Pierre Bernier: A Passion For Boxing
When we hear the term “ring announcer,” HBO’s Michael Buffer and his iconic catch phrase “Let’s get ready to rumble!” is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Then there’s Jimmy Lennon Jr., who followed in his famous father’s footsteps and became Showtime’s official voice inside the ring. Over the years, both have made their mark on the sport and earned their places in Canastota. But now there is a new rising talent: Montreal’s own Pierre Bernier. He’s the official voice for Eye of the Tiger Management and has hosted multiple boxing events both in Montreal and elsewhere.
Before the interview, an anecdote to illustrate the character of Mr. Bernier.
Like most of us, I have a hectic work schedule, which means I sometimes have no choice but to conduct interviews on the phone while at my day job. Usually this works well, but, at any given moment, my attention may be required elsewhere. Which is exactly what happened scant minutes after I started asking Pierre Bernier questions. Up to that point it had been quiet; then Pierre and I started talking and things got busy. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he had expressed impatience, if not exasperation, as I kept apologizing and telling him to hold on, but quite the opposite. He was understanding, did his best to accommodate me, and we later finished the interview on my lunch break. We’re talking class, folks. Both in and out of the ring. So without further ado, in the white corner (where the good guys are), with the immaculate coiffure, Pierre Bernier!
So how did you get started in the business of announcing fights?
My very first event was at Club Soda in downtown Montreal, roughly 15 years ago. Alexandre Choko was the promoter that night. But it’s Stéphan Larouche, who once trained Lucian Bute and is now working with Batyr Jukembayev, among other fighters, who is directly responsible. Back when he was working for Interbox, he saw something in me which nobody else did and encouraged me to be the ring announcer for an event in Drummondville. He told me that if all went well, I’d host the next card which was scheduled for the Bell Centre. And the rest, as they say, is history. I now present more than 20 events each year, in Canada, the United States and abroad.
Do you have a career outside of your work in the ring?
I always worked for the government; I started at the municipal level and now I currently work for the federal government. I’m 53 and I plan on retiring roughly six years from now in order to focus exclusively on ring announcing.
To be in the middle of a jam-packed arena presenting a much-anticipated fight must be an indescribable feeling. Do you still have the same excitement as when you first started doing this?
To be honest, you don’t even notice that stuff after a while; you become used to it. But to present a boxer, especially a boxer I never had the chance to introduce before, well, that’s a thrill. Even more so when it happens to be a fighter you both like and followed from day one. David Lemieux is a good example of that.
How did you get hooked on boxing?
My mother. She was a die-hard fight fan. And she wouldn’t just watch the biggest, most anticipated fights, such as “The Rumble in the Jungle” or “The Thrilla in Manila.” She would actually take me to places like the Paul Sauvé Arena to watch local heroes like Fernand Marcotte and Gaetan Hart, or other Canadian boxers like Eddie Melo, fighters only real boxing fans knew about. My father also played an important role. For my birthday in 1980, he took me to the Olympic Stadium to witness the first Sugar Ray Leonard vs Roberto Duran superfight. He couldn’t even afford a second ticket for himself, so he waited in the car while I got to watch arguably one of the best fights in boxing history. There I was, celebrating my “sweet 16,” and watching two of the greatest fighters of all-time, including my idol, Sugar Ray Leonard, and all this was live, right before my eyes, in my home city. It doesn’t get any better than that and it’s definitely one of my fondest memories.
With that kind of parental influence, it almost seems like you were destined to be part of the boxing world.
I like to think so, yes. I must have been around ten years old at the time and I remember my mom had brought in a fortune teller; she was big on all that esoteric stuff. So I get home from school and here’s this fortune teller and she decides to read my palms. Long story short: she saw a big room with bright lights and lots of howling people and I was there, standing in the center of the room. Of course, I took the whole thing with a grain of salt, but some 40 years later, everything she said turned out to be true.
Did you ever give boxing a try?
Yes, in my younger days, I used to box on a regular basis. I trained at Club de Boxe Olympique, which was at Parc Avenue and Bernard Street. Let’s just say that I was never destined for greatness as a fighter. In fact, when my mom brought in that fortune teller, I almost laughed in her face when she read my palms because I thought she was referring to success as a pro boxer. I was like: “Wow, you never saw me fight to say something like that.’’
Every athlete is inspired by an idol, someone who went before. Who is yours?
In the sporting sense, Sugar Ray Leonard has always been my favourite boxer. In regards to my own profession, it may not be a surprise to learn that Michael Buffer is my inspiration. I first saw him do his thing some thirty years ago and I always find he brings a sense of class and sophistication to every boxing event. I thought this was both an interesting and important contrast, given the brutal nature of the sport. So I studied him, learned his “blueprint,” so to speak, and decided to follow a similar path. And as Buffer himself once told me, visibility is the key. Exposure is the ransom of success and you have got to put yourself out there. Boxing is a spectacle and the ring announcer must remember that he is an inherent part of it. I understood that right away and that’s what I keep in mind whenever I walk to ring centre.
What are the subtleties of that “blueprint” that fans may not notice? What’s it take to be a ring announcer?
For starters, you must have good diction and tempo, plus a certain charisma and presence. Pronunciation and proper intonation, also known as prosody, are of vital importance. You obviously must be comfortable behind the microphone and in front of the cameras; stage fright won’t get you very far in this business. If you hit a snag or screw up, you must be able to recover and carry on, or even improvise. And, above all, you must have a passion for boxing. It can’t be just another job to help you pay the bills. Your love for the sport must radiate from your very presence, not just from your voice, so the fans are inspired by it.
How do you get ready for a big fight?
Every announcer has his own routines and preparations of course. In my case, I usually rehearse my lines a few hours before and make sure I remember the sponsors, as well as the order by which to mention them because there is always a specific order I must respect. I do the same in regards to all the people who need to be thanked or introduced. When I rehearse, I usually do so in a hushed voice and focus on the right tempo and emphasis. Then I double check the fighters’ names and records. I especially focus on pronunciation, as I believe that pronouncing a fighter’s name correctly, be it a local boy with a common name or a foreigner with an exotic one, is vital. That’s why I always meet with the fighters beforehand to make sure I’m pronouncing their names correctly.
You’ve been announcing fights for a number of years now and your reputation is rising. How have you managed to distinguish yourself from your peers and predecessors?
Well, for starters, I believe I’m the only Canadian ring announcer or, at the very least, the only ring announcer from Quebec, to have worked for HBO Boxing, Premier Boxing Champions, Main Channel 5, Showtime, and ESPN. I also traveled to England to host the Tyson Fury vs Dereck Chisora heavyweight fight at Wembley Arena a few years back. I can also say I’m one of the few ring announcers who never mentions the number of defeats when he presents a boxer to the audience. And the reason for that is simple: I do not believe that mentioning the losses at that moment is relevant, or does justice, to a fighter’s talent or to the spectacle he is about to give us. Since I started doing that, other ring announcers have followed in my footsteps, so I’m glad I could inspire some of my peers that way.
You mentioned earlier that Stéphan Larouche was the spark which led you to your present occupation, but who else has helped you along the way?
Camille Estephan, President of Eye of the Tiger Management, deserves a great deal of credit. When Camille asked me if I wanted to be the official voice of Eye of the Tiger Management, I knew I was entering the “big leagues.’’ I love what I do and I consider myself blessed, both to have the life I have right now and to work for a stand-up guy like Camille Estephan. Eye Of The Tiger is first and foremost a family and when you love what you do and surround yourself with good people, you don’t see work as work anymore.
What, so far, is your most memorable moment from all the events you’ve worked?
I’d have to say that the highlight of my career, or one of them at least, happened two years ago when both Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins complimented me on my work on the same night. They each praised me right before I was about to re-enter the ring to introduce the main event, which was the title fight between Hassan N’Dam and David Lemieux in front of a big crowd at the Bell Centre. Imagine, I’m on my own turf, presenting a televised world championship fight, and two of the biggest names in professional boxing, who also happen to be idols of mine, give me the very same compliment. That made a big impression, to say the least. I even told my wife, seconds before I took the microphone, that I was about to have a heart attack; at least, that’s what I thought at the time! Suffice to say, it’s a memory I still cherish. — Simon Traversy