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.

When he was in his midteens Kaplan moved back in with his mother, who had survived the sweatshops to start her own business designing and making bridal and evening gowns. He dropped out of high school because he was working several jobs and delivering gowns to help pay the rent on their Lower Eastside apartment.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the subsequent entry of the United States into the war, Kaplan, like thousands of other young men, rushed to join the armed forces. After initially being turned down by the navy, Kaplan read in a newspaper that Jack Dempsey, by then retired from boxing, had taken a public relations job with the Coast Guard. "So I says, 'Oh my God, Jack Dempsey in what? The Coast Guard? What is it?' I went down to the recruiting office, a poor kid from the ghetto, and boom, I was in the Coast Guard with Jack Dempsey. Thrill of my life."

After his initial training Kaplan was shipped to Tampa Bay to work in port security. "Then they tested us for different aptitudes, and somebody decided I had a scientific aptitude," Kaplan recounts. He was sent to chemical warfare school at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. Next he was trained as a damage control specialist at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, "the exact place where 'The Star-Spangled Banner' was written," he still marvels. "Imagine, as a kid I saw all that stuff."

Kaplan was finally stationed in Miami, where "I started teaching chemical warfare one ship at a time up and down the coast." That involved mainly training sailors how to recognize chemical agents that might be used in an attack and how to defend themselves or reduce injury. In early 1944 the U.S. Public Health Service borrowed him. "Their problem was that they had ships coming in from bubonic plague ports, and they had to be fumigated with poison gas to kill the rats onboard. So I continued fumigating ships until the government started getting ready for D-Day. We had a fumigation crew and they sent us two, three, four ships a day."

Kaplan spent the final year of the war aboard a ship in the Pacific as the resident chemical warfare and damage control specialist. He and the rest of the crew didn't find out that the atomic bomb had ended the war until they were suddenly ordered to port in Honolulu.

After the war the public health service wanted Kaplan back in Miami as part of its quarantine and inspection effort at the port. His mother, brother, and sisters followed him here. He married Sylvia Lee in the mid-Fifties.

Over his next 30 years with the CDC, a division of the public health service, Kaplan would be promoted to quarantine officer, a job that entailed checking occupants of incoming ships for immunization and symptoms of smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, bubonic plague, or cholera. Kaplan also traveled to sites of disease outbreak abroad. He would occasionally travel with CDC scientists studying species of disease-carrying insects.

When he wasn't on the road he was, as he puts it, "schooling." He earned his GED and then attended night classes in biology at the University of Miami. He never got a degree, although he took classes for eight years. "I was always learning, either in school or in the field," Kaplan says.

All this time, even at the most demanding points in his career, Kaplan was in the middle of the boxing scene. One of the nation's hot spots was the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach. Starting in the Fifties, Angelo Dundee worked with an impressive array of world champions. "He had guys like Luis Manuel Rodriguez, Douglas Vailant, Florentino Fernandez, Willie Pastrano, Ralph Dupus," Kaplan recounts. "Angelo had a fantastic reputation at that time. People think nobody had heard of him until he started training Ali, but he was famous way before then."

By the late Fifties Kaplan was serving informally as a public relations consultant for trainer Angelo and his elder brother Chris, the biggest local promoter of the day; he had most of Angelo's fighters under contract. Kaplan wrote up bios and stats on the boxers and had photographs taken, all as a volunteer. "I presumed upon his friendship," Angelo Dundee says. "I said, 'Hank, I like to send stories before I go into town [for a match] so the writers will have a foundation on the kid.' So Hank did that for me. He got to be friendly with my fighters. They trusted him."

"Managers don't like fighters talking to strangers," Kaplan adds. "A fighter generally has a weak mind and the manager thinks you could put some idea in his mind that would make him lose his focus. But I befriended 'em all. Willie Pastrano was my best pal ever." (The sort of dangerous ideas that could be planted in the minds of boxers might be along the lines of "Look at the guy's left hand; this is how you can counteract." Or -- just as damaging -- "Meet me at Mo's tonight for a drink.") Pastrano, a light heavyweight champ who became immensely popular in Miami and even branched out into acting, lost his world title, his money, and his family during years of drug addiction. He died of cancer this past December in New Orleans.

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