Bill Caplan recounts how he and George Foreman escaped Venezuela

George Foreman sounded like he was trying to sell me one of his Lean Mean Grilling Machines.

I could picture Foreman’s smile as former heavyweight boxing champion and hamburger tackle pitchman dropped Don King-isms while talking about his longtime publicist and friend Bill Caplan — and talked and talked.

“He made us all famous,” Foreman said over the phone.

Exaggerations like this are commonplace in boxing. Stretching the truth is accepted as slaps in the face. And the more Foreman spoke, the more he pushed the limits of credibility.

“He steered the spotlight to wherever I was,” Foreman said, as if his thunderous knockouts had nothing to do with it.

Eventually, Foreman completely disregarded the truth and made the outrageous claim that Caplan was responsible for making the Rumble in the Jungle one of the greatest sporting events of the 20th century.

“Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Bill Caplan – that made the show,” he said.

Foreman laughed as we hung up.

“As you can see,” he said, “I love Bill Caplan.”

Well, the last part was believable.

Most boxers I know love 86-year-old Caplan, the Northridge-based PR 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 the late Times sportswriter Chris Dufresne for his particular habit of traveling with a personal showerhead, which he uses when bathing in hotels. Foreman calls him “Buffet Bill” because of his affinity with the all-you-can-eat dining style.

On Sunday, Caplan will also be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame after an induction ceremony in Canastota, NY

Caplan is a walking museum, and I don’t call him that just because his belly is big enough to have its own gravitational pull. He’s met just about every major figure in boxing in his eight-decade career. He was employed by Mike Tyson. He worked for both King and King’s publicity nemesis Bob Arum, who fired him three times.

He’s a warm-hearted man in a sporty underworld inhabited by modern-day pirates. He is also the life of the party. Whenever there’s a big brawl in Las Vegas, the days before he hosts group dinners where you never know who’s sitting across from you.

“I know there are people who drive four hours a day on the freeways,” Caplan said. “You hate your job. They simply hate their job because they are passionate about it, or they have to do it because they need to earn money for themselves and/or their family. And I’m so happy that I’m doing something I love to do.”

Caplan’s current employers, the World Boxing Council, were not involved in Canelo Alvarez’s recent loss to Dmitry Bivol. It does not 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,” said former Times sports editor Bill Dwyre. “Today’s PR guys like to use authors.”

Caplan likes to tell stories, often the same ones over and over again. The accuracy of most cannot be verified, as anyone who could have presented a conflicting narrative is either dead or too old to remember their own names.

But how many other people alive can claim to have watched Sugar Ray Robinson knock out Gene Fullmer?

One of Caplan’s big stories – about a couple of boxers from the same Los Angeles gym who drove to Las Vegas to compete on the undercard of a Robinson fight – inspired a film by fellow screenwriter Ron Shelton, Play It to the Bone. ”

Caplan insists he has never lied to reporters, but his career began with a lie.

After moving to Los Angeles with his wife from their hometown of Iowa in 1957, Caplan was introduced to former heavyweight champion Louis by his brother-in-law, who was in the boxing business. Louis was promoting fights in Hollywood at the time.

“[My brother and I] both lied, said 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 bouts at the Olympic Auditorium. He came up with the nickname “Schoolboy” for Bobby Chacon, who was a student at Cal State Northridge.

He once got 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 made him laugh and persuaded him to stay.

Caplan’s fondest memories are of the time he spent with Foreman.

Heavyweight Champion George Foreman knocks out Ken Norton during their March 1976 fight in Caracas, Venezuela.

Heavyweight Champion George Foreman knocks out Ken Norton during their March 1976 fight in Caracas, Venezuela.

(Associated Press)

Caplan said Rumble in the Jungle was the most interesting experience of his career. Foreman’s angered defeat by Ali came in Zaire in 1974, funded by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who wanted to improve his country’s image. The fight was fought five weeks after the originally scheduled date due to Foreman being cut in training.

“George wanted to leave the country when he was circumcised,” Caplan said. “Mobutu would not allow him to leave the country. I literally wouldn’t allow him to go.”

Foreman and Caplan encountered a similar problem earlier this year when Foreman was defending his title against Ken Norton in Venezuela.

“George knocked him almost unconscious in the first round and hit him stiff, literally stiff, [Norton] went onto his back like he was 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 because of a tax dispute with the Venezuelan government. Foreman and Norton claimed they accepted the fight on the condition that they would not be taxed.

“We went to the Pan Am counter to pick up our tickets and they wouldn’t give us our tickets,” Caplan said. “There were these two guys in cheap suits – they turned out to be government guys – standing behind them.

“I scream in my million-dollar voice, ‘You’re telling me you’re holding the king — the king! the world heavyweight champion! — for ransom and you won’t let him leave the country? And they were so embarrassed that they gave us the tickets.

“So now we go to the gate and think that we are free. Sure enough, here comes a group of soldiers, about 12 of them, all carrying their guns in a different way, like [they were] boys from the street. They only had one uniform [was carrying his gun] on the shoulder, one carries [it] like a baby, the other like that.

“So that’s what I do too. I scream as loud as I can and George leans into me. You see these guys, their guns could go off at any moment because they look so incompetent. [George] says, “It’s time to cool it down, man.” ”

Foreman was allowed to return to the United States five days later after the Venezuelan government was promised payment.

Caplan nearly cried and laughed while recently sharing the memory at a deli near his home.

This was a boxing story if ever there was one, and the listener wasn’t sure where the truth ends and the fiction begins – but neither did they care. Bill Caplan recounts how he and George Foreman escaped Venezuela

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