The UFC falls under the category of “sports,” but since its television breakout a decade ago, the spectacle of the events has become great TV. Despite the dozens of crossover stars and ascendent champions the Ultimate Fighting Championship has produced, it’s entirely possible that the most recognizable face of the UFC is that of announcer Bruce Buffer. With his authoritative bellow intoning his signature catchphrase “It’s Time!” Buffer has turned the simple act of introducing fighters into top-shelf television. His history with the company runs deep, and he’s as much a fan as he is one of the company’s most high-profile employees.
His exposure has grown steadily since the UFC struck a deal with Fox to air major shows on free network television a few years ago. This Saturday, the UFC raids Chicago to present UFC on Fox 10: Henderson vs. Thomson, and next Saturday, UFC 169 adds to the excitement of Super Bowl weekend when it airs live on pay-per-view from Newark, New Jersey, just a few miles away from MetLife Stadium. EW caught up with Buffer (who is also a semi-professional poker player and game developer) to talk about his life in fighting and who newcomers should pay attention to this weekend.
Entertainment Weekly: You are referred to as “The Veteran Voice of the Octagon.” When did you actually get started announcing shows?
Bruce Buffer: I started in 1996, that was my first show—UFC 8. Then I did UFC 10. Then I guest starred on Friends, and right after that they asked me back for UFC 13. On the set of Friends, the then-owner of UFC and I had the discussion where I said, “Look, I’ve been waiting like a girl waiting on a date to the prom. I’m happy to do the shows, but I want to do every show because I want to do more than just be your announcer. I want to help build the sport with my media contacts. I love it, I believe in it, and let’s make a deal.” That was the best poker hand I ever played. I basically announced every show from UFC 13 on. I’ve missed three shows in the last 17 years.
What was it that drew you to the UFC in the first place?
I’ve been into martial arts since I was 12. I had black belts in a style called Tang Soo Do, and also I kickboxed for a number of years. I have fighting in my blood. My grandfather was the champion of the world in boxing in 1921 in the bantamweight and flyweight divisions, and I’ve just been involved in the fighting world my entire life. I have an appreciation for what the fighters go through and what it takes to be a fighter, and the fact that they put their blood, sweat and tears on the line every time they walk to the the cage. It’s the loneliest job in sports, in my opinion, and these guys and girls deserve praise and so much honor. I want to be able to give as much to them and to the fans as I can.
What do you see as the biggest difference between the live product and the TV product?
Any UFC fan has got to experience a live event at least one time.
The energy and the production value is incredible. The experience is like being at a rock concert. It’s non-stop energy, non-stop excitement. I’ve had professional hockey player friends of mine come to a UFC show and say that the excitement level is even higher than the NHL playoffs for them, which is an amazing statement. It took me two years to get Charles Barkley to go to a live event. The next day he saw me, and the first thing he said was, ‘Buff, these are the finest conditioned athletes in the world.’ That’s a huge compliment from a guy who has been a star player in the NBA like he has.
The finale of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter really turned the UFC into a player on television. What do you remember about that night?
Looking at the epic nights we’ve had in the UFC, that was truly an epic night. A screenwriter could not have written that better. It culminated in that amazing fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, and when I got into the Octagon that night to announce the winner, I got out of character. I said something as an announcer I’m really not supposed to say, but I couldn’t help myself at the time. I said, ‘What you’ve seen is the greatest fight ever in the Octagon.’ Then when Dana White so gallantly awarded Bonnar a six-figure contract at the same time Griffin was declared the first Ultimate Fighter, if you watch in the video you can see me throwing my arms up in the air. I just yelled ‘Yeah!’ I was smiling and jumping up and down like a kid. I kind of lost my composure for a second. But there was so much about that night that meant so much to all of us at the UFC. I knew how important that night was, and I knew we hit a home run.
That fight is still incredible, and it’s great because not only are those two guys great fighters, but they are also great showmen.
Personalities have really taken over in the UFC, because there are so many interesting characters. That has helped build the popularity of the sport. The other key factor is that all these athletes are very approachable. That’s very key. You can’t easily walk up to LeBron James, as great a player as he is, and get his autograph in a hotel lobby. But Jon Jones will sign every autograph. And I’m not putting down the NBA or any other sports, but there is an amazing approachability and congeniality amongst the fighters. That gives the fans a better experience.
Everybody chants along with you when you do your introductions. When did you start to notice that happening?
I’ve always had some kind of a reaction over the years. When I’m announcing, I’m focused on the fighters’ eyes. I’m looking into the eye of the tiger. My whole concentration is strictly on the fighter, and I block out the audience reaction. I’m there doing my thing with the fighters in mind and to hopefully increase the excitement for the fans. So the first time we went to do a show in Brazil under Zuffa, I did my introductions and got out of the Octagon and Stitch the cut man came up to me and said, “Buff, did you hear that? They all said ‘It’s Time!’ with you.” And these are people who speak Portuguese. I had to go back and watch the recording at home, and I was absolutely blown away. That’s the most amazing compliment I could get as an announcer, not only the acknowledgment of my work but also of my trademark phrase. It’s caught on from there in Canada, the UK, and in the United States. I’m completely honored and humbled by it.
So you don’t hear the crowds while you’re working?
I’m very passionate about what I do, and that passion is only getting stronger. That being said, I don’t rehearse. I don’t plan anything. If I make a move or a turn, and people talk about some of the jumps and things that happen—that’s just my passion speaking for itself in that moment. I want to introduce a fighter the way I would want to be introduced if I was going to fight. They’ve been training hard for eight weeks, working eight hours a day. When they walk into that cage, it’s my job to enhance that moment for the fighters fighting and for the fans watching. I literally block everything out—all I can see is the fighters.
What should people be looking for this Saturday night?
The main event between Benson Henderson and Josh Thomson definitively stands on its own. It’s going to be a great fight. Josh has been in MMA for a while, and he’s had a real resurgence. He’s better than even and his confidence level is so high. Benson is one of the coolest cats and champions I’ve ever met. I can’t see a hole in his game at all. You’re going to see two warriors, one an extreme veteran and another great former champion. You can’t pick these fights. Anybody can win on any given night. I’m really looking forward to this fight.
They also both have excellent nicknames—Henderson is “Smooth,” and Thomson is “The Punk.”
The nicknames are there to enhance the fighters as individuals. I like them too, because it really lets me get into their name even more. People ask me what the most difficult names are to announce, and it’s the single-syllable names, like Jon Fitch. You only have so much to work with, and you still have to make it sound good.
The main event is supposed to be great. What is on the undercard that could excite first-time watchers?
The war with the heavyweights is going to be great between Gabriel Gonzaga and Stipe Miocic. I have to think that’ll end in a knockout. Those guys are going to swing for the fences. “Cowboy” Donald Cerrone is also extremely entertaining to watch. But I’ll tell you the one fight that’s going to be really cool is [current UFC Lightweight Champioin] Anthony Pettis’ little brother Sergio Pettis against Alex Caceres. That’s a fight to watch. It’s on the Fox Sports 1 prelim undercard, right before the main card.
Next weekend, there’s a pay-per-view with two championship fights, including Urijah Faber against Renan Barao for the Bantamweight Championship. In you’re eyes, what’s the draw there?
They are stars, and Urijah is a longtime star. He started training with Duane “Bang” Ludwig, and I kidded him a few fights ago and said, ‘You’re getting dirty! You’re getting mean!’ I’ve seen this change in his last two fights where he has completely dominated. He’s on a hunt for that belt. But Renan Barao has the chance to become pound-for-pound one of the greatest fighters in mixed martial arts. He’s a force to be reckoned with. Barao is the new champion who will be proving himself to many, and Urijah Faber who is a big fan favorite on a resurgence. I expect an absolute war.
What about the Featherweight Championship fight, between Jose Aldo and Ricardo Lamas?
Jose Aldo is like Anderson Silva at a lower weight. He’s one of the highest skilled guys I’ve ever seen, and anybody who goes up against him has to be at his absolute best. Ricardo Lamas is ready for battle. These lighter fighters put on such a show, it’s like Energizer Bunnies running across the Octagon. They don’t get tired, they do everything possible, and they’re extremely exciting.
One last competition I’d like to ask you about: As a film buff, do you have a pick for the Oscar for Best Picture?
Those are all really fine films. Captain Phillips was amazing. American Hustle was a tour de force for the actors involved. But I think for the overall scope, I would say 12 Years a Slave has a really good shot at being the best picture of the year. It’s a hard subject, but it’s a subject that all of us should be aware of. A very powerful film with powerful performances.