By Mitch Abramson
The first big fight that Jimmy Lennon Jr. ever announced was Mike Tyson vs. Buster Douglas in 1990 in Tokyo, Japan. It was perhaps the most significant upset in boxing history and as Lennon entered the ring to announce the decision- a shocking tenth-round knockout for Douglas, it was eerily quiet in the arena of some 35,000 fans. Describing the reason behind the solemn mood, Lennon said: "The Japanese tend to be a quiet and respectful audience.”
That reference would seem to describe Lennon Jr. as an announcer, as well: always deferential and considerate to the fighters, fine with blending into the chaotic background- but always fastidiously prepared, always eloquent and clear with his decisions. A former high school social studies teacher and head master, Lennon is best known for being the “other” famous ring announcer in boxing, next to that “Let’s get ready to rumble” guy, Michael Buffer.
Lennon also has a catchphrase- “It’s Showtime,” a moniker that seems to fit him like the tuxedos he wears on fight night- quick, to the point, not at all overly self-indulgent.
For the past 31 years, Lennon has been announcing fights, a job that has taken him to 32 different countries- he just returned from working a featherweight title gig in Jamaica involving WBA champ, Nicholas Walters on Dec. 18. That gave Lennon 867 title fights, an almost inconceivable number.
Around a week before the Walters bout, Lennon learned that he had been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) 2013 class in Canastota, joining the likes of Arturo Gatti, Virgil Hill and referee Mills Lane, who were also inducted. The 24th Annual Hall of Fame weekend is scheduled for June 6-9 with the actual enshrinement ceremony on the Hall of Fame Museum Grounds on June 9.
Gatti’s entry seemed to overwhelm everyone else’s, since he was such a lightning rod for attention with his incredible fights, and to Lennon Jr., it was just as well. Rather than talk about his own achievements, Lennon Jr. took the opportunity when contacted by a reporter to speak about his father, Jimmy Lennon Sr., who gained admission into the World Boxing Hall of Fame, now in downtown LA, as an announcer for more than 40 years, but never to the more well-known IBHOF. Lennon Sr., who was known for wearing a tuxedo and an ability to handle the toughest name- traits that Lennon also possesses- died in 1992 at the age of 79, from heart failure.
“There’s a part of me- my dad deserves it so much more than I,” said Lennon Jr., who learned the craft under his father's tutelage. “I didn’t try to mimic my father. But he’s really the only announcer I saw and I was naturally like him so it became very natural. There’s a Hall of Fame in LA, and he’s been inducted into that. As have I, but there’s no question the big daddy is the International Hall of Fame, and he has not been nominated that I know of. But the fights that he did and the influence that he had and the movies and the television that he was in were numerous.”
With that out of his system, Lennon Jr. said he was honored to be inducted into the IBHOF, not just because there are so few ring announcers who gain entry, but because of the lasting impact it will have. And because he will get to join the boxers that he so reveres.
“I’m just so flattered and honored,” said Lennon, who stopped working at the West Los Angeles Baptist School seven years to ply his trade full time as a ring announcer. “But in the back of my mind I’ve always thought something that’s very true- and it’s about the fighters and those are the ones who really put their lives on the line and do all the work. We as peripheral players are just so fortunate to be a part of it, and it’s the icing on the cake to be recognized. As it kind of settles in, I guess it means that there’s a lasting legacy of my work."
The role of a ring announcer is simple to define but not easy to pull off. When a ring announcer is a success, he’s nearly indiscernible, taking a back seat to the fighters. Buffer is the exception because of his wildly famous catchphrase, but most ring announcers who achieve success seem to blend in with the mood of the room, not unlike a good referee.
In a rugged sport such as boxing, Lennon says his mission, in addition to pronouncing the names correctly and rendering a clear decision, is to bring a little flair and elegance to the proceedings. While he tries to be understated, he’s also a showman, he admits, just like his father, and the ring announcer is just one more character who plays a role in a fight, along with the fighters, promoters, ring card girls, etc., such is the uniqueness of the genre. Lennon adopted the catchphrase, “It’s Showtime” exactly 20 years ago at a fight in Las Vegas involving Julio Cesar Chavez on Dec. 13, 1992 against Marty Jakubowski, in large part because of his longtime relationship with the Showtime network. He’s also picked up a nickname in his years working fights because of his well-coiffed style.
“I’ve earned the nickname of the ‘Classy Jimmy Lennon Jr.’ and I really try to put class and dignity in the sport and on the fighters,” he said. “I think you certainly want to be successful at giving an element of excitement and building up the fighters and building up that exciting moment when we can all exit the ring, as well as the excitement of the decision. I know the sport very well so bringing a dignity to it and a class to it is important. Other times there may be times when I’m maybe correcting the local commissions or local authorities and making really clear what a controversial and difficult decision should be.”
The job is not as easy as it looks, he says. There are a variety of factors that viewers at home and in the arena don’t see that can easily throw a ring announcer off, suddenly thrusting the spotlight, and the hostility of the fans onto the man- it's most always a man- in the center of the ring. Reading the decision following the famous ear-biting episode when Tyson bit Evander Holyfield twice in 1997 and was subsequently disqualified was a case in point.
“You have to keep calm in the midst of a lot of pressure because what a lot of people don’t realize is that, you are given so many names and there are last minute changes,” he says. “You’re in the ring about to announce and someone says, ‘No, I changed his nickname to this and this.’ You’ve got the promoter, ‘Oh, I want you to include this.’”
Don King, he says, was famous for last-second audibles and feeding him information to deliver right before he was about to make an announcement about something else.
“You’ve got all this information to give and you have to make it look flawless,” he says. “You have a camera very close to your face, and you have a producer or director saying, ‘Okay, go, now, get it done.’ And so you have to be able to make it look easy, so that’s where experience comes in.”
And perhaps most important, a ring announcer has to be able to utter a boxer’s name correctly, because, as Lennon says: “I think there’s nothing more beautiful to a man’s ear than his name said properly. It’s very ugly if you’re name is said incorrectly.”
Lennon is almost obsessive about pronouncing the names of fighters, and when he travels abroad conversing in a country’s native language as a show of respect to the fans. He did a fight in Turkey with Oliver McCall and Sinan Samil Sam in 2007 that was almost a disaster because of the language barrier, which he works hard to overcome.
After arriving at 5 a.m. at his hotel he asked a waiter to translate a few phrases from English to Turkish that he planned to use for the fight. He even recorded the waiter, saying: “And to all the Turkish boxing fans, good evening and welcome,” waking up the next morning to practice the words in Turkish. Upon his introduction on fight night, he was lustily booed by the crowd, something he interpreted as a little anti-American.
“And then the first thing I said was the introduction in Turkish and they all cheered me after that,” he says. “And so I felt like I won over the crowd.”
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for the New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.