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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - Michael Buffer unbuttoned his black tuxedo jacket, squeezed through the ropes and climbed into the ring with junior welterweights Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward.

Trim, tan and impeccably well-groomed, Buffer looked down at his 3-by-5 index cards and awaited his cue. After welcoming the crowd and announcing the promoters, he began.

"Now, for the thousands in attendance and the millions watching on TV …" he said, gearing up.

Then came the five words that have made him world famous, obscenely rich and illegal to imitate.

Starting as a low growl, bubbling up from his diaphragm into a high-pitched crescendo, they ricocheted off the rafters in Boardwalk Hall, sending fight night fans into a frenzy.

"L-l-l-l-l-let's get r-r-r-eady to r-r-rum-bul-l-l-l-l-l-l-le!"

Ten rows from the ring, a balding middle-aged man with a cigar in his mouth stood up from his seat, both fists raised in the air in jubilation. All around him, the fight night crowd roared.

It works every time.

And not just at boxing matches. The "Let's-get-ready-to-rumble" phrase, which Buffer created to spice up the pre-fight introductions, has made him richer and more famous than most of the people he works for.

Buffer, 58, now uses it at bar mitzvahs and bass-fishing tournaments, birthday parties and bull-riding matches, business gatherings and home run derbies, building implosions and kickboxing bouts.

It's a phrase that pays: Buffer gets $2,500 to $15,000 just to utter it, and up to $25,000 for more involved personal appearances. Ring announcing now makes up only about 30 percent of his workload.

He's appeared in movies ("Rocky V," "Ocean's Eleven,") and television shows (as himself on "The Simpsons").

Then there's the merchandising: the "LGRTR" T-shirts, key chains and hats; the "Ready 2 Rumble" video games, hot sauce, action figures, talking wrestling ring, slot machines; the Rumble Robots, the "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" disco single, which hit No. 6 on the charts in Germany; and the line of Ready to Rumble nutritional products - including sexual performance enhancers - that will hit the market next year.

"I just wanted something that would be comparable to 'Gentlemen, start your engines,' to get the crowd up, not realizing it would become a permanent part of American sports folklore," Buffer said.

"To be completely realistic about it, you don't sit around when you're 15 and say 'Boy, if I could come up with some catch phrase … .' It wasn't anything I ever dreamed of, even when I first started with it," Buffer said.

That was in the early 1980s, when Buffer was modeling at Philadelphia's Strawbridge & Clothiers, among others. At 6-feet tall, with sandy brown hair, blue eyes and a matinee idol's face, he was a natural for advertisements for suits, slacks and other men's apparel.

One night, watching a fight on TV with his 13-year-old son, they saw the ring announcer botch the reading of the scorecards, eliminating the suspense in announcing the winner.

"Why don't you try that, Dad?" his son said.

Exaggerating his credentials, Buffer sent letters out to every Atlantic City casino, pitching them on the idea of a tuxedoed master of ceremonies serving as ring announcer. They gave his name to boxing promoters, and he was on his way.

In 1983, he coined the phrase in an effort to inject some life into the familiar pre-fight announcements in the ring.

"I tried 'Man your battle stations,' 'Fasten your seat belts,' that kind of thing. I wanted a hook that would get a little energy back into the fight. Ali used to say he was 'ready to rumble,' and 'Rumble, young man, rumble.' I took that and fine-tuned it."

But he didn't knock anybody out with it.

"I wasn't impressed," said boxing promoter Bob Arum, one of the first to hire Buffer. "It was another trite kind of expression. He didn't put the pizzazz into it that he does now."

Later, Buffer slowed down his tempo and stretched the syllables to add emphasis. Soon, he began hearing fans yell it from the crowd and seeing newspaper headline writers use it.

But it wasn't until he hired his brother, Bruce, that he really began rumbling.

In 1995, they retained a law firm and got the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to trademark and copyright the phrase and Buffer's image.

Buffer Enterprises Inc. CEO Bruce Buffer now oversees a network of paid tipsters, investigators and lawyers to investigate and sue anyone who violates it.

At the start of the respective sports seasons, Buffer Enterprises Inc. sends letters out to teams in all the major sports. It warns them not to use the phrase without authorization and offering Michael Buffer's services - for a price.

A rate list is included in the mailings, although Bruce Buffer would not provide a copy of it for purposes of this article.

The company's Web site offers cash rewards to anyone who reports a violation that later leads to a financial settlement for the Buffers.

"I'm very litigious," Bruce Buffer said. "I'm in and out of court each month because people constantly violate our trademark rights by using it without authorization, to promote products, do radio or TV or movies or something as simple as playing it at a major sporting event. Although we're happy to work with people, they must contact me for a formal license agreement."

Those who don't inevitably get hauled into court. Among those he has sued are radio hosts Oliver North and Don Imus; New Line Cinema, for using it in a trailer for Jackie Chan's "Rumble in the Bronx"; Columbia Pictures, for using it in promos for the movie "Booty Call"; and the Baton Rouge (La.) Kingfish, a minor league hockey team, for using it in radio commercials.

Settlements have ranged from $3,000 to $300,000, according to the Buffers' intellectual property lawyer, Mark Kalmansohn.

"It's no different than someone using Pepsi's name to sell another cola," Buffer said. "It's my business, it's what I do for a living. And you have to protect it large and small, whether it's a car dealer in Davenport, Iowa, or whatever, so that when a major violation comes along, you can show in court that you've protected it before."

Buffer makes 75 to 150 appearances a year. One was a Wal-Mart convention in Kansas City, Mo., where he hosted a meeting of company executives who wore boxing gloves and robes.

And then there was the church gathering in Columbus, Ohio, where he used the phrase for a pastor, his family, and even "introduced" Jesus Christ as "your undefeated, undisputed champion of the world!"

Buffer, a multimillionaire, took home $12,000 that day.

"It was awesome," said Romel Moore, facilities director for Columbus Christian Center. "The pastor kept saying, 'I know it was $12,000, but I'd do it again.' "

Buffer refers to his specialty as "the phrase" or "the words," and he'll occasionally tweak them for special occasions.

For the 1996 implosion of the Hacienda Hotel in Las Vegas: "Let's get ready to crumble!"

For a TV commercial for a water park: "Let's get ready to tumble!" (before being doused with 100 gallons of water.)

For basketball games: "Let's get ready to round-ball!"

Fans who see him in public sometimes ask him to say the phrase, but he won't.

"Usually, I'll say, 'Do you have your checkbook?' If the guy's a plumber, I tell him, 'I'll say, "Let's get ready to rumble," but the next time my toilet's stuffed up, you come over and fix it for free,' " Buffer said.

Those who know him say there's more to his success than the famous words.

"It's not just the phrase," said rival ring announcer Jimmy Lennon, Jr. "He's very professional. He's got a flair for showmanship, and he's marketed his abilities so very well. You can't do that with just a phrase."

In recent years, his celebrity has spread to Japan and Germany, where he does boxing, kickboxing and other events.

Single for more than 20 years, he got married four years ago to a 23-year-old ex-model he met in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Now, Alina Buffer sits ringside with him, powdering his nose before he goes into the ring. He could do the makeup himself, but he doesn't want to be seen doing it.

There's his image, after all.

"He's really calmed down a lot since he got married," said Arum, the promoter. "Before that, the ring card girls were so busy hitting on him, they'd forget to go in the ring, they'd have the wrong number card."

His brother believes there's no limit to Buffer's potential.

"Andy Warhol always said you get 15 minutes of fame. But because of careful marketing, we're in our second hour of it," Bruce Buffer said.

On the Net: www.letsrumble.com

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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