Esteemed Boxing Historian Hank Kaplan

Hank Kaplan's personal boxing archive included 500,000 photographs, believed to be the largest collection in the world.
Hank Kaplan's personal boxing archive included 500,000 photographs, believed to be the largest collection in the world. (By Walter Michot -- Miami Herald)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007

Hank Kaplan, widely regarded as the nation's foremost boxing historian whose encyclopedic knowledge of the sport made him indispensable to generations of journalists and filmmakers, died Dec. 14 of cancer at his home in Kendall, Fla. He was 88.

As a young man, Mr. Kaplan competed in one professional fight -- which he won -- and then turned his attention to documenting the colorful past of the sport he often called "the sweet science."

He amassed a priceless collection of books, other publications, photographs and memorabilia, which he kept at his home just outside Miami. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew tore the roof off Mr. Kaplan's garage, exposing his collection of more than 1 million items to the elements, but he was able to salvage almost everything.

He attended his first professional fight at age 14 and remained a fixture at boxing gyms and championship bouts for decades. Boxers and writers dubbed him "the sweet scientist," "the human encyclopedia" and "the Lord of the Ring."

In the 1950s and 1960s, he was a publicist for the brothers Chris and Angelo Dundee, who molded the careers of Muhammad Ali and other champions, and he occasionally promoted fights on his own. He wrote dozens of articles and edited books and magazines, but the scholarly, pipe-smoking Mr. Kaplan mostly served as a reliable and eloquent source of information about boxing's storied and checkered history.

He kept detailed records on virtually every professional boxer and trainer in history and had files on all manner of what he might call, in his deliberately orotund way, fistic arcana: unorthodox training methods; boxing in the movies; animals in boxing; bare-knuckle fighting; and Jewish and Italian boxers who adopted Irish names.

"I think Hank is one of a kind," Pat Putnam, a former boxing writer for Sports Illustrated, told the Miami New Times in 1998. "I just don't see how anyone could know as much as he knows."

For decades, Mr. Kaplan was on retainer to Sports Illustrated and also served as a historian for HBO, Showtime and ESPN. He was almost never stumped by a question, and if he didn't know the answer, he promised to find it within 10 minutes.

One time, a radio station offered a free dinner to anyone who could trip him up. When a caller asked which fight was the first to be broadcast nationwide on radio, Mr. Kaplan replied that it was the Frankie Burns-Packey O'Gatty bantamweight match of July 2, 1921. The caller corrected him, saying it was heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey's bout with Georges Carpentier.

"No, that was the first title fight," Mr. Kaplan replied. "The first fight broadcast that night was Burns and O'Gatty. They were on the undercard."

Mr. Kaplan knew practically every boxing champion of the 20th century, including Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Henry Armstrong, Jake LaMotta, Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard. He was especially close to Ali, whom he first met in 1960 when the 18-year-old future heavyweight champion -- then known as Cassius Clay -- began his professional career at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, where Mr. Kaplan was a daily fixture.

Despite his association with big-name boxers, Mr. Kaplan was particularly keen on maintaining the public memory of such forgotten fighters as Fritzie Zivic, Bob Satterfield, Kid Chocolate, Beau Jack, Eddie O'Keefe and Joe Grim, whose record of 6-91-9 was the worst of all time.

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