Lord of the Ring
Back when he was a boxing promoter in the early Eighties, Hank Kaplan used to drive to trainer Caron Gonzalez's cramped garage gym in Allapattah to note the progress of several fighters Gonzalez was bringing along. Kaplan, a tall, lanky middle-aged man, would lope in and stand on the concrete just out of range of the speed bags or the heavy punching bags worn white in the middle and watch the kids go through their paces. Other men in the boxing business would usually be there; everyone would wipe sweat from their faces as their conversation and laughter rang off the walls to the rhythm of loud punches and exhalations and the squeaks and rumbles of footwork on canvas.
Gonzalez, widely respected as one of the best trainers to come out of Cuba in the Sixties, counted among his star pupils Juan Arroyo, a lean, intense Puerto Rican who grew up in the nearby neighborhood of Wynwood. Kaplan and his business partner Ramiro Ortiz liked Arroyo -- everyone who met him did -- and anyone could see that the hard-punching teenager had talent. So when he turned eighteen Kaplan and Ortiz started booking fights for him in their shows at the War Memorial Auditorium in Fort Lauderdale. To have both Carón Gonzalez and Hank Kaplan on his side was a fortunate and unique thing, largely because Kaplan was really much more than a promoter: He was and is one of the world's foremost authorities on boxing, a friend and mentor to generations of fighters, and a fierce preservationist of the traditions and lore of the sport.
For a few years Arroyo was one of the most exciting and successful fighters in South Florida. Chants of "AViva Arroyo!" erupted through the crowd during his fights, and women kissed him on his way to the ring.
"His potential was pretty darn high in our minds," Kaplan recalls. "He was a lovable kid. We were in love with him, and he was our biggest draw. But it was always my opinion that as we got to know him, he did not have the emotional makeup of those who go a long way. He didn't have the self-control. He didn't have the discipline. Everybody loved him, but he didn't love himself."
Kaplan, whose friends then and now included many of the greatest and most troubled persons in boxing, began to see in Arroyo the signs of drug abuse that had ruined or stunted the careers of other fighters -- better fighters, like Willie Pastrano, Aaron Pryor, Pinklon Thomas, Jeff Merritt, Jeff Sims. Over and over Arroyo was arrested for mugging people for drug money. Through the rest of the Eighties and into the Nineties, Arroyo would do time, make a celebrated comeback upon his release, do more time, and stage yet another comeback. Early in the cycle, Kaplan went to a judge and begged him to order Arroyo to attend literacy classes in prison. The judge granted Kaplan's request but Arroyo didn't take to reading and writing.
Kaplan and Ortiz had left the promoting business before Arroyo's comeback in 1993. At that point he had won four fights in a row, and both his new handlers and fans were elated and hopeful that he was finally going to stay clean. The City of Miami declared April 20 Juan Arroyo Day and held a ceremony in Roberto Clemente Park in Wynwood. There, before the tearful eyes of his mother and 100 local elementary and middle school students, Arroyo sparred in a ring set up in the middle of a grassy field. He was muscular after months of working out in prison, his dark hair was in a handsome fade, and he was laughing with delight. He told the students to stay away from drugs and how great it was to be back to tell them.
Hank Kaplan, a man more used to sitting ringside at Madison Square Garden or the Blue Horizon or Caesars Palace, squinting into television lights to watch Sonny Liston's left jab or Thomas Hearns's straight right hand or Felix Trinidad's left hook, had driven from Kendall to Wynwood for Juan Arroyo Day. He sat on a makeshift stage as one of the special guests. He remembers that he watched dispassionately. He knew that Arroyo really didn't have much left any more, and he knew he was looking at one of the many promising fighters he had seen who somehow had fallen by the wayside or burned out too early.
After the ceremonies Arroyo, with fans and friends trailing him like a comet's tail, approached Kaplan. "Hank, I love you!" he exclaimed, throwing an arm around Kaplan's neck.
About a month later Arroyo was back in jail. He has since "come back" in the usual boxing sense, and, also as usual, to his old jailhouse environs. He's incarcerated at the Wakulla Correctional Institute near Tallahassee.
"For these kids to have started on these drugs with all the ability they had as athletes ..." Kaplan trails off, pushes his baseball cap back, and rubs his forehead. Squarish wire-rim glasses sit on a straight nose, and a pipe curls down the side of his mouth. His deadpan manner often hides his all-consuming fascination with boxing.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
When Kaplan finished his calculations, Woroner flew him to Dayton, Ohio, home of National Cash Register (NCR), at the time the cutting edge in computer technology. There a team of NCR's best minds created the fifteen-round fight as a computer program. "For five days they put us in an underground bunker type of place," Kaplan recounts, adding that it was more as an aid to concentration than as a secrecy measure. "We weren't allowed to see the outside world. Meals were brought in for us. They needed me there because if they ran into a snag I could tell them if a certain move was important or not too important."
Using a complex mathematical formula that took the boxers' motivation and heart into consideration along with their technical prowess and strength, the team figured Marciano to be the winner.
Back in Miami Kaplan spent a few days in a television studio near downtown working on the even trickier visual component of the match. "What Murray was going to do was have Marciano and Ali come to Miami, get in some kind of reasonable shape, get in the ring, and make like they're fighting -- only they're there by themselves, throwing all the punches they generally threw, every motion, all the crazy things like footwork,' Kaplan explains. "He'd take that somehow and put these guys together in the ring. He did things to make it look like the blows were really landing. To this day I don't know how he did it. They were paid $1000 or $2000 apiece."
Eventually announcers provided commentary as though they were ringside. The seemingly impossible project was complete.
"I was so worn out afterward I didn't want to look at it," Kaplan says.
Many others felt differently. The fight was first broadcast on closed-circuit TV in October 1969, two months after Marciano's death. All theaters were packed.
While Kaplan was still working on the fight of the century, he took a nine-week break for what he calls "probably the most gratifying thing I did with CDC." One day his boss knocked on Kaplan's front door as he was wading through the papers carpeting his living room. "He said, 'Hank, they want you in Indonesia.' There was an epidemic of bubonic plague. He said, 'Hank, they want you there yesterday.'" So Kaplan capped his CDC career traveling with a Chinese doctor from port to port over precipitous mountain roads in the Indonesian islands.
A few years later he retired to devote more time to boxing, and his reputation as an expert grew. "When you're fascinated with what you're doing, you work ten, twelve hours a day, and one day you put it together and you're an expert."
For Kaplan retirement just meant he could work even longer hours on his innumerable boxing projects. He was approached by Ramiro Ortiz at the Fifth Street Gym, where they both spent most of their free time. Ortiz had known Kaplan since the Sixties, when Ortiz first came by the gym as a boxing-infatuated boy of twelve and subsequently tried his own luck in the ring for a time. Now he was working at a bank, but he had never gotten the sport out of his blood. He had a proposition for Kaplan: Why didn't they promote shows together? "He was a historian at heart, and to this day I have the feeling he did it more as a favor to me than that his heart was really in it. But we had some good, good local fights," says Ortiz. They called their enterprise Pugilistic Promotions and persuaded the city council of Fort Lauderdale to lift its decades-old ordinance outlawing boxing within city limits. Most of the shows were held at Fort Lauderdale's War Memorial Auditorium and helped establish the careers of several local talents, among them Juan Arroyo.
"We wanted to put on aesthetic shows," Kaplan says. "Unlike most fights now, we didn't know who was going to win, because the matches were pretty even. People at our shows would give both fighters a standing ovation a lot of times between rounds. Today most kids with promise are backed by people with fairly substantial financial means; they want to nurture their fighters, give 'em the build-up treatment, so they generally feed 'em on soft stuff and let 'em build their records up. Makes for worse matches."
Today Ortiz is the president of SunTrust Bank and a prominent citizen. Kaplan has returned to observing and recording history. Fortunately.
A few years ago he got a call from a sportswriter in San Diego who was finishing up a feature story on Bob Satterfield, a bruising heavyweight who fought in the Fifties and Sixties. The writer had found Satterfield destitute, a wine-addled man living under a bridge. He called Kaplan to check on a few facts about Satterfield's career. "The only trouble was that Bob Satterfield died seven years earlier," Kaplan says. "Good thing he called me."
Kaplan pauses to think about Satterfield. "A very important fighter who came very close to being a world champion," he says. "But he was completely forgotten. There are countless others who didn't win the so-called championship but who could beat most of the champions around today.
"I say this: Why should these guys be forgotten? It's a sin to forget them.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- U.S. and Cuba to Announce Agreement to Open Embassies
- Miami-Dade Commissioners Approve $100 Fine for Pot Possession
- Jeb Bush Calls Confederate Flag a Racist Symbol, Claims Removing it Was "Politically...