Conversation with Hall of Fame bound Jimmy Lennon Jr.
By Real Combat Media Correspondent, Nick Bellafatto
A rarity when missing a gig, famed ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. for perhaps only the second time during his tenure will be conspicuously absent when Showtime Championship Boxing takes to the airwaves on Saturday night. This is due to the Santa Monica, California native being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this Sunday.
Not that Jimmy couldn’t fly out to Canastota overnight to make the actual ceremony itself the next day, but that’s how he rolls, preferring to honor the weekend festivities as well as the fans who annually trek to this Central New York location from around the globe to meet, greet, and otherwise pay their respects to those who are to be enshrined for all time.
That said, on Friday night just minutes away from the Hall of Fame grounds, Jimmy will be doing his thing at the Turning Stone Casino, announcing fighters as they make their way to the ring for an appearance on “Showbox The New Generation.” I caught up with Mr. Lennon earlier this week to chat about his thoughts on entering the Hall, as well as a host of other items ranging from boxing to religion.
NB: Jimmy you’ve attended the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend in the past as an observer, but this year you’ll be an inductee yourself come Sunday June 9th. Can you describe your current sentiments as that day approaches and how that might differ if any from previous visits to Canastota?
JL: Yeah, I’ve been there to Canastota once and that was two years ago when Tyson, Chavez, and Kostya Tszyu were inducted as boxers. I was just amazed at the turnout. As a guest I had all the details that they had planned and it was just very special. So for me to be inducted coming up this Sunday is very very special. I feel just so nice and pleased. At the same time you know keep in mind that my job is to put the spotlight on the boxers and not onto myself. So there’s a part of me that feels like it really should be all about the boxers. I’m mean I’m flattered, I’m honored, and I’m very excited about it, but it’s different from much of my announcing career where my role and my desire is to put the spotlight on the fighters themselves.
NB: You’re referred to as the “Classy” Jimmy Lennon Jr., how do you take to that moniker knowing that you do in fact add class and pure excitement to events you precede?
JL: Well for me it’s kind of an ultimate compliment and I’m very honored when people say that. If I can add any kind of class or excitement to one of the worlds greatest sports, and to some of the world’s greatest athlete’s and some incredible events, I’m just so pleased to be able to do that. I think that the sport deserves it.
NB: Many are aware that your father preceded you as a ring announcer, while fewer are privy to the fact that Jimmy Lennon Sr. actually sang the national anthem to open events, to one fateful day simultaneously introduce the fighters which would launch a 40 + year career. Now you obviously pay homage to your father as it relates to your current standing as an announcer, while you also have mixed emotions in that you’re going to be enshrined in a venue in which your father deserves to be but has yet to be nominated for. Is that something you can talk about?
JL: Oh absolutely. You know of course everything I learned was from my father. He was my inspiration, he was my teacher. I’m naturally just like him because of our genes but in addition he always guided me so nicely. No one is more deserving to be in the Hall of Fame than he. He deserves it more than I. And so it’s a little bit awkward for him not to have been inducted yet. You know I’m so happy to accept this honor but there’s a little feeling in me that boy he really should be there before I am. And so I certainly want to push for that in the most appropriate way, not an inappropriate way. But I would certainly want to push for him. He deserves it. And I think the Hall of Fame really wouldn’t be complete without him in there. And if I may I’d like to add something. I recognize that I’m fortunate that my career came along when boxing was televised a lot more globally and so I think naturally that’s why I’m getting more attention it seems than my father did when he was announcing. But he’s very deserving of the Hall.
NB: Of course you really fell into your profession attending numerous events with your father, but were you really inspired to be part of it from the beginning?
JL: Yeah that’s a great question. The answer to that is no. I certainly grew up watching boxing and going to the fights, watching my dad on TV and watching the fights on TV. But my life direction was elsewhere. I was studying psychology and studying education at UCLA, and it was only as a side-job going to the fights and announcing the fighters with my dad where I would announce some of the undercards and he would do the main event. So it was a slow and gradual thing that was just a part time gig that turned into something much more than I had ever dreamed of.
NB: Do you remember the particulars on the night you first broke into the business, like the names of the fighters, the where and when?
JL: You know I don’t exactly remember because as I said for a while I was interviewing the fighters, going along with him [Jimmy Lennon Sr.] and then I stepped into the ring. Some of the things I do remember is that I didn’t have a tuxedo back then. And I remember not being as comfortable. I didn’t get used to it the first time. I think I stood maybe closer to the ropes than I did in center of the ring. I remember some of my first few fights there was a fighter who’s nickname was “Bucket of Blood.” I thought that was kinda funny. And I remember around maybe my first, second, or third fight having a very challenging decision where it was a technical decision. The fight was stopped due to a cut and we had to go to the scorecards. You know for a young guy that was a challenge but I remember being able to stand up to the challenge about that. So those are some of my early memories.
NB: You announced the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight, was that the most memorable of fights you ever announced or what other bouts stand out in your mind ?
JL: That’s certainly one of them. That was my first I would say mega-fight. But my first world title fight interestingly enough was Julio Cesar Chavez’s first world title fight and that was against Mario Azabache Martinez at the Olympic Auditorium. So that stands out. My first mega- fight being Tyson-Buster Douglas in Tokyo and probably the biggest upset in heavyweight boxing history. That stands out. Certainly when Chavez fought Greg Haugen in Mexico City with 135,000 people in attendance, that sure stands out as something being huge. And I think maybe Tyson versus Holyfield in the two fights, you know the upset and then the “Bite Fight.” Yes those two fights stand out. But in total I was just looking and I believe I’ve done four of the five top Pay-Per-View fights of all time. So I’ve had a lot of nice memories.
NB: Was there a certain boxing match you weren’t so thrilled about announcing?
JL: Well I’ll have to mention again the “Bite Fight” with Tyson and Holyfield in the rematch. You know a lot of people were tuning into boxing because it was so huge and that maybe peripheral boxing fans had a misconception that boxing is about hate or hurting the other person which we know it’s not all about that. And I was very disappointed that the world was tuning in to something that was so crazy and it probably just verified their misconceptions of the sport.
NB: I know for a fact that you’re not just an impartial observer when it comes to who’s in the ring. In speaking with you on occasion you seem quite impressed by Andre Ward. Care to comment on Andre here or what other fighters might you currently fancy?
JL: Oh yeah, I just think the world of Andre Ward, not only as a boxer but also as a person. As a boxer I know he’s been off been of for a while because of his injury, but certainly I consider him in the top 3 pound-for-pound in the world. And I have no doubt that he will return from his injury at the same level. That’s just the kind of person he is, that’s the kind of character he has. He’s a smart fighter, he’s a hard working and dedicated fighter, and he’s a man of great character. So I think the world of him. Now that being said, keep in mind my job as an announcer is always to be completely fair and equal in presenting the fighters, and in the ring I try not to have favorites but certainly Andre Ward is the one who stands out as a real class-act.
NB: Were you yourself athletic at all in your youth, and or did you take to one or another sport?
JL: Yeah I think athleticism runs in our family. Although I’m not a big man I certainly played baseball, and tennis, and I ran, and I played basketball. I haven’t done any boxing. The most I can say about doing boxing is that I was the voice on a boxing video, but I’ve never fought. But definitely all sports are important to my family. And even growing up watching sports like the Dodgers and those teams, the Lakers, we paid special attention to the announcers. To people like Vin Scully and Chick Hearn. Those are people that we came to admire with my father announcing boxing. Dick Enberg is another one I grew up admiring behind the microphone.
NB: Logically it’s of the utmost importance to you to pronounce fighters names correctly first of all out of respect I’m sure, but did you ever improperly announce something that may have led to you being such a perfectionist?
JL: Now that’s an interesting way of putting it. I think that was not the cause of me being a perfectionist. I think the cause of it came from my father. Also out of honor and respect for each person. Basically a fighter wants to hear their name pronounced properly. Its gotta be horrible to have your name mispronounced so I think that’s the origin of it. I’m kind of a perfectionist as it is. I certainly always wanna do a good job and honor fighters. Have I ever made a mistake? Sure, absolutely. I try not to think of it, but I think everyone eventually makes a mistake. If it happens I try to correct it. Sometimes I’m given information on someone’s name so yes of the thousands of fights I’ve announced I have made mistakes. And I sure don’t like it.
NB: You’ve of course traveled to various countries abroad to announce fights, even to places where anti-Americanism exists as it relates to maybe our foreign policy. But then again you’ve won those crowds over based on uttering phrases in their native tongue to come across as one of their own. Can you relate your experience in Turkey where I read somewhere such an incident occurred where you were in a less than friendly environment?
JL: Yeah I sure remember that. It was kind of a surprise to me but I flew to Ankara, Turkey which is the capital of Turkey, it’s not Istanbul. And I guess they don’t have many Americans there. Maybe it’s not the best feeling but I remember arriving at something like 5am in the morning and I knew I had to go to sleep and then wake up and announce the fight. So I talked to a waiter and I learned how to say, “and to all of my Turkish friends good evening and welcome,” little short phrases in their language and I practiced it and woke up and was at the fights ready to go. Then the local announcer there introduced me first as being guest announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. from America and I was booed. I was shocked because I’ve never really been booed before. But then right away I welcomed them in English and in Turkish and I got a rousing round of applause. I felt like I won them over then. Honoring the local crowd in their native tongue sure paid off on that occasion.
NB: This year seems to be a really good year for match ups, perhaps more so than in recent memory. What’s your take on this?
JL: Yes I really agree. And you know a common question that I get is about MMA, and is MMA hurting boxing and so forth and I’ve always said that you know I don’t think so, but I think boxing can learn from MMA. And one of the things they can do is to have good match ups. And I agree with you completely, we are seeing some great match ups recently. And I love it. And I think it could very well be inspired by MMA, by rivalries amongst promoters, by rivalries amongst the television stations. Whatever it is I love it, and I think boxing fans are winning. You know it wasn’t so long ago that you could look at some of the big names in boxing who were major draws, and they were all old and within a year or so of retiring. From Oscar De La Hoya to Felix Trinidad to Mike Tyson and Holyfield. And now I love seeing all of these other great fighters coming up and putting their records at risk against tough opponents. I think that’s a great direction for boxing.
NB: You’ve announced perhaps better than 870 title fights over the past 31 years, actually forgoing a career as a high school social studies teacher from what I understand. Are you in this thing for the long haul, and or what other aspirations may you have as time moves on?
JL: You know what, I love what I’m doing. I was a teacher for 25 years or so, actually a school principal. But I had let that go to spend more time with my family, made possible as a result of announcing fights. And I just enjoy what I’m doing. It’s something that I would like to do for as long as I can. I feel like I have a dream job. I travel around the world and meet great people, I announce the fight, I sit down in the front row, watch some of the greatest events in sports history unfold before my eyes, and I’d just love to play a role in boxing for as long as I possibly can.
NB: Lastly you seem so well grounded and considerate as a human being and I know you worked at a Baptist school some years ago. How much does religion play a part in your life on a day-to-day basis if any?
JL: Oh completely. That’s who I am. I’m a Christian man and that is my life. It’s what I live for along with rasing my kids. That is a major part of my life.
NB: Before I let you go I have to say that personally for me you’re reminiscent of those nasal tone type announcers of the past which for a moment when your on the mic transcends me back to what seems a bygone era when boxing was huge. Hopefully it will move in that direction with you continuing to do what you do. Congratulations on your upcoming induction and thank you so much for your time.
JL: Oh it’s my honor. Thank you so much for that outstanding interview and I really appreciate what you said to me too.
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