Ten questions for boxing writer and historian Hank Kaplan, who was recently placed on the International Boxing Hall of Fame ballot under the “observers” category.
Along with boasting one of the largest collections of boxing photos and writings in the world, Kaplan was editor and founder of both Boxing Digest and Boxing World. He has been used as an advisor for several boxing documentaries and movies, including the recent “Ring of Fire” documentary on Emile Griffith and the ring death of Benny “Kid” Paret in 1962.
“I’m the one who found Benny Paret’s wife and son,” said Kaplan, who lives in Miami. “Without them, there wouldn’t have been much of a story. I also did a lot of sound bytes in that one.”
Growing up in an orphanage in New York City, Kaplan said he became fascinated by the art of boxing when he and a buddy got into a fistfight one day.
“We were swinging wild, but it was a lot of fun,” Kaplan said. “And it was something that stuck with me. I started thinking to myself, ‘there’s got to be a science to this thing.’ The technique of boxing has stayed with me all my life. That was the beginning. Then I became interested in the history of boxing. I had an insatiable appetite for that.”
TSS: How long have you been collecting boxing memorabilia?
HK: To use a round number, I’d say 50 years. I’m not a collector of general memorabilia. I’m a collector of the written word.
TSS: Any favorite collectible?
HK: I just love all the newspaper clippings I have of the 19th century. It’s organic matter, right? And it still survives.
TSS: Who is the greatest fighter of all time?
HK: Greatest fighter? I suppose there is a definitive answer to that, but I’d have to break it down this way. My personal favorite fighter is Joe Louis. But the greatest two-fisted fighter I have ever seen is Henry Armstrong. The most skilled fighter I‘ve ever seen is probably Sugar Ray Robinson. The most scientific boxer I have ever seen is Willie Pep, without a doubt. And the man I believe to be the greatest fighter who ever lived is Harry Greb. Nobody before him or since him has done the things he did. He was merely a middleweight and he fought light-heavyweights and heavyweights all over the lot. And here is a guy with 300 fights.
TSS: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the fight game in the last 40 or 50 years?
HK: There’s been some incredible changes in the business of the sport. You can‘t answer that with two or three sentences. Prior to the advent of television, there was a boxing club in every little town and hamlet in America. As a result, fighters used to fight 10, 12, 15 times a year. Many fought 20 and 25 times a year. Today, they’re lucky if they fight twice a year. There are a lot of fighters around today who can’t fight. They have no place to fight. There is no way you can become good at boxing if you don’t practice. The sport is entirely different today because of TV. It’s so bad that current writers have made Roberto Duran the greatest lightweight who ever lived because they don’t know what the hell they‘re talking about.
TSS: Are there any fights you’ve seen that stand out in your memory?
HK: There were fights that nobody ever saw that were so bloody and ferocious that you couldn’t even describe them. People were getting sick and walking out it was so bad. That one was Florentino Fernandez and Vernon McIntosh (in 1972). But these are not high-profile names. Some of the popular matchups were Ron Lyle and George Foreman, and Archie Moore and Yvon Durelle (1958). There was also Diego Corrales and Luis Castillo this year.
TSS: What is the present state of the heavyweight division?
HK: A lot of people think the heavyweight division is in disarray merely because there isn’t a [champion] the people have respect for. But I think there is some talent out there. And even though Lennox Lewis is retired, I still consider him as one of the current guys. He’s not that far removed from the scene. He had tremendous ability. He had the greatest straight right hand in the history of the heavyweight division. And I would dare anyone to challenge that. He could do all the things the small guys could do, and he still had the size.
TSS: Who is your favorite present-day fighter, the guy you’d most like to see fight?
HK: Ike Ibeabuchi. People think there are no fighters around today. It’s sad that this guy is locked up, but to me, I think I was beginning to see the greatest heavyweight fighter who ever lived. This guy was a heavyweight Henry Armstrong.
TSS: Who among today’s heavyweights (not serving time) do you like?
HK: I’m beginning to like the looks of (WBO champ) Lamon Brewster. The Klitschkos I think are very weak. Wladimir is completely out of it because he doesn’t have a chin at all. He’s got a lot of ability, but the softest chin in boxing.
TSS: What is your favorite boxing movie of all time?
HK: Rocky I. The guy portrayed a Philadelphia fighter so unbelievably well, that it was almost the real thing.
TSS: Is the popularity of boxing declining?
HK: Boxing is in its most abysmal state right now then it‘s ever been in my lifetime. Boxing used to be the second most popular sport in America. It was baseball and boxing. Television killed it.