Dis-com-bob-u-lating! Ring Announcer Henry Jones Struggles to the Top
Interview by Sean Newman (May 23, 2005)
“D.C., are YOU ready to DO THIS? Theeennn, let’s step to this!”
These are the words that Henry ‘Dis-com-bob-u-lating’ Jones would love to hear himself trumpeting to an excited crowd at the MCI Center on June 11, when former heavyweight champion of the world “Iron” Mike Tyson travels to our nation’s capital to take on unheralded Kevin McBride. It would be a dream come true for Jones, and would finally, after 17 years of toil on the USA Network, KO Nation, ESPN and ESPN2 cards, signal that this talented announcer has made it to the big time. Such an arrival on the grand stage of boxing is long overdue, but as boxing fans everywhere know, as in life, few things seem to ever come easily or fairly. Especially if you are Henry Jones…the most prominent African-American ring announcer in the entire history of the ‘not always so’ Sweet Science. Call him the Jack Johnson of ring announcers.
Henry Jones was born on February 28, 1956 (a perfect 2 x 28 = 56 for you stat freaks), and at 2 years old came down with a severe bout of double pneumonia, a condition that nearly took his life and stunted his growth. This would be an omen of uphill battles to come, but in a way it might have prepared Jones to deal with those life’s struggles when they arose. Jones, exhibiting an amazing memory, recounts what it was like to stare into the face of death at such an early age.
“I remember being in the hospital and I was traumatized,” says Jones. “I had this out of body experience that I was high above the room, looking down at all these people holding hands in a circle with this little kid in the middle underneath some plastic. When I got to be 12 years old I asked my mom about it, and she couldn’t believe I remembered it because she never told me. She told me that the doctors had given up on me and I wasn’t expected to live through the night. She always believed in the strength of prayer so she went to the corner church, told the people to get up off their knees and come use that power at the hospital for me.”
Apparently, the prayers worked, but it wouldn’t be the last time that Jones would need help from above.
Growing up in Rochester, New York, the youngest of five other siblings, Jones lost his father at age three, which caused severe financial problems for the family, culminating in the children being sent to different foster homes for several months. Through her perseverance, his mother was able to get all of her children back again but things were never the same. Given the bitter truth of the situation, Jones discovered a love for comic books, as they provided an outlet from those harsh realities. It broke his heart when, at the age of 12, his mother had him box them up and put them on the curb, because the family had to move and there was no room. Jones sat on the porch crying as a young white boy and his father loaded them up and took them away. He said he felt as if a part of him was being taken away at the same time.
“I was a millionaire at age 12 and didn’t know it,” Jones laughs. “I had amassed over a thousand comic books by then. I started reading them at age 8, spending every nickel I had because that’s all they cost at the time. Now they’re making movies about each one of ‘em.”
“Being as frail as I was, I went with the ones who had the super powers. I was Spider-Man, I was Daredevil, I was Thor, I was Submariner…you don’t know about him do you?”
Jones laughs as he asks the last question, and speaks as enthusiastically on the subject of old comics as you might expect he did at age 12. That is part of Jones’ charisma, his appeal. In spite of all his trials and tribulations, he remains positive. But while Jones acknowledges that he has seen the movie ‘Unbreakable’, starring Samuel L. Jackson as a young, frail, black kid with an affinity for comics, he laughingly tells us that there is no chance he’ll be blowing up trains anytime soon.
The comics also served another purpose.
“Those comic books were my first introduction to big time fights, it was good against evil.”
In 1974, an 18 year old Jones came upon a match involving Muhammad Ali and being announced by, who else, Howard Cosell. Jones was enraptured by the action, but had always had a fascination with words and Cosell dropped one that has literally stuck with Jones ever since. Going into a dead-on impression of Cosell, Jones says at the conclusion of the fight, Cosell remarked “Never in my unprecedented experience have I ever seen a fighter so utterly dis-com-bob-u-lated.”
Discombobulated? What in the world did that word mean? Jones, a voracious reader, had to know right away. He would soon find out, and after becoming a ring announcer, adopted it as his nickname and calling card.
“I ran to the dictionary saying ‘wow, that was a word!’ Jones remembers. “It wasn’t there, but it was in a thesaurus that my sister had bought me because she knew I loved words. I said, ‘ooh, man, that’s a powerful word!’ ‘To render senseless, to completely knock out, to upset the composure of.’ I said, ‘yeeeah, that’s exactly what he did to that guy.’ So when I became a ring announcer in 1988, I knew I had to come up with something that would get the media and sportswriters attention, because Henry just wasn’t gonna get it. So I started using that, not just because of the attention, but actually because I wanted to be the one doing the knocking out in life of my adversities and adversaries- there is a big difference.”
Fifteen years ago, Jones had another brush with a life threatening ailment, this time though, it was cancer. Jones also lost a brother to a homicide that year, and reflected on these events in saying “Man, my brother just got murdered, and here I am dying.” Jones describes this period as a turning point in his life. Thankfully, after undergoing chemotherapy, and relying on his own inner faith, Jones now says he has been in full remission since. And another break was right around the corner.
Jones describes Michael Buffer as a mentor, and first met him at an Oscar De La Hoya fight in Rochester. Jones had suggested to the local promoter that he be used as the ring announcer for the evening, that a hometown debut would sell more tickets, but the network televising the fight declined this offer in favor of having Buffer do the evening’s work. Jones obtained a ringside pass and went anyway, and even dressed for the occasion in the unlikely event that Buffer’s plane was delayed, or even more unlikely that Buffer “came down with laryngitis.” After exchanging pleasantries, Buffer granted Jones’ request to sit with him and perhaps learn a thing or two. With two fights left to go on the card, Buffer had a surprise for Henry ‘Dis-com-bob-u-lating’ Jones.
“He said, ‘it’s a shame you’re all dressed up with no place to go. Why don’t you go?’” Jones recalls. “He gave me the microphone, sat there and critiqued me when I came back. He recognized that I was very serious about this, and told me that I definitely have the pipes. Then he said, ‘Usually I don’t do this, but I’ve got a good feeling about you, I can see your sincerity about this, so I’ll help you as much as I can.’ And the man kept his word.”
“I thought he was smooth and charismatic,” Buffer informs us as to why he felt compelled to make that decision.
Soon, with the help of Buffer, Jones could be found announcing in such places as Madison Square Garden, Trump Taj Mahal, and Radio City Music Hall. He noted that whenever Buffer could not fulfill a commitment, he would have Jones to call a promoter to try and obtain the gig. Jones also says that while Buffer was doing what he could to help, there were others who were not, in spite of promises to the contrary.
“Michael asked me a very poignant question that resonates with me to this day,” says Jones. “And this was back in D.C. with our first HBO card and Riddick Bowe (1993, vs. Jesse Ferguson). He asked me, ‘why haven’t your brothers Rock Newman and Don King ever tried to help you?’ And I had no good answer. Rock had promised me he would but he never delivered. I found out that Don King has a loyalty to Jimmy Lennon, Jr. because Lennon’s father helped Don King tremendously. I understand that; I don’t like it, but I can respect that. Rock Newman’s a different story. Bowe came out of the Olympics touted as a quitter after he fought Lennox Lewis for the Gold medal but we got behind him in DC and supported him anyway. Rock promised me that I would definitely announce Bowe’s fights. All he had to do was snap his fingers and make it happen, but he got Alzheimer’s on me I guess and I couldn’t respect him after that. We haven’t spoken since. He’s in partnership with the local DC promoter, Marty Wynn of Raging Promotions, to put on the Tyson card, so maybe he can give his endorsement now to make things right . I was always taught a good name is rather to be had than gold. A man’s word is his bond.”
Still, it wasn’t just a matter of broken promises or other loyalties that was holding Jones back. There could have been something more subtle at play. That old foe of discrimination.
Jones began noticing some problems back in the early ‘90’s after a few years of working with the USA Tuesday Night Fights telecasts. You might recall that ring announcer Ed Derian (or as Al Albert called him, Ed Derian…Derian) was the man in the center of the ring for many of those shows, at least for the televised portion of the card. Jones always announced the non-televised preliminary bouts but was made mute when the cameras started rolling. While Jones, who was often an understudy in school plays, didn’t mind at first, after several years of never getting the call he began to think there might be something terribly wrong with this picture. Feeling slighted in his own home base of operations, he was forced to fight this battle.
After bringing the matter to the attention of the DC boxing commission, and then the local promoters, Jones had them to question USA’s practices. The network exec in charge informed that if they had to be ‘dictated to’, they would never come back to Washington, D.C. again. And according to Jones, they never did.
All this over the selection of the ring announcer?
“All this over me,” Jones responds. “It sounds incredible but it’s true. What a backhanded compliment! Maybe if it was someone who looked like Derian, it wouldn’t have been a problem. The evidence is when that same network person said ‘Jones doesn’t show up well on TV,’ and it’s like the promoter told him… ‘well the fighters look like Jones, and they show up well on TV.’”
The network person Jones speaks of is none other than Brad Jacobs, who subsequently went to work for ESPN, and later became the advisor to Roy Jones, Jr. Jones says that he and Roy hit things off well after Roy fought Bernard Hopkins on the Bowe undercard in 1993, and that when he came back to DC to play in a celebrity basketball game Henry announced, Roy assured him that in the future he would have the opportunity to announce some of his fights. So Roy Jones gave Henry Jones some contact information for Square Ring, Inc., and at the top of the list was the name Jacobs. A year later, when Henry questioned Roy on whether he had gotten anything that he had sent, Roy responded in the negative, and Henry opined that perhaps Jacobs was behind it. Roy said he would look into the matter.
“I don’t know if he ever did, but I’ve never announced a Roy Jones fight, and it doesn’t seem like I ever will now,” Jones says. “Maybe Brad has a loyalty to ring announcer Mark Beiro, because they go back a ways and I can understand that. But it shouldn’t be at my expense, especially when the fighter he works for wanted me to announce his cards.”
Henry also shared the irony of how Bernard Hopkins came to DC for the Undisputed Middleweight Press Conference a few years ago, got on the microphone and lobbied for Henry to be the ring announcer for the Tournament, or at least the replacement for the incompetent HBO KO NATION ring announcer Ed Lover. A month later they fired Ed and hired Henry. Bernard is even more influential now as he has partnered with Oscar De la Hoya to run Golden Boy Promotions on the East Coast. He has Henry in mind to be the ring announcer.
Mark ‘Too Sharp’ Johnson, who is working on a comeback and hopes to have a rematch with Fernando Montiel (Johnson is the only man to hold a victory over Montiel) or secure a fight with Kevin Kelley at 126 pounds, helped Jones to secure his first date as an ESPN ring announcer, and he agrees that Jones deserves a break.
“Henry was there for my first couple of fights in D.C.,” Johnson explains. “I liked the way he carried himself, and I’ve always been the type of person where, if I get a break, and I know you’re working hard, I’ll do my best to help you out and make sure you get a break. I went to bat for him, when nobody wanted to use him. A lot of people, when they get in a position where they can help people, they tend to turn their backs on them. But Henry got the job with ESPN on my fight with Arthur Johnson. He came with this ‘Blink and You’re Gone’, Mark ‘Too Sharp’ Johnson, and that has stuck with me. From there, we became great friends.
“Just like we have been programmed to pay more attention to the heavyweights and give more money to them, we have also been programmed to expect to see Buffer doing the HBO fights, and Lennon, Jr. doing the Showtime fights,” Johnson continues. “And I know both of those guys and like them very much, but like with everything else, there has to be a change at some point.”
Johnson speaks from experience, as he has had his own troubles breaking through as a color commentator.
“I find it ironic, because I’ve been trying to get on with ESPN for two years to do commentating. I’ve been doing the commentary for the local D.C. fights. I say ironic because in football, baseball, basketball, who do you see doing the color commentary? Guys who used to play the sport. Unfortunately, with boxing, it’s not what you know, but who you know. I think this is the only sport you see that in. Commentary is something I love to do. I have knowledge of the sport, I speak well, and I feel I should be able to get that opportunity, just like Henry.”
Jones’ former mentor, Michael Buffer, thinks Jones will have his day.
“I have no problem sharing the spotlight with anybody, but I'd like to make it perfectly clear that I am the only ring announcer in boxing history to solely do this for a living while not having to hold any other job as it is a full time endeavor for me,” says Buffer. Buffer goes on:
”That being said, with Henry's ability and his style that keeps him in touch with the audience, it is just a matter time through getting more exposure in the ring, announcing, that more fight fans around the world will be aware of the name, ‘Discombobulating’ Jones. Henry knows I wish him all the best for future success.”
A few years ago, Jones lost his mother, Maxine Milton, who Jones credits with saving his life and providing him with the strength to make it through everything he has endured. She hadn’t forgotten about the comic books, even when fighting for her life.
“Before she died, she asked me to forgive her for giving away all those comic books,” Jones recalls, emotion heavy in his voice. “And that broke my heart.”
Jones finds comfort in her memory these days, and knows that she is in a better place. The angels that she told him she saw standing behind her son as her last moments slipped away, provide ample evidence of that. She went into a blissful sleep that same night and never woke up.
Announcing boxing matches is not all Jones does. He has a master’s degree in social work and speaks to young teens in the D.C. area. He uses his own triumphs and failures in a unique way to motivate the kids to their own successes.
“I show them a clip of the very first thing I tried to do, to try to become a comedian 23 years ago, and put the emphasis on TRY. I got booed offstage and couldn’t even finish the first joke,” explains Jones. “It was like Showtime at the Apollo, they whisked me offstage with the broom and everything. So the kids laugh, and I want them to do that, because that means they’re into it. Then I show them the other side of the spectrum, 23 years later (as a successful ring announcer). And it’s like, ‘how do you like me now?’ And it can be that way for them also. You have to have vision, and that’s what I try to teach the youth today. If you have talent, you can’t be afraid to fail because then you’ll never succeed.”
In spite of all the mountains he has been forced to climb, Jones still feels that he has not climbed the highest one that his sights are trained on. Jones notes that people have become conditioned, much in the way of Pavlov’s dog, to expect to hear either Buffer or Jimmy Lennon, Jr. announcing a big fight. Jones is certainly qualified to do the same, and stresses the need for a fresh new face. He also has a more flavorful delivery which keeps audiences entertained. Jones is also an author, having written his own inspirational autobiography, It’s More Than A Notion! The foreword for the book was written by none other than Michael Buffer. Given his diverse background of talents, skills, and community connections, promoters across the country hire Jones because he appeals to a wide range of demographic populations. Unlike most ring announcers, his presence generates more publicity and ticket sales. All he needs is a chance, and he is hoping to get it when Mike Tyson comes to town. However, he realizes that the chance is not great.
“Yeah, I got two shots, slim and none,” said Jones. “But we’re going to get political with it, which is the power that people seem to respond to best. Recently I received the two most prestigious proclamation awards a person can get, one from the Mayor of D.C. and one from the Prince Georges County, Maryland Executive, both for being the pioneer of black ring announcers. They’re going to back me to request Showtime to allow me to announce the card, as will Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele of Maryland, who is Mike Tyson’s brother-in-law. So all these signatures are going to be submitted to Showtime. Hopefully Showtime Boxing President Jay Larkin will see the great benefits and favorable publicity to be had by letting me announce at least one of the televised events. If nothing else, they may consider me for future opportunities. Who knows?”
What would the opportunity to announce a fight of this magnitude mean to Henry ‘Dis-com-bob-u-lating’ Jones?
“It would be validation and vindication. It would be intrinsically rewarding for me, but not only that, it would be very motivational to the youth here in the area that I speak to about pursuing their dreams. So this is bigger than me, really, and I think God put me in a position to try to use this platform to motivate other people. It just feels so good inside when I go speak to youth groups and they’re impressed. I take a clip with me from HBO or ESPN and they think I’m a celebrity, and that way, I’ve got their attention from the start. With the youth today, you have to reach them in the first few seconds because their attention span is so short, in nanoseconds, probably from playing the videogames. Fortunately, I have that appeal, and can use my Social Work skills to relate to them, and then get and then I can get inside their minds and spirits and tell them how they can become successful as well- no matter what the obstacles may be. My mother always said you can’t have a great testimony without going through some great Tests! I’ve certainly had my share but wouldn’t have it any other way as it’s made me the determined, humble and God-fearing only man I am today.”
All Henry ‘Dis-com-bob-u-lating’ Jones is asking for is a chance to prove that he can perform his job at the highest level, and according to him, the decision to allow him that opportunity belongs to Jay Larkin and Showtime Championship Boxing. Larkin tells us that the decision has been made, insofar as the main event is concerned. Coming as no surprise, Jimmy Lennon, Jr. will take those honors. But isn’t it time that someone else gets a shot? So that just leaves one question.
Jay Larkin and Showtime… are YOU ready to DO THIS?
Writer’s Note: If you would like to see Henry ‘Dis-com-bob-u-lating’ Jones take the microphone for the Mike Tyson-Kevin McBride card on June 11th, or for another card in the future, make your voice heard by e-mailing Jay Larkin at Jay.Larkin@showtime.net.
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