Buffer / IT'S TIME
Punched in the Face
You don’t know who you really are until you’ve been punched in the face.
For me, that magic moment happened when I was about thirteen years old. My younger brother Brian and I were living with my folks in Glenside, Pennsylvania, about twenty minutes outside downtown Philly. It was the middle of winter, one of those miserably cold days when any snowball you scraped together from the dirty mound of whiteness on the sidewalk was sure to have a couple of hard chunks of ice in it. I packed one of these monsters together and lobbed it at this tough, stern-faced Italian-American kid named Glenn. He and his friends used to terrorize students, especially Jewish kids, at school. They mistakenly thought I was Jewish, so they singled me out for their brand of punishment.
I was hanging out with his crew and mine, and the moment the iceball whacked his face you could hear everyone get real quiet.
Glenn didn’t say a word.
He stomped over to me. Before I knew what was happening, he hit me with a few well-placed right and left hooks. Boom, boom, boom, all knuckles to the face.
Now, you have to realize something: I was no angel.
Wherever we lived, the kids were always pretty territorial. This is our turf. You’re either in or out. Well, I thought, if they didn’t want me in, I would just carve out my own turf. I had already formed my own gang when I was about six or seven years old. I actually got in trouble at school for it, and my parents had to come in and have a talk with the principal.
Being a kid then was different. My father raised us to be very independent. When we were seven and nine years old, my brother Brian and I were taking the bus or train into Philly in the morning, going to museums or a movie, and coming home around five o’clock or later. You won’t dare let your kids do that today. Times were different, and I think kids and parents were different, too.
I was Joe Buffer’s kid. I’d been conceived in Las Vegas and born in Oklahoma. I’d spent my childhood bouncing back and forth between Dallas and Philly as my father changed corporate VP jobs for a variety of Fortune 500 companies. He traveled extensively during those early years, and many times it was just my mom, Brian, and me alone for a week or two at a time while he was gone.
Nominally my father was a salesman, but he was so much more. He had always tried to instill some street smarts in the two of us. He taught my older brother, Brian, and me basic self-defense moves at an early age. Good thing, too, because the first time I was jumped was at age six. A kid grabbed me from behind, and I remembered something Dad had just told me. I raised my foot and stomped on the kid’s instep. Crunch. The kid ran away. He never messed with me again. I was attending a tough school in Philadelphia at the time. I needed to know how to handle myself, because even though we were young, now and then we still had to fight to hang on to our lunch money.
Barring the occasional fretting principal, using your fists back then had none of the stigma it might have among parents and teachers today. The manly art of pugilism was an accepted part of American culture. When we were living in Dallas, we had a gym teacher who encouraged us boys to settle our differences by pulling on some boxing gloves and taking swings at each other. Every Saturday night our mom would cook us a great meal—New York strip steaks and baked potatoes, with lemon meringue pie for dessert—and we’d sit in front of the TV and watch the fights. I’d even fallen in love with a scene in an old movie where the great movie star James Cagney, the original little tough guy, tossed a much bigger man using a number of judo moves. I loved it.
But the day I got pummeled in the face, something went wrong. I got caught off guard and paid the price. More than anything, I’ll never forget thinking how the punches felt. I think the biggest fear most kids—and most adults—have is, if someone punches me in the face, it’ll hurt badly and I’ll be horribly wounded or disfigured.
Well, no, you won’t.
Chances are, the person throwing the punch doesn’t know what he’s doing and doesn’t know how to connect very well. Chances are, those punches will sting or bloody your nose, but not do much harm.
This kid had worked me over. All I could do was lie there and mull over the experience in a strangely analytical way. Huh—that didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would, I thought. The second thing I thought was, It’s never happening again. I’m going to learn how to defend myself for real. I had been taking judo class, but now I wanted to be very diligent.
All the way home, I asked myself what I could have done to stop him. My dad had always told us, “If a bully threatens you, you hit him first. Don’t wait for him to touch you. Don’t let him get the first punch. Just punch him in the nose. Make him see his own blood, and I promise you he’ll never come after you again.”
That was good advice, and if I ever had a kid myself someday, I’d teach him or her the same thing. The surest way to stop most people is to make them bleed. Because they are not expecting that. Anyone who picks a fight is in love with his own sense of power, and he’s probably never had anyone stand up to him. That’s how most bullies get away with the crap they pull. No one has ever pounded them good.
That day on the playground, I had messed up. I hadn’t seen the punches coming. I hadn’t reacted very well, and I got beat. After that, I recommitted myself to judo.
My old man was delighted to see that I was getting serious about self-defense—and no wonder. Joseph Buffer had boxed in his youth, served fifteen years in the Marines during World War II and served again during the Korean War. He’d served as a drill sergeant and drill team leader at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. He’d trained young soldiers in hand-to-hand and knife combat. This was intense stuff, where you could look right into the eyes of the man who wanted you dead, feel his breath in your face, and smell his sweat. He’d also served as the master sergeant in charge of the guards assigned to the brig at Camp Pendleton.
He was a tough SOB, and he wanted his sons to share that toughness.
He was a tall, handsome, dark-haired, hazel-eyed man who was John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and Steve McQueen all rolled up into one. When he walked into a room, women wanted him and men envied him.
Side by side, my parents made an odd couple. My mom, Connie, is a sweet, beautiful Italian-American lady who stands four foot eleven. My dad, on the other hand, was a six-foot-tall monster who was absolutely brilliant and half nuts to boot.
Imagine a guy who, on his very first date with our mother, got hassled by a panhandler and tossed the guy through a plate-glass window.
Imagine a father blindfolding you when you’re ten years old, and having you break down and reassemble one of his German Lugers while he times you with his watch.
Imagine him teaching you to shoot rifles and pistols at six years old.
Imagine him teaching you to play poker and blackjack when you are eight.
Imagine him teaching you to mix stiff drinks when you’re ten.
Imagine him teaching you at the earliest age possible that you should never, under any circumstances, bet on a horse. If you were going to gamble, you were going to do it with your own skills, your own brains, and your own smarts. Horse betting was for idiots. “The only way you follow a horse is with a shovel,” my father told us, and we never forgot it.
And he always said, “Walk into a room like you own it!”
There was something remarkably convincing about his sayings. We gleaned the message that we could pretty much accomplish anything, if only we had the balls to follow through with it and we were scrupulously honest.
What was the point of cheating at cards? If you learned to be a good cardplayer, you’d rarely lose. And if you’re going to fight, then know how to fight. On the street, he saw the point of fighting dirty to survive because, in that situation, you must do whatever it takes to win that fight. He taught Brian and me many tricks we needed to know, because he knew them all.
I carry these lessons in my heart today.
Fighting was actually part of our DNA. Our grandfather, Johnny Buff, my father’s father, was a world-champion boxer in 1921. His real name was John Lesky, and he fought in New Jersey and New York, and later other parts of the country in the bantamweight and flyweight divisions through most of those early Prohibition years. Buff was his nickname, and for some reason I’ll never know, he passed that name, albeit modified, to my father.
Growing up in a tough neighborhood in New York City, my dad got by on his smarts and his fists, and channeled what he learned into the Marine Corps. But like a lot of guys who leave the military, he struggled to find himself when he hung up his uniform. Between the wars he was a debt collector. Later he became a businessman, an entrepreneur, and a VP of sales of various companies. He did not graduate from high school or college to achieve any of this. He was self-taught. He had a knack for salesmanship, but it didn’t make him terribly happy. You could say that behind my father’s tough-guy persona dwelt the soul of an artist. In those days, when you didn’t have a billion cable channels on TV, families hung out after dinner and did activities. Dad taught me how to draw. And I remember him reading to us.
“You ready?” he’d say, and he’d launch into reading one of the world’s most famous poems.
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” our father intoned. “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too . . .”
The words are from a poem called “If,” by Rudyard Kipling, one of my father’s favorite writers. Kipling was the same Brit who wrote The Jungle Book, “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Gunga Din,” and Captains Courageous, some of the greatest adventure stories ever written.
Bufferism No. 1
“Big Cheers and No Fears Forever.”
You can’t live in fear. Live in such a way that you’re always celebrating life. Wake up every day happy, knowing you’re the best that you can be. If you can banish fear, you’ll rest easy, knowing that you can handle anything you come up against. When an athlete succeeds, everybody cheers. So why not do that for yourself? You kiss a pretty girl? Cheers. You landed a commission at work? Cheer for yourself.
But Kipling’s poem was something else entirely. It was a code of honor, the words of a father offering wisdom to his sons. We would hear that poem all through our childhood, until the words seeped into our brains and we could practically recite it from heart. I especially liked how the poem ended. The father tells his son, if you can do all these things, then: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
To this day I carry a copy of that poem in my wallet. If you are the parent of young sons, I urge you to share that poem with them.
But as much as he loved the expression of the written word, my father clammed up about his childhood and his mysterious parents. For example, Brian and I never met our grandfather, Johnny Buff, or our grandmother. In our entire lives we never saw a single photo of our father and grandfather together. My mom’s side of the family was no mystery. She was 100 percent second-generation Italian; her dad was from the Abruzzi, in central Italy. But we were never sure about our ethnic heritage on our father’s side. What nationality was Johnny Lesky—Polish, German, Italian?
Our father waved off discussing such matters, promising to come clean someday. That day never came. But here’s the thing: whatever mysteries my father locked away inside him, one of those family secrets would one day bubble up to the surface and lead me on a path to the UFC.
But before all that, I had a debt to settle with Glenn the bully. When I was fourteen years old and our shop class teacher stepped out of the classroom for a bit, I gave him a solid dose of payback punches.
Excerpted from It's Time! by Bruce Buffer. Copyright © 2013 by Bruce Buffer. Excerpted by permission of Crown Archetype, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.