By Michael E. Miller
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Back when he was a boxing promoter in the early Eighties, Hank Kaplan used to drive to trainer Caron Gonzalez's cramped garage gym in Allapattah to note the progress of several fighters Gonzalez was bringing along. Kaplan, a tall, lanky middle-aged man, would lope in and stand on the concrete just out of range of the speed bags or the heavy punching bags worn white in the middle and watch the kids go through their paces. Other men in the boxing business would usually be there; everyone would wipe sweat from their faces as their conversation and laughter rang off the walls to the rhythm of loud punches and exhalations and the squeaks and rumbles of footwork on canvas.
Gonzalez, widely respected as one of the best trainers to come out of Cuba in the Sixties, counted among his star pupils Juan Arroyo, a lean, intense Puerto Rican who grew up in the nearby neighborhood of Wynwood. Kaplan and his business partner Ramiro Ortiz liked Arroyo -- everyone who met him did -- and anyone could see that the hard-punching teenager had talent. So when he turned eighteen Kaplan and Ortiz started booking fights for him in their shows at the War Memorial Auditorium in Fort Lauderdale. To have both Carón Gonzalez and Hank Kaplan on his side was a fortunate and unique thing, largely because Kaplan was really much more than a promoter: He was and is one of the world's foremost authorities on boxing, a friend and mentor to generations of fighters, and a fierce preservationist of the traditions and lore of the sport.
For a few years Arroyo was one of the most exciting and successful fighters in South Florida. Chants of "AViva Arroyo!" erupted through the crowd during his fights, and women kissed him on his way to the ring.
"His potential was pretty darn high in our minds," Kaplan recalls. "He was a lovable kid. We were in love with him, and he was our biggest draw. But it was always my opinion that as we got to know him, he did not have the emotional makeup of those who go a long way. He didn't have the self-control. He didn't have the discipline. Everybody loved him, but he didn't love himself."
Kaplan, whose friends then and now included many of the greatest and most troubled persons in boxing, began to see in Arroyo the signs of drug abuse that had ruined or stunted the careers of other fighters -- better fighters, like Willie Pastrano, Aaron Pryor, Pinklon Thomas, Jeff Merritt, Jeff Sims. Over and over Arroyo was arrested for mugging people for drug money. Through the rest of the Eighties and into the Nineties, Arroyo would do time, make a celebrated comeback upon his release, do more time, and stage yet another comeback. Early in the cycle, Kaplan went to a judge and begged him to order Arroyo to attend literacy classes in prison. The judge granted Kaplan's request but Arroyo didn't take to reading and writing.
Kaplan and Ortiz had left the promoting business before Arroyo's comeback in 1993. At that point he had won four fights in a row, and both his new handlers and fans were elated and hopeful that he was finally going to stay clean. The City of Miami declared April 20 Juan Arroyo Day and held a ceremony in Roberto Clemente Park in Wynwood. There, before the tearful eyes of his mother and 100 local elementary and middle school students, Arroyo sparred in a ring set up in the middle of a grassy field. He was muscular after months of working out in prison, his dark hair was in a handsome fade, and he was laughing with delight. He told the students to stay away from drugs and how great it was to be back to tell them.
Hank Kaplan, a man more used to sitting ringside at Madison Square Garden or the Blue Horizon or Caesars Palace, squinting into television lights to watch Sonny Liston's left jab or Thomas Hearns's straight right hand or Felix Trinidad's left hook, had driven from Kendall to Wynwood for Juan Arroyo Day. He sat on a makeshift stage as one of the special guests. He remembers that he watched dispassionately. He knew that Arroyo really didn't have much left any more, and he knew he was looking at one of the many promising fighters he had seen who somehow had fallen by the wayside or burned out too early.
After the ceremonies Arroyo, with fans and friends trailing him like a comet's tail, approached Kaplan. "Hank, I love you!" he exclaimed, throwing an arm around Kaplan's neck.
About a month later Arroyo was back in jail. He has since "come back" in the usual boxing sense, and, also as usual, to his old jailhouse environs. He's incarcerated at the Wakulla Correctional Institute near Tallahassee.
"For these kids to have started on these drugs with all the ability they had as athletes ..." Kaplan trails off, pushes his baseball cap back, and rubs his forehead. Squarish wire-rim glasses sit on a straight nose, and a pipe curls down the side of his mouth. His deadpan manner often hides his all-consuming fascination with boxing.