By Michael E. Miller
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In 1959 Pastrano was with Angelo in Louisville for a match when they met Muhammad Ali -- then Cassius Clay -- for the first time. The story has since become part of boxing lore. One afternoon he and Dundee were chatting in Dundee's hotel room when the phone rang and Pastrano picked it up. It was amateur boxer Cassius Clay calling from the lobby. "'I want to come up and visit with you,'" Kaplan says Ali informed Pastrano, who later told him about the incident. "'I'm going to be the next heavyweight champion of the world.' Willie talked to him a minute and Angelo says 'Who is it, Willie?' And Willie says 'Hey Angelo, some nut down here wants to talk to you.' So they told him to come up."
After Ali won the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics and graduated from high school, he was ready to turn pro. A syndicate of Louisville business leaders put together "several thousand dollars," according to Kaplan. "They gave Ali a bonus of $10,000, signed him up, and put him in Angelo's charge. He came down here and after a few days he was talking up a storm. Everywhere he went kids were following him."
But at first Ali was far from the sensation he would become. He was so raw that when he showed up for a photo session down at the gym, he brought along his "good" trunks in a paper bag. "They were so creased up it was horrible," Kaplan says. "I pulled 'em and pulled 'em but they were still wrinkled. And then we had to pose the guy; he didn't know how to pose."
Ali often sought advice from Kaplan, such as his appraisals of upcoming opponents' strengths and weaknesses. "I'd tell him what to prepare for. I'd tell him about all these fights [his opponents] had had." Kaplan still wears a pearl tie tack Ali gave him in 1965. "To this day I don't know if it's real," he muses. Ali, whom Kaplan calls one of boxing's greatest innovators, watched "speed merchants" like Pastrano and technicians like Luis Manuel Rodriguez and developed his own dazzling moves from there. "He was smart, and he had Angelo Dundee in his corner," Kaplan says. "Those were big advantages."
Neither Kaplan nor most other boxing experts thought the 22-year-old Ali would be able to unseat the heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston. The title fight had been set for February 25, 1964, at the Miami Beach Convention Center. "We just didn't have the confidence this loudmouth kid could outbox this terrific punching guy who was too tough to be licked. Liston had the greatest left jab in history. He was twice as powerful as Ali. He bombed Floyd Patterson out in two fights, one round each."
But Ali -- who had only a few days earlier worried the fight promoters by revealing his conversion to Islam -- forced a battered Liston to withdraw from the match in the seventh round, astounding everybody but himself.
In 1967 Ali was stripped of his title, suspended from boxing, and sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. He stayed free on appeal but was out of action until 1970. It was during this hiatus that he participated in the fight of the century.
Kaplan and a Miami television producer named Murray Woroner had been working on a series of radio shows that played like live fight broadcasts except that the opponents were often fighters from different eras who had never actually seen each other. The bouts were all statistically generated, imaginary matchups with announcers reading punch-by-punch commentary that Kaplan put together using statistics he had compiled. "We'd ask experts how much weight they thought should be given to punching power in the making of a great fighter, how much to the left jab -- we had 129 variables," Kaplan recalls. "We had people weight all these things. It came to pass that the desire, motivation, and courage, all that lumped together, was the most important factor."
Woroner decided he wanted to create a dream fight on television between Ali, arguably the most exciting fighter of the day, and the legendary Rocky Marciano, then 45, who had retired undefeated in 1956. Kaplan was the technical director for the project, meaning he had to statistically predict every move. Using only the matches from each man's best five consecutive years, Kaplan listed every jab, hook, uppercut, hard hit, soft hit, hold, evasion -- every move that made up every fight for every fighter. It all went down on papers that Kaplan kept spread out on his living room floor for more than a year. He enlisted his son Steve, twelve years old at the time, to help keep track of what statistic was on which paper in which pile. Kaplan worked his job in the daytime, then resumed breaking down the fights on paper at home.
At one point Marciano called Kaplan to try to persuade him to include within his calculations Marciano's superlative 1951 fight with Rex Lane. "Rocky looked like a million dollars in the fight; he destroyed this guy," Kaplan says. "But I said, 'No, Rock, it don't figure into your five prime years.' Oh, he beat my eardrum. He said, 'Hank, please, just this one fight.' I said, 'We can't do that. I wish I could.' And some time after that he went with a friend on a trip and was killed in a plane crash. He never got to see the fight."