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.

Curious relatives of dead fighters are always contacting Kaplan, who invariably knows more than they do about the once glorious, maybe inglorious, careers of their uncles or great-grandfathers or fifth cousins. He will be able to make a list of the date, place, and outcome of each pro fight. If the fighter was just a journeyman with unremarkable stats, Kaplan will still know about him and will know what if any particular traits he brought to boxing.

"All these guys have relatives who don't know about them," Kaplan says. "They all eventually come to me."

Kaplan can tell anecdotes going back decades about boxing figures, but it seems all of his friends and admirers, many boxing experts themselves, have favorite stories about Kaplan.

Enrique Encinosa, a writer (and former manager and matchmaker) who co-wrote the book Boxing -- This Is It! with Kaplan, is still impressed with Kaplan's radio performance shortly after their book was published in the Eighties. The radio host was running a contest: Any caller who could stump the boxing experts would win dinner for two at a local restaurant.

"After a while," Encinosa recalls, "nobody had won any dinners, so they started giving them away. Then we got a call from one guy who apparently had an encyclopedia. His question was, 'What was the first fight broadcast coast-to-coast on radio?' I looked at Hank, and he nodded that he'd take the question. He says, 'That was Frankie Burns versus Packey O'Gady in 1921.' And the caller is overjoyed. 'No, no, I won! It was Dempsey-Carpentier!' And Hank says patiently, 'No -- that was the first title fight. The first fight broadcast that night was Burns and O'Gady; they were on the undercard.' And he reels off the rest of the card. He never ceases to amaze me."

It was inevitable that someone would think of computerizing Hank Kaplan. How else to ensure preservation of the staggering volumes of information at his disposal? Kaplan has been contacted by several computer specialists, some of whom have been making forays into his garage and planning the Hank Kaplan Website. That will involve thousands of hours of tranferring printed materials to a database. Kaplan himself, accustomed to communicating the old-fashioned way via letter or phone call, hasn't made a definite commitment to any one project yet and seems almost reluctantly resigned to the dissemination of his knowledge in cyberspace. "We want to spend the next couple of years putting this on the Internet," says Peter Mansfield, Website designer, boxing aficionado, and long-time friend of Kaplan. Mansfield and his business partner enlisted the help of a business professor at Florida International University, who in turn wants to bring in a group of student interns to help with construction of the site.

"I've got a thing about this," says Mansfield. "I really believe it's a worthwhile cause. We'll make money once he's on there, but I'd do it for nothing, because this is the only way his name and his library will continue forevermore."

There are some aspects of Kaplan's life he won't discuss, and his age is one. Still, he's been around to see a lot of boxing history, not to mention some significant world history. It is safe to assume that he is in his seventies.

He's the first child of an immigrant Lithuanian couple. He was born in a Brooklyn hospital some time after Jack Dempsey's first title fight in 1919, when Dempsey won the world heavyweight championship against Jess Willard. When Kaplan was growing up during the Depression, several other boxing legends were coming into their own: Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, Joe Louis.

In time Kaplan acquired a brother Ted and then twin sisters Ada and Sylvia. Kaplan's father, a tailor, died of tuberculosis when Hank was ten, leaving the family destitute. "We were basically living on the street. We'd eat when we had some food," he says. "No such thing as three meals a day."

The Kaplan kids were placed in an orphanage by authorities because his mother couldn't support the whole brood, although she got a job as a seamstress in a sweatshop and contributed to her children's care. "It was the greatest thing that ever happened to us, the orphanage," Kaplan says. Known as the Academy, or the Hebrew Orphans Asylum, the military-style orphanage produced many accomplished alumnae, among them renowned columnist Art Buchwald, television producer and actor Sheldon Leonard, and many prominent classical musicians. (It closed shortly after the start of World War II.) Every summer the approximately 1500 children looked forward to their vacation upstate at Camp Wakitan. There, on long hikes through the woods, Kaplan developed an abiding interest in nature.

He also discovered boxing when he got into it with a much shorter kid at the camp. "He bloodied my nose," Kaplan recalls. "I said, 'How can this little guy catch me on the chin like that?' From that moment on I became a student of the science of boxing. I fell in love with the sport."

He saw his first professional bout at the St. Nicholas Arena in Manhattan. Several years later he became a professional boxer, albeit for a very brief period: one pro fight, which he won handily, because "they put me up against a turkey." But he was never dedicated to a pro career. "I always wondered why I wasn't and came up with the fact that I had another love in life, and that was natural history."

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