Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ring Announcers

Jimmy Lennon Sr.
By Bill O'Neill

The performance of a good ring announcer (the guy who stands in the ring and introduces the contestants) can add greatly to a fan’s enjoyment of an evening at the fights.  (NOTE: We’re talking BOXING here; not wrestling or “mixed martial arts.”)

Most boxers have a bit of ham in them, and enjoy hearing their names called out, loudly and correctly pronounced, to the assemblage in an arena.  Those who have nicknames or who are especially proud of their ethnic heritage or where they come from, relish hearing that, too.  It’s a tradition that goes back to boxing’s earliest days, when announcers shouted their introductions through cupped hands, or, to larger audiences, through a bullhorn.

Ring announcers vary as greatly in shape, size, and technique as the warriors they present.  But the best ones deliver their introductions with a sense of style.

The first announcer I remember hearing was the very proper, sophisticated-sounding New Yorker, Harry Balough, on the Friday night radio broadcasts from New York in the 1940s and 1950s.  Harry was sometimes given to more than a little hyperbole, especially in the big fights.  At a Joe Louis title defense he once bellowed, “…And may the more worthy participant emerge triumphantly!”

Balough was followed in New York by dapper little Johnny Addie, who carried on in much the same style, with a fine New York accent.

Meanwhile, here in California, we were graced with the golden-voiced tenor who became the smoothest, classiest, and most articulate ring announcer of them all:  the late Jimmy Lennon, Sr.  Jimmy earned a good living with his voice—not only as a ring announcer, but as a singer, movie actor, voice teacher, and master of ceremonies.  He reigned as “The Voice of the Olympic” and at outdoor shows as well, for perhaps forty years, before yielding to his virtual clone:  Jimmy Lennon, Jr., who carries on the family tradition most capably.

There are some who give high marks to the Top Rank guy, Michael “Let’s get ready to rumble!” Buffer.  Others are partial to Ed Darien, Jose Martinez, or glamorous Amy Hayes.  But for purists—and for Californians, especially, the Lennons are unequaled.

Jimmy Sr. was the protégé of gruff-voiced old Dan Tobey, who manned the microphone right on into his eighties.  Fans at the old Hollywood Legion Stadium loved it when the genial senior citizen would wrap up his announcement of coming attractions by bellowing, “Yess—we have RASSLING here, every Monday night!”  That would always elicit a loud chorus of good-natured boos from the boxing crowd.

My favorite ring announcer story goes back to New York and an affable Irish-American named Joe Humphreys—who, a hundred years ago, was regarded as the best in the business.  When Jack Dempsey defended his heavyweight title against “The Wild Bull of the Pampas,” Luis Angel Firpo, in New York’s Polo Grounds on the evening of Sept. 14, 1923, Joe Humphreys was primed for what promised to be the crowning moment of his career—introducing those two great warriors to an historic gathering of 80,000 fans.

Latin names were not as common in this country in 1923 as they are today, and Humphreys sought the advice of a Spanish teacher to make sure he got the pronunciation of Firpo’s name just right.  On the days leading up to the fight, he practiced over and over:  “Lou-EECE… Ahn-HAIL… FEER-po!”

But on the big night, on the big stage, poor Joe reverted to pure Brooklynese.  He introduced the giant South American as:  “Lou-ISS… Ain-JELL…FOI-po!”
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