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Bill Caplan — Golden boy of boxing publicity

by Ellen Alperstein

November 7, 2013 | 4:44 pm

Bill Caplan jokes around with former world champion Julio Cesar Chavez. Photo by Gary Williams/EPA/Newscom

Bill Caplan jokes around with former world champion Julio Cesar Chavez. Photo by Gary Williams/EPA/Newscom

When Dmitriy “Star of David” Salita takes on Gabriel Bracero in a welterweight match at the Aviator Sports and Events Center in Brooklyn on Nov. 9, Bill Caplan will be ringside. A boxing fan since his age was calculated in single digits, the 78-year-old San Fernando Valley resident will also be there because it’s his job.

 It was his job in 1962, when Caplan’s brother-in-law talked real estate developer Leo Minskoff into becoming a boxing promoter, then hornswoggled Minskoff into hiring Caplan as his PR guy, even though the kid didn’t know a press release from a prison release.

It was his job in 1974, when Caplan represented George Foreman for “The Rumble in the Jungle,” in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, against Muhammad Ali. It was his job in 1982, when he pulled a media-loving stunt at a news conference publicizing a fight at L.A.’s Olympic Auditorium. It was his job in the 1990s and 2000s, while representing Oscar De La Hoya, and working for Top Rank, when Caplan smacked another flack upside the head after their respective fighters had fought a bout people had paid to watch.

In the loud, posturing, wacky world of professional boxing, Caplan, a 2002 World Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, offers a simple description of his job: “to get free space in the media.”

Sometimes that’s easy, and a good publicist will dine out for a long time on the action behind the action. For Caplan, that’s both a literal and figurative exercise. A world-class trencherman known for having lunch a lot and hosting lavish media dinners, Caplan says, “My astrological sign is delicatessen.” George Foreman, to whom he says he is “as close as two men can be without being gay,” dubbed him “Buffet Bill.”

How fortuitous that so many boxing matches are staged in Las Vegas. How fortuitous for the Orthodox, strictly glatt kosher Salita, who spoke about Caplan in both e-mail and telephone interviews. Early in his career, Salita would stay at the Caplan residence. His PR guy, he said, would “take me to a store to buy brand-new pots and pans, then to [a] kosher store to buy meat and whatever things I may need.”

On one such visit, Salita said, he was cooking chicken, and in walked Eric “Butterbean” Esch, the boxer/wrestler/all-purpose-pugilist then riding a wave of popularity. “I remember thinking … this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and can only happen in Bill Caplan’s kitchen.”

Caplan was born in Des Moines, Iowa, where his family owned Caplan Bakery. Their bread was made from recipes his parents brought from Russia and baked in a brick oven heated by wood. They baked bagels only on Saturday, Caplan recalls, because the only people in town who ate them were the Jews.

Bill Caplan was 12 years younger than the next of his five siblings. The gap, he suggested, made him a mama’s boy, and at lunch (of course), he teared up at her memory. Shefra Caplan died when Bill was 43, but not before telling him how news of her last pregnancy had not been welcome. 

She had said as much to her obstetrician, a “Dr. Baker,” who told her this baby would be a blessing when the others were grown and gone. “He was right,” she told Bill. “He was a gentile, but still a good man.”

Caplan’s brother-in-law, Larry Rummans, took the kid to the fights, and after Rummans moved to Los Angeles as a boxing promoter and matchmaker (the person who selects the fighters for a bout), Caplan, then 21, followed. Most of his family had preceded him to California.

Caplan was the first publicist Don King hired when he formed Don King Productions in 1974. “Make me big, Bill, make me big,” Caplan says were his instructions from the man who would later become notorious for being notorious. And for his hair. 

King had been hired by Barry Bernstein and Hank Schwartz, the white promoters of the Zaire fight, who figured it was smart business to have a black face among the suits. Leveraging that high-profile bout, King, “who’s really good at revising history,” Caplan said, “made the world think he matched and promoted the fight.”

A good thing came from their union — Caplan’s friendship with Foreman, now a cookware promoter and ordained minister in Houston. The former boxer has officiated at three Caplan family weddings, where, according to Caplan, “We had a chuppah and broke the wine glass … but he doesn’t say a lot about Jesus in the ceremony.”

Some 25 years after working for King, Caplan had learned a little something himself about exploiting circumstances. He was doing PR for Top Rank, whose fighter, De La Hoya, was matched against Felix Trinidad, King’s fighter. After Trinidad won a controversial decision, the post-fight news conference was staged in a huge ballroom, where King dissed Caplan’s man, calling him “Chicken De La Hoya.” Top Rank CEO Bob Arum was not happy.

So Caplan had the plug pulled on King’s microphone.

In 1974, Caplan represented George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” against  Muhammad Ali.

King yelled himself hoarse trying to make his point, and only later learned why his mic had gone dead.

A couple of months later, after Arum’s fighter Lennox Lewis had beaten King’s fighter Evander Holyfield, Caplan’s access to the post-bout news conference was blocked by Greg Fritz, the flack for Holyfield. “You can’t come in,” Caplan said he was told. “It’s too crowded.”

It wasn’t. Caplan suggested as much to Fritz. He recalled how the conversation went:

Fritz: “You can’t come in because you pulled the plug on my boss.”

Caplan: “You really are a weasel.”

Fritz: “Yeah, and you’re a fat slob.”

“So I b---h-slapped him,” he said, between bites of a meatball sandwich.

Fritz wanted to press charges, but the Las Vegas police told Caplan to “walk away,” he said. He did, right by the Hard Rock Hotel, just as Robert Shapiro — best known as O.J. Simpson’s defense lawyer, but also a fight fan and Caplan friend — was leaving a post-fight party. Caplan told him what had happened.

“Bobby, he says he’s gonna sue me. Will you represent me?”

“Absolutely,” Shapiro said, to which Caplan said he responded, “I’m gonna go out and buy a very sharp knife now.” 

Before Fritz, Caplan had picked on another PR guy his size, Don Fraser, because he didn’t like him and because, he said, “I know publicists cannot fight. … I’m a good matchmaker.”

He called Fraser a liar, punched him and was dismissed by George Parnassus, the promoter he was working for at the time.

Don Chargin called. He was a matchmaker for promoter Aileen Eaton, a goddess of the sport for having renewed the prominence of the Olympic Auditorium with her savvy management of and love for the weekly boxing matches for which it was known for decades after World War II.

Chargin, who had been given the moniker “War a Week” by broadcaster Jim Healy, said he’d heard Caplan had punched out “the weasel” in Parnassus’ office and gotten fired. “I’ll ask Mrs. Eaton to hire you,” Caplan said he told him.

“Mrs. Eaton hates my guts,” Caplan responded.

“That’s only when you worked for other promoters. She’s gonna love you.”

The feeling was mutual. Caplan calls Eaton a “Canadian Jewish lady … tough as nails, a 5-foot redhead … and one of the greatest promoters of all time.” It’s a common sentiment.

In 1982, the Olympic was to stage a fight between World Bantamweight Champion Lupe Pintor and South Korean Seung-Hoon Lee. To juice interest in that time’s unusual circumstance of an Asian fighter, the pre-fight news conference was scheduled for noon at a Koreatown restaurant. At 12:30, there was no sign of Lee, and Pintor was getting edgy, feeling like he’d been shown up.

Twenty minutes later, an exasperated Pintor and two friends headed for the parking lot. In those days, fighters weren’t routinely accompanied by the entourages of today’s flashy prima donnas. As Caplan remembered, they jumped into an old Plymouth station wagon, “blue, with gray Bondo — you know what Bondo is?” he asked, referring to the automotive putty that conceals car blemishes about as successfully as spackle does facial blemishes.

Caplan took it lying down. In front of the exit. As the Plymouth inched toward him. The media assembled to watch the drama of, as Caplan described himeself, “this fat, Jewish whale with his stomach sticking up, lying in front of the car.”

Lee showed up about then, and the news conference proceeded as planned. The next day, sports columnist Alan Malamud wrote in the now-defunct newspaper the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, “Everyone was rooting for the station wagon.”

These days, the mostly vertical Caplan works for, among others, Golden Boy Promotions, run by De La Hoya and former Swiss banker Richard Schaefer. De La Hoya, he says, was one of his favorite fighters. And Schaefer? “My mother would have said of him, ‘He’s a gentile, you know, but still very smart.’ ”

Salita and Caplan have known one another since 2001, when Salita won the junior welterweight division of the New York Golden Gloves competition and the Sugar Ray Robinson award as the outstanding fighter in the tournament. He signed as a pro with Arum, for whom Caplan was then working.

“When I turned pro,” Salita said, “the reality of not fighting on Shabbos was logistically very challenging, and people in the industry were not used to this. That created … difficult situations, but Zeydi Caplan was very helpful … in making sure that I stay busy, get on the right shows and that my career progressed through the difficulties that we faced.” 

Always keen to brand his fighters for maximum media exposure, Caplan seized a golden Salita moment for his third pro fight, which was in California. “[T]he athletic commission … asked me if I had a nickname,” Salita recalled. “I said, ‘No, I do not.’ Mr. Caplan was sitting next to me and said he does, [it’s] ‘Star of David,’ and that’s how that started.”

The two share more than Jewish heritage and a love of boxing — they share a compulsion to travel in comfort. On the road, Salita brings his own food, and cooks it in the hotel room … on a George Foreman grill. Caplan travels with a couple of wrenches, his own showerhead and swaps out the bathroom hardware for the duration of his stay.

He does it in hotels, he’d do it at your house, he did it at Salita’s. “I guess he didn’t approve of the showerhead,” Salita said nonchalantly, as if it were standard houseguest behavior. Salita has since moved, and the new owners can thank Bill Caplan for their Peerless European-style showerhead. You know, the one with the high-pressure massage setting? 

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