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Kaplan is usually described as a boxing historian. He has accumulated more information about the sport than probably anyone else alive today and is a perennial resource for sportswriters. He is also an advocate for boxing and a man with a mission. "My mission is to keep the names of the forgotten fighters alive," he says. Kaplan loves the sport as a complex strategic science, but also because of its flawed human practitioners: the fighters who have had to bare not just their bodies but their mental and emotional stuff for every fight, who outside the ring have battled poverty, drugs, exploitation, bad breaks, and their own demons.
He has been part of the lives of fighters of every sort and style over the course of four decades. He has mentored, advised, and befriended self-destructive contenders and superstars alike. And he has preserved the careers of the great and near-great in written word, visual images, and memory.
More than merely preserving the memories of important fighters, Kaplan has taken it upon himself to watch over those who have in many ways been abandoned by their sport. He accompanies ailing ex-world champions Kid Gavilan and Beau Jack, both residents of Miami-Dade County, to events all over the United States. Each year Kaplan takes Gavilan and Jack along with him to ceremonies at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York (Gavilan was inducted in 1990, Jack in 1993). "I think he knows deep in his heart how important all these older guys were and are to the sport," says New York publicist Jules Feiler, whose parents grew up with Kaplan in Manhattan but who first met him at last summer's hall of fame induction weekend. "I think he realizes they were disposed of, in a sense, and he thinks it's his responsibility to take care of them.
"I was with Hank one day in Canastota; I helped him get Kid dressed. I can't tell you how absolutely touching it was to be in this room with just Hank and Kid. Kid really couldn't do much for himself, and Hank was there helping him put his feet through his pants legs, and finally I just walked over and helped Kid put on his shirt. I don't know of anybody like Hank."
Every sport has at least a few Hank Kaplans, but the breadth of his knowledge and his personal involvement in boxing set him apart, say sportswriters who have consulted him over years, sometimes decades. "I think Hank is one of a kind," says Pat Putnam, former Miami Herald sportswriter and recently retired after almost 30 years as boxing writer for Sports Illustrated. "I just don't see how anyone could know as much as he knows. A lot of writers around the world a lot of time are calling him for information. He'll go and research it out of the goodness of his heart. A long time ago I said, 'You're crazy, Hank; get paid for doing this.' So I put him with several publications and one was Sports Illustrated. They used him extensively."
The information these publications have received from Kaplan has certainly been worth whatever they are paying him. Kaplan's archives are generally considered to be the largest private boxing library in the world. He is increasingly sought out by scholars, fans, and journalists who know that he either knows or can find out just about anything about any aspect of boxing. He was been instrumental in the founding and operation of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, which opened in 1989, and in setting up its research library. He has written, edited, and collaborated on scores of articles and books and has conducted at least as many research projects. Just recently writer Nick Tosches consulted Kaplan for an article about Sonny Liston for Vanity Fair, and Kaplan lent the magazine more than 100 photos and mementos (including a ticket from the legendary 1964 Sonny Liston-Muhammad Ali title fight).
"I've watched the TV networks and the major sports magazines and boxing writers, as well as the key movers and shakers in the world of boxing, turn to him for assistance and information," says Ed Brophy, executive director of the hall of fame. "There are times when even the Boxing Hall of Fame may be stumped by a question, and a phone call to Hank will clear the way for the hall to provide the answer. Hank has the answer, either in his files or in his mind."
It's not that Kaplan set out to become an expert or to occupy any exalted niche in the boxing world. He did box several years as an amateur (and had one professional fight, which he won), but he says he never wanted to make a career of it.
In fact, for most of his life Kaplan has been a student of the "sweet science" (the term institutionalized by writer A.J. Liebling) even while he was a practitioner of the chemical and biological sciences. Before his retirement twenty years ago, Kaplan's job as a quarantine officer for the Centers for Disease Control took him all over the world. But while he was putting in long hours making sure disease-contaminated ships didn't dock at the Port of Miami and going off to to study disease-carrying insects, he was also accumulating his unmatched collection of boxing memorabilia and history. He was also, with his wife Sylvia, raising two children in southwest Miami.