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A Ring Master Like His Dad : Boxing announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. follows in his father's footsteps with flair, becoming a respected presence in arenas around the world

October 06, 1991|DAVID WHARTON | David Wharton is a Times staff writer

To hear Jimmy Lennon Jr. tell it, his family reunions resemble all-star revues.

"First the Lennon Sisters sing," said Lennon, a cousin of the famous 1960s group. "My uncles harmonize--they were the Lennon Brothers before there were the Lennon Sisters. My other cousins have a rock band. There are violin players and guitar players. Everyone trades off."

At a recent wedding, the band played "You Send Me," and the family kept the music going until each and every relative had stepped to the microphone to sing a chorus, either in falsetto or bass, jazzy or plain.

"It went on forever," Lennon recalled.

Then he stepped to the mike and did what he does best, a talent that has brought the Lennons back into the spotlight.

Actually, his father gets most of the credit. Almost 50 years ago, Jimmy Lennon Sr. was an Irish tenor who showed up to sing at a nightclub only to find that the evening's program had been switched to boxing. So he stepped through the ropes to act as ring announcer.

Previously, announcers went about the business of introducing fighters in strictly deadpan style. The elder Lennon brought a performer's flair to the work--a splendidly ironic gesture within such brutal confines. His tone of voice was elegant, his words spoken with dramatic cadence and extravagantly rolling Rs.

In the years that followed, Lennon became synonymous with boxing, introducing virtually every big fight of his era and playing the role in dozens of television shows and movies ranging from Elvis Presley's "Kid Galahad" to Robert De Niro's "Raging Bull." In a purely sporting arena, he found a way to become famous as an entertainer.

Which brings us to Jimmy Jr., who never meant to follow in his father's footsteps. He had other things on his mind when he graduated with a psychology degree from UCLA and began teaching at a small private school.

But, of Jimmy Sr.'s five children, he was the one who looked and sounded exactly like his father. Jimmy Sr. wanted desperately for his son to continue the family name in boxing. He asked again and again. He bribed. Now, at age 33, Jimmy Jr. finds himself traveling the world to announce championship bouts and appear in movies.

So, at the wedding, Jimmy Jr. stepped to the microphone and introduced the newlyweds: "Wearing the white dress and black tuxedo, weighing in at a combined weight of 293 pounds, making their matrimonial debut. . . . "

Five years ago, as Jimmy Lennon Sr. began to withdraw from the fight game because of age and illness that required intermittent hospitalization, his son started announcing. First, he did fights in such places as San Bernardino and San Diego. Then, he became the ring announcer at the Forum. Last year, he worked the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas bout, one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.

It was Lennon's first megafight, his first time on international television. Since then, he has worked 10 more title fights on NBC, HBO and pay-per-view television.

"He's one of the best," said Brad Jacobs, a boxing consultant and coordinating producer for the USA Network. "Obviously, he comes from great lineage."

Lennon is regarded as the No. 1 contender among ring announcers. The reigning champion is Michael Buffer, a strikingly handsome man with a booming voice and sure-fire slogan, "Let's get ready to rumble," that he uses to open every fight.

"Buffer is a '90s guy," said John Beyrooty, a former boxing writer for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and current Forum spokesman. "Jimmy has adopted his father's style of 30 years ago, and nobody did it better than Jimmy Sr."

Indeed, while Buffer looks as if he stepped off the cover of GQ magazine, Lennon has inherited his father's frail Irish looks, thin blond hair and boyish face. If Buffer is a sledgehammer, then Lennon is finesse and grace. His voice is not so much deep as it is melodic. He uses no dramatic gestures and begins each fight with a short, "All right, fight fans, here we go."

"Classy and simple," Beyrooty said. "And he can enunciate the Hispanic names better than the Hispanics can."

A ring announcer's work may seem insignificant, but the best announcers get flown around the globe and paid well to spend those few minutes in the ring. Lennon got first-class air fare to Japan, a week's accommodations in a Tokyo hotel and $2,000 for working the Tyson-Douglas fight. Buffer makes a full-time living at the job.

Promoters and television executives say ring announcers are vital to a smooth-running evening.

"We're throwing the show over to him," said Jacobs, of USA. "He's got to get the crowd ready for the fight, and not just the fans in attendance but also in 55 million homes across America.

"If you've got a guy who isn't a seasoned professional, it really shows."

A veteran announcer is often the one who organizes the evening's fight card. He'll tell the promoter when to have the national anthem performed and when to announce celebrities in the audience. Like a ringmaster, he keeps the action going. Like a carnival barker, he works the crowd.

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