LOS ANGELES — George Foreman sounded as if he was trying to sell me one of his Lean Mean Grilling Machines.
I could picture Foreman’s smile as the former heavyweight boxing champion and hamburger appliance pitchman dropped Don King-isms as he talked — and talked and talked — about his longtime publicist and friend, Bill Caplan.
“He made us all famous,” Foreman said over the phone.
Hyperbole like this is common place in boxing. Stretching truth is as accepted as punches to the face. And the more Foreman talked, the more he pushed the boundaries of credibility.
“He drew the spotlight to wherever I was,” Foreman said, as if his thunderous knockouts had nothing to do with that.
Eventually, Foreman disregarded the truth entirely, making the outrageous claim that Caplan was responsible for making the Rumble in the Jungle one of the most significant sporting events of the 20th century.
“Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Bill Caplan — that made up the show,” he said.
Foreman laughed as we finished the call.
“As you can see,” he said, “I love Bill Caplan.”
Well, that last part was believable.
Most boxing people I know love the 86-year-old Caplan, the Northridge-based public relations specialist who has spread the gospel of boxing on behalf of everyone from Joe Louis to Oscar De La Hoya.
Caplan was nicknamed “Showerhead” by late Los Angeles Times sportswriter Chris Dufresne because of his peculiar habit of traveling with a personal shower head that he uses when bathing in hotels. Foreman calls him “Buffet Bill” because of his affinity for the all-you-can-eat style of dining.
On Sunday, after an induction ceremony, Caplan will also be known as a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY
Caplan is a walking museum, and I don’t call him that just because his midsection is large enough to have its own gravitational force. He’s come across pretty much every significant figure in boxing over his eight-decade career. He was employed by Mike Tyson. He worked for King, as well as King’s promotional arch-nemesis Bob Arum, who fired him three times.
He is a warm-hearted man in a sporting underworld inhabited by modern-day pirates. He is also the life of the party. Whenever there is a major fight in Las Vegas, he hosts group dinners in the preceding days at which you never know who’ll be sitting across from you.
“I know that there are people that are on the freeways four hours a day,” Caplan said. “They hate their job. They just hate their job with a passion, or they have to do it because they’ve got to make a buck for themselves and/or their family. And I’m so lucky that I’m doing something that I love to do.”
Caplan’s current employer, the World Boxing Council, wasn’t involved in Canelo Alvarez’s recent loss to Dmitry Bivol. It didn’t matter. Caplan drove to Las Vegas, organized two dinners and returned home the night before the fight.
“He was one of the last PR guys who liked writers,” former Times sports editor Bill Dwyre said. “The modern-day PR guys like to use writers.”
Caplan likes to tell stories, often the same ones over and over. The accuracy of most can’t be verified, as anyone who could have presented a contradicting narrative is either dead or too old to remember their own names.
But how many other living people can claim to have watched Sugar Ray Robinson knock out Gene Fullmer?
One of Caplan’s tall tales — about a couple of boxers from the same Los Angeles gym who drove to Las Vegas to fight each other on the undercard of a Robinson fight — inspired a movie by screenwriter friend Ron Shelton, “Play It to the Bone. “
Caplan insists he has never lied to reporters, but his career started with a fib.
After he moved with his wife from their native Iowa to Los Angeles in 1957, Caplan was introduced by his brother-in-law, who was in the boxing business, to Louis, the former heavyweight champion. Louis was promoting fights in Hollywood at the time.
“[My brother and I] both lied, said that I was a journalism student,” Caplan said with a chuckle.
Caplan went on to work for other local promoters, including Aileen Eaton, who staged 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 laid down in front of a car to prevent then-bantamweight champion Lupe Pintor from leaving a news conference. Painter was upset that his opponent was late, but Caplan’s antics cracked him up and persuaded him to stay.
Caplan’s fondest memories are the times he spent with Foreman.
Caplan said the Rumble in the Jungle was the most interesting experience of his career. Foreman’s upset loss to Ali was held in 1974 in Zaire, funded by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who wanted to improve his country’s image of him. The fight was staged five weeks after its originally scheduled date because Foreman was cut in training.
“George wanted to leave the country when he got cut,” Caplan said. “Mobutu would not allow him to leave the country. Literally would not allow him to leave.”
Foreman and Caplan had encountered a similar problem earlier in the year when Foreman defended his title against Ken Norton in Venezuela.
“George almost knocked him out on the first round and knocked him stiff, literally stiff, [Norton] went down on his back like he was nailed to the cross with his arms out, in the second round,” Caplan said.
The next morning, Foreman wasn’t allowed to leave the country because of a dispute over taxes owed to the Venezuelan government. Foreman and Norton claimed they accepted the fight under the condition they wouldn’t be taxed.
“We went to the Pan Am desk to pick up our tickets and they didn’t want to give us our tickets,” Caplan said. “There were these two guys in cheap suits — turned out to be guys with the government — standing behind them.
“I’m yelling at the top of my million-dollar voice: ‘You mean to tell me that you’re holding the king — the king! The heavyweight champion of the world! — for ransom and you are not letting him leave the country?And they got so embarrassed they gave us the tickets.
“So now we go up to the gate and we think we’re home free. Sure enough, here comes a squad of soldiers, about 12 of them, all carrying their rifles a different way, like [they were] guys off the street They had uniforms but one [was carrying his gun] on the shoulder, one carrying [it] like a baby, the other this way.
“So I do the same thing. I’m yelling at the top of my voice and George leans on me. You see these guys, their rifles could go off at any minute because they look so incompetent. [George] says, ‘It’s time to cool it, man.’ “
Foreman was allowed to return to the United States five days later after the Venezuelan government was assured it would be paid.
Caplan nearly cried, laughing as he shared the memory recently in a deli close to his home.
This was a boxing story if there ever was one, the listener uncertain of where the truth ends and the fiction begins — but also not caring.
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