Lord of the Ring

Boxing isn't just a hobby to Hank Kaplan. It's an obsession. Which is why he's the sport's foremost expert.

About ten years ago Kaplan moved his family to a bigger house in Kendall to accommodate the amount of material he continues to amass. His children, Steve and Barbara, are grown now, leaving more room for his ever expanding library, most of which is stored in his two-car garage. Kaplan calls the garage his archival area; others have called it a shrine.

He unlocks the garage -- it's separated from the house by a courtyard -- and switches on the light. In the still, slightly musty air, boxes of mementos, documents, and letters are stacked on wood shelves reaching to the ceiling; rusted file cabinets are too full to hold even one more folder of newspaper and magazine clippings. Hundreds of photographs, many autographed, most impossible to find anywhere else, are piled in more boxes and stored wherever there's space. Although Hurricane Andrew trashed his house in 1992 and he still hasn't gotten everything completely back in order ("I'm about eight to ten years behind in my filing," he confesses), Kaplan knows exactly where to find everything. "If Sports Illustrated calls me, I can get back to 'em within ten minutes," he says.

He strolls down the aisles, pointing out files on fighters, trainers, specific fights. He pulls out a headless cast-iron figurine of Fidel La Barba, Italian flyweight champ in the Twenties. ("Gotta get that fixed," he mutters.) Two massive blue leather punching bags from the storied Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach are sitting on the floor. Grayish stuffing is boiling out the top of one. "These'll go to the hall of fame."

He shuts off the light, locks the door, and proceeds to other archival sites in his house: the screened-in patio, where 50 boxes of papers reside; a spare bedroom lined with bookcases where most of Kaplan's bound volumes are lined up. The oldest book he owns is Smeeton's Boxiana, published in England in 1812. He owns all the editions of Ring -- the magazine often referred to as the "bible of boxing" -- including Ring en espanol. He has other Spanish, Italian, French, British, Irish, Scottish, South African, Japanese, German, and Australian periodicals dating back four decades.

If there's anything Kaplan is short on, it's videotapes or films of fights. He says that's because he doesn't need them. "The written word to me is everything," he explains. "Videos don't mean nothin' to me." The written analyses of fights and fighters, he says, have more lasting value than the raw visual record. And then of course there's the fact that he has probably been to as many fights as any man alive: "Once I see a fight it registers. I remember every punch. I might not remember exactly what round, but I know all the key moves."

Kaplan makes his way back to the wood-paneled den that looks out on the birdbaths and feeders in the back yard. It's about 8:00 p.m. now, and the view is taken up with the stacks and boxes of papers spread out on the couch and end tables. A dim lamp on one table sheds a halo on a foot-high ceramic statue of bare-knuckles heavyweight John L. Sullivan, actually a bourbon decanter. Most of the light in the den is streaming in from the kitchen, where Sylvia is watching TV and feeding their cats.

"I don't dislike boxing," she says without irony. A self-described "genuine Southern girl" from Louisville, Kentucky, who met Kaplan when she was vacationing in Miami Beach in the early Fifties, Sylvia Kaplan is indulgent of her husband's obsession without feeling any need to join in.

Eight o'clock in the evening is more like midafternoon in Kaplan-time; he'll work until four or five in the morning on a hundred tasks, slouching around the house, pipe in mouth, truck driver's cap on head, talking on the phone. (He seems to mumble sometimes, but that's just because of the pipe that practically never leaves his mouth.) Among his current projects: finishing a book about Italian-American world champions; compiling a listing of every world championship fight held in Florida since 1894; documenting every death that has occurred in the ring "since the beginning of boxing as we know it" (about 1200 over more than two centuries). As the sun's coming up, Kaplan will lean back on his sofa or stroll out on the back porch to check out the birdhouses. Later he'll sleep a few hours and get up past noon.

He works an intense schedule not only because of his love affair with boxing and a naturally high energy level, but because he has become a clearinghouse of sorts for boxing information. Aficionados and historians from all over the world send Kaplan letters, documents, bits of arcane information. In turn he researches and answers queries about a certain boxer, a forgotten fight, an obscure but influential trainer. "I have a network of at least 200 correspondents who I exchange information with," he says.

Just a few months ago Kaplan was reading through some papers sent by one of his contacts in Honolulu, and he discovered two matches fought in Hawaii in the Twenties by Italian flyweight champ Fidel La Barba that were not listed in official record books. Kaplan has reported his findings to the International Boxing Research Organization as the first step in getting the records changed. While such details mean nothing to the general public, nor to most sports fans, they are important to Kaplan, not just in the interest of historical accuracy but also because each recorded bout memorializes the boxers who fought it.

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