It looked like George Foreman was trying to sell me one of his Lean Mean Grilling Machines.
I could imagine Foreman’s smile as the former heavyweight boxing champion and hamburger appliance pitcher dropped the Don King-isms as he talked – and talked and talked – about his press secretary and longtime friend, Bill Caplan.
“He made us all famous,” Foreman said over the phone.
Hyperbole like this is commonplace in boxing. Telling the truth is accepted as a punch in the face. And the more Foreman talked, the more he pushed the boundaries of credibility.
“It attracted the spotlight wherever I was,” Foreman said, as if his thunderous knockouts had nothing to do with it.
Ultimately, Foreman completely ignored the truth, making the outrageous claim that Caplan was responsible for making the jungle roar one of the most significant sporting events of the 20th century.
Foreman laughed when we finished the call.
“As you can see,” he said, “I love Bill Caplan.”
Well, that last part was credible.
Most boxing people I know love 86-year-old Caplan, the Northridge-based public relations specialist who spread the boxing gospel on behalf of everyone from Joe Louis to Oscar De La Hoya.
Caplan was nicknamed “Showerhead” by the late Times sports reporter Chris Dufresne for his peculiar habit of traveling with a personal shower head that he uses when bathing in hotels. Foreman calls him “Buffet Bill” due to his affinity for the all-you-can-eat style of dining.
Caplan will also be known as a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY following an induction ceremony on Sunday.
Caplan is a walking museum, and I don’t call it that just because its trunk is large enough to have its own gravitational force. He has come across virtually every significant figure in boxing over the course of his eight-decade career. He was employed by Mike Tyson. He worked for King, as did King’s promotional archenemy Bob Arumwho fired him three times.
He is a friendly man in a sporting underworld inhabited by modern-day pirates. It is also the life of the party. Whenever there is a major fight in Las Vegas, in the days leading up to it hosts group dinners where you never know who will be sitting in front of you.
“I know there are people who are on the highways four hours a day,” Caplan said. “They hate their job. They simply hate their job passionately, or have to do it because they have to make money for themselves and / or their family. And I’m so lucky to be doing something I love to do. “
Caplan’s current employer, the World Boxing Council, was not involved The recent defeat of Canelo Alvarez against Dmitry Bivol. It did not matter. Caplan went to Las Vegas, organized two dinners and came home the night before the meeting.
“He was one of the last PR who liked writers,” the former sports editor of the Times Bill Dwyre She said. “Today’s PR guys like to use writers.”
Caplan likes to tell stories, often the same ones. The accuracy of most cannot be verified, as anyone who may have presented contradicting narrative is either dead or too old to remember their names.
But how many other living people can claim to have seen Sugar Ray Robinson take out Gene Fullmer?
One of Caplan’s tallest stories – about a couple of boxers from the same Los Angeles gym going to Las Vegas to fight each other on the bottom card of a Robinson brawl – inspired a film by his writer friend. Ron Shelton, “Play It to the Bone.”
Caplan insists he never lied to reporters, but his career began with a lie.
After moving with his wife from his native Iowa to Los Angeles in 1957, Caplan was introduced by his brother-in-law, who was in the boxing industry, to Louis, the former heavyweight champion. Louis was promoting fights in Hollywood at the time.
“[My brother and I] they both lied, they said I was a journalism student, ”Caplan said with a chuckle.
Caplan went on to work for other local promoters, including Aileen Eaton, who organized high-profile fights at the Olympic Auditorium. He came up with the nickname “Schoolboy” for Bobby Chacon, who was a student at Cal State Northridge.
He once lay in front of a car to prevent then bantamweight champion Lupe Pintor from leaving a press conference. Pintor was upset that his opponent was late, but Caplan’s antics blew him up and convinced him to stay.
Caplan’s best memories are the moments he spent with Foreman.
Caplan said the roar in the jungle was the most interesting experience of his career. Foreman’s shocked loss to Ali took place in 1974 in Zaire, financed by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who wanted to improve the country’s image of him. The fight was staged five weeks after the originally scheduled date because Foreman was interrupted during training.
“George wanted to leave the country when he was cut,” Caplan said. “Mobutu would not allow him to leave the country. He literally he wouldn’t let him leave. “
Foreman and Caplan had encountered a similar problem earlier in the year when Foreman defended his title against Ken Norton in Venezuela.
“George nearly knocked him out in the first round and made him stiff, literally stiff, [Norton] he fell on his back as if he had been nailed to the cross with his arms outstretched, in the second round, ”Caplan said.
The next morning, Foreman was not allowed to leave the country due to a dispute over taxes owed to the Venezuelan government. Foreman and Norton said they accepted the fight on the condition that they would not be taxed.
“We went to the Pan Am desk to collect our tickets and they didn’t want to give us the tickets,” Caplan said. “There were these two guys in shoddy clothes – who turned out to be government guys – standing behind them.
“I’m screaming at the top of my lungs in my million dollar voice: ‘You mean to tell me you’re holding the king, the king! the heavyweight champion of the world! – for a ransom and won’t you let him leave the country? And they got so embarrassed that they gave us tickets.
“So now let’s go up to the gate and think we’re free at home. Sure enough, here comes a squad of soldiers, about 12, all carrying their rifles in a different way, like [they were] guys out of the way. They had uniforms but one [was carrying his gun] on the shoulder, one who carries [it] like one child, the other like this.
“So I do the same thing. I’m screaming at the top of my lungs and George is leaning on me. See these guys, their guns could explode at any moment because they look so incompetent. [George] says, “Time to cool it down, man.” “
Foreman was allowed to return to the United States five days later after the Venezuelan government was assured he would be paid.
Caplan nearly cried, laughing as he shared the memory recently at a deli near his home.
This was a boxing story, if ever there was one, the listener unsure of where the truth ends and the fiction begins, but also indifferent.