point on the anticipation of a major boxing match.

The veteran ring announcer stepped into the hot Las Vegas spotlights in March, knowing something the crowd didn't: that these precious seconds at the center of attention could be his last. The man whose voice had made a few simple words so famous was facing throat surgery. He had cancer.

So, he prefaced those trademarked words.

"And now, for the most famous phrase in boxing," Buffer said, then paused. "Let's get ready to ru-m-m-m-b-l-l-l-l-e!"

The crowd that filled Mandalay Bay Events Center for a super-featherweight title bout between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez cheered, even if a few wondered if Buffer's ego had gone wild.

"It may be the most famous phrase in boxing, but who in the hell are you to say so?" an HBO producer text-messaged Buffer.

HBO broadcaster Larry Merchant said he sat there wondering how Joe Louis' legendary, "You can run, but you can't hide," and Muhammad Ali's, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," had dropped to second and third place, but understood the announcer "was suffering through a lot of stress at the time."

Buffer's preface came a few days ahead of the surgery, in which doctors removed a cancerous lymph node attached to his tonsils. He had told only a few people about the medical plight that threatened to silence prize-fighting's prized voice, including his fiancee, family members and Merchant's HBO partners Jim Lampley and Emanuel Steward.

"When I got the diagnosis, not knowing if I'd ever work again, I asked to delay the surgery a week so I could do the Pacquiao fight," Buffer, 63, said. "They were going to be cutting into my neck, and even if I got through that, I knew the radiation can mess with your salivary gland. I don't think it'd look good announcing with a microphone in one hand and a water bottle in the other."

Looking into the mirror one day in February, he had been concerned about the shadow of a lump that emerged on the left side of his Adam's apple. He underwent an MRI exam and biopsy at USC Medical Center to investigate. Buffer answered the telephone in a Manhattan hotel room across from Madison Square Garden.

"There comes a time when you know what's what," Buffer said. "You still hate to hear the word. . . . "

Prepared to announce the heavyweight title fight between Wladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov that February weekend in New York and in the midst of planning his May 10 wedding to fiancee Christine Prado (an engagement that began with a "Tonight Show" proposal), Buffer was told he had a squamous cell carcinoma.

"I'm sitting there, thinking first about my loved ones," said Buffer, who lives in Encino and is the father of two grown sons. "My fiancee is so happy, sending out invitations. Then, not knowing what would happen to me. I knew the radiation could've dried me up. For an announcer, that's the kiss of death."

Said Prado: "It was pretty emotional. He did think that next fight would be his last."

Buffer said he was "getting paperwork together, making out a will" ahead of the Las Vegas fight.

Then he learned that his foster father, Ralph Huber, with whom Buffer was close, died.

"I go into that fight knowing I had to catch a red-eye afterward to attend my father's funeral," Buffer said. "I also knew if I didn't work again, I wanted this to be a good night, and add something that months later people could say, 'Oh, I get it.' "

Buffer said his copyrighted claim to "Let's get ready to rumble!" and his own celebrity have generated $400 million in gross retail sales of video games, motion picture appearances, action figures and other licensing deals. He guards any infringement of his intellectual property intensely, suing violators.

Added boxing publicist and former ring announcer Bill Caplan: "He's the best-looking ring announcer I've ever seen, and he plays off that. He's become the standard, and stands alone like John Wayne did when he was the No. 1 box-office attraction. Even though there are others who are good, no one's a close second to Michael."

Merchant agreed.

"He's made more of that role than anyone," Merchant said. "He's created a mantra that has come to signify 'big event.' "

Buffer's career started as a longshot. He was working as a model on the East Coast when his young son complained after watching a televised fight that the ring announcer spoiled the drama of a split decision by reading the two decisive judges' scores first.

Buffer agreed. So he sent a head shot and a letter to the director of entertainment at the Playboy Hotel in Atlantic City, suggesting the hotel would be "better served by someone in the ring who had a suave, James Bond appearance."

His timing was perfect. There was dissatisfaction with an announcer who had rambled so badly that he forced a Sunday CBS Sports boxing card to delay the beginning of the network's top-rated show, "60 Minutes."

"I was terrible, but I got my foot in the door," Buffer said. "I wanted a hook to what I was doing, a 'Gentlemen, start your engines . . . ' to get people into it."

He experimented.

"Man your battle stations!"

"Fasten your seatbelts!"

"Batten down the hatches!"

"He was dreadful," Arum said. "He didn't know the boxers, and needed a lot of work. But he had a great presence and really worked at it. He knew he just needed a catchphrase."

Buffer finally recalled Ali and his former cornerman Bundini Brown hyping fights with sayings such as, "Rumble, young man, rumble." He turned that into "Let's get ready to rumble! Twelve rounds of boxing!" but was saying it too quickly and lacked drama.

At an after-party of a fight at the Reseda Country Club in 1986, Buffer was chatting with dinner-club singer Jody Berry, who often attended fights.

Buffer said Berry offered this advice: "People want to hear, 'Let's get ready to rumble!' I know it! So after you say it, shut . . . up!'

"As I started using it in [Mike] Tyson fights, it got real big."

He learned to capture the spectacle, and has seen an aged George Foreman upset Michael Moorer, watched the classic toe-to-toe battle of Roberto Duran-Iran Barkley, and Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather Jr. last year.

"It gets you," said Buffer, who will work Saturday's fight at Home Depot Center between Oscar De La Hoya and Steve Forbes. "I would imagine the only thing that rivals the two guys walking in before a major fight is seeing Ohio State or USC's football team run out before their big games. The crowd goes ballistic."

Ring announcer Lupe Contreras puts it best.

"That moment leading up to the fight is like a slow climb up a roller coaster," she said. "Your role is to stir the crowd that's ready to go into a frenzy. Michael spiced it up 100 notches from what it was before. He added that flair, and he gets that roller coaster going down the first hill."

Post-surgery, Buffer said, "The first thing I did was wake up, which was nice, and then I talked. I heard my voice. It was perfect, not even raspy."

He briefly battled a swollen throat and cold but was excited to learn the cancerous margins and surrounding tissue were removed and that no follow-up radiation treatments were required.

He called up De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions and reported he would be fine to work the April 19 Joe Calzaghe-Bernard Hopkins fight in Las Vegas.

Buffer tested his voice's strength at home, trying deep notes by singing songs that included "Delilah," by Tom Jones.

At a pre-fight weigh-in appearance, Buffer's voice became strained, so he didn't talk until that night, when into the ring walked Calzaghe, who typically holds himself in a crouched pose, shadow boxing and winding up as the announcer belts out, "Jooooooooooooe Calllllll-zaggg-heeeee." Calzaghe then emerges upright, throws a punch to the air and blows a kiss. Buffer held the "Joe" note so long, Calzaghe smiled upward at him, like, "You almost done?"

Buffer grinned back, then uttered his staple phrase. Pausing before and after for effect, of course, just as Berry had instructed.

". . . To say I felt lucky would be an understatement," Buffer said. "Blessed, would be more accurate."

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Whose line is it?

Boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer has cashed in on his famous "Let's get ready to rumble" line. Other announcers and their signature calls.

THIS GAME IS IN THE REFRIGERATOR.': Former Lakers play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn.

'FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS.': Clippers play-by-play announcer Ralph Lawler.

'WHOA, NELLIE!': Legendary college football announcer and longtime ABC broadcaster Keith Jackson.

'YES!': Former NBC and New York Knicks play-by-play announcer Marv Albert, who now works for TNT.

'OH MY!': Former Angels and NBC sports broadcaster and current CBS play-by-play man Dick Enberg.

'HOW ABOUT THAT!': Former New York Yankees broadcaster and "This Week in Baseball" host Mel Allen.

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FIGHT NIGHT

Oscar De La Hoya (38-5, 30 KOs)

vs. Steve Forbes (33-5, 9 KOs)

Where: Home Depot Center, Carson.

When: Saturday, undercard begins at 4 p.m., main event at 7 p.m.

TV: HBO.

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