Curtis "Hatchetman" Sheppard.
Something about the name gives you a cold feeling.
Roll it around your mouth and you get the notion you're
saying the name
of a old time outlaw or gunfighter. That's some nickname,
"Hatchetman". How many guys in boxing get a nickname
like that? I was starting to think I might have what it took to be a pro
fighter when I first heard the name. I was only a teenager, but guys in
the neighborhood told me I had a big punch in both hands. That thought
got into my young head, and I started to read anything on boxing I could get
my hands on. No Gene Tunneys, Billy Conns, Willie Peps, or Tippy
Larkins for me. I only wanted to read about the guys who could crack. I
related to Dempsey, Louis, Marciano, Sonny Liston. I wanted to be one
I remember how impressed I was by Rocky Marciano, how he
so many legendary names, but the job he did on Archie Moore amazed me
the most. I couldn't believe anybody hit hard enough to bust up the
great Moore the way Rocky did.
So what happens? I read a Ring Magazine article about
The "Old Mongoose" in which he was asked who was the hardest hitter
he ever faced. I'm expecting him to rave about Rocky and what does he
say? It went something like this: "Hatchetman" Sheppard.
This guy was something else! When the Hatchetman hit you it was like a
electric shock struck you! Hatchetman knocked me down so hard I bounced
off the canvas. I decisioned him twice mainly by making him miss."
Who the hell was Curtis "Hatchetman" Sheppard?
Could he really hit harder than the tremendous fighters Moore was in with?
Guys like Marciano, Charles, Patterson, Ali, and Harold Johnson? There
was a picture of the Hatchetman in the article and I took a close look at it.
Curtis was a dark-skinned black guy with a cold, destroying look in his eyes.
Standing with his shoulders hunched in fighting position. he looked the every
image of Disaster. Big bones, gigantic fists, and smooth muscles.
I imagined getting hit with his straight right. What was it Moore said?
"This guy once hit a guy so hard
he broke his collarbone."
Looking at him, that was easy to believe.
The second time I read something about Hatchetman was in
a book called "The Great Fights". It mentioned that Joey
Maxim, whom I recalled as an iron jawed, defensive boxer, suffered only one KO
in his entire career--a one round destruction by Curtis "Hatchetman"
Sheppard, a "tremendous puncher". That lesson was never
forgotten by Maxim, who thereafter became a safety-first boxer and outboxed
Sheppard a month later. But Sheppard had managed to knock Maxim out,
whereas Walcott, Moore, Charles, Robinson, and Patterson couldn't. I
wondered why I had never heard about him; I figured he must be one of those
black fighters of the thirties and forties who couldn't catch a break. A
Charley Burley-Lloyd Marshall type. To be black fighter with a murderous
punch in that era was to be a victim of...well, let's call it "bad
The years passed, and I didn't become a champion in the
ring. I found a new profession, new friends, and a whole different way of
life. But I kept up my interest as a fan, and I never forgot the name
Curtis "Hatchetman" Sheppard or what Archie Moore said about him.
One day in early 1988 I was indicted by the United States Government for
various "organized criminal" offenses. The charges were laid,
I believe, so as to pressure me into informing on people about whom the feds
thought I had meaningful information. I was found guilty and given a
After almost a year in Detroit Wayne County Jail,
suffering through not only a lengthy trial, but a long detainment in solitary
confinement for assault on a County sheriff I felt had disrespected me, I was
chained up and transported to Chicago. In Federal custody I was driven
to M.C.C. Chicago, a skyscraper prison in the middle of downtown, not far from
where I had been raised. It was a holding building for people in Federal
trial, court, informants, and those in transit to the Bureau of Prisons
As I climbed out of the bus in the M.C.C. garage, some
fresh air got into my lungs for a second. The first fresh air I had
taken in for a year. You can imagine the shape I was in, what with the
confinement, lack of exercise, terrible food, and depression. I was a
mess, a shadow of the man I used to be. I was forty years old and facing
the reality of spending the rest of my life in prison, all for being in the
wrong place at the wrong time.
When I reached the thirteenth floor and a bunk, I was
very tired. I spotted a few people I knew from the streets, but I didn't
even want to talk. I was ashamed of what I looked like. I went
into the bathroom and gazed into the mirror for the first time in a year.
I didn't like what I saw. My face was drawn, my eyes worn, my hair long
and unruly, with twice as much gray as before. My rock hard 190 pounds
was no more. I had a little stomach for the first time, and my muscles
felt like they had no power. I put my head down in misery and hurt.
Then I heard a man's voice speaking words I'll never forget. "C'mon
Rocky. Pick up your head and act like the man I heard you were," he
said. "I heard you was a good fighter. Well, now you're in
the first round of a tough fight. C'mon, son. You've got a fight
in front of you and it's time to start fighting back." I looked up
and saw a tall, very dark-skinned black man who had the kindest eyes I had
ever seen. His eyebrows were grayed and I could see more gray in his
beard, but that didn't tell the whole story. Dressed in an orange prison
jump suit, his forearms and biceps were solid, sinewy. He had a
tucked-in waist and broad powerful shoulders, along with the absolute biggest
fists I have ever seen. He was shaved bald, wore spectacles, and was
carrying a big black Bible. He was so impressive in his health and
vitality for a man his age, I might have
been worried had he not been so gentle in manner.
"I heard you was a pretty good fighter when you was
younger," he said.
"I tried it some, but I didn't go all the way like
maybe I should have," I answered, figuring he had talked to someone who
"That's why I knew I could talk to you," he
said. "You ever heard of
Curtis "the Hatchetman" Sheppard? That's me."
The minute he said the name, I
remembered the article and the picture. It was him! He was older,
but it was him. Same head, same expression, same body and fists.
The first thought I had was,"No wonder Moore said he hit so hard."
One look at him and you knew he was built to punch. Imagine him saying
he heard I was a pretty good fighter! Hatchetman Sheppard talking to me like I
was good enough to relate to a fighter like him. I was ashamed to let
him see me in this shape.
"Course I heard of you, Curtis," I said with
respect. "You was some fighter. Archie Moore said you was the
hardest hitter he ever boxed."
"Joe Maxim said it too," he laughed.
"Two champs. But these young kids out there don't know. I
heard you got "life", Rock. Is that true?"
"Yeah I did, Curtis," I answered, looking
down. "I let them get to me. I broke down in the
"Hole", man. I got down on myself and let myself go soft.
I'm ashamed to let a great fighter like you see me like this. How about
you, Curtis? What have they got...."
"Rocky, I have done over thirty-two
years in prison for two crimes that I had no choice about," he said,
cutting me off. "I've been on "death row" twice.
I've been so far in hurt and hell, that I never thought I'd live again like a
human being. I lost control just like you did. But with God I came back.
I stayed locked up, but I became a proud man again. I got my pride back.
That's what I want for you, Rocky. I want you to show me and God that
you're a champion. I want you to pick yourself off the canvas and start
fighting back like the great fighter I know you are."
Here was a guy who fought Moore, Walcott, Maxim,
Bettina, and Bivins, and who had done thirty years plus, telling me to pick up
my head and act like the fighter I was. He was telling me to come back
to life after the death blow of my sentence! Who was I that he should
talk to me like that? He didn't even know me.
I glanced up at him and was greeted
by a smile, and a huge hand on my shoulder.
"I'm praying for you son,"
he said. "You clean up and come on out. We can talk about the
old fighters. These young boys out here don't know anything. I need a
buddy to take my side."
That was the beginning of my rebirth
and my friendship with Curtis "Hatchetman" Sheppard, who went from
being one of boxing's most feared
fighters, to possibly the most feared man in the Illinois Penitentiary System,
to a gentle giant carrying a Bible.
The next day I said a prayer, got a
haircut, ate three meals, and started doing pushups and situps with a
seventy-four year old man. That was the beginning of my rebirth and the
long road back.
As luck would have it, me and the
Hatchetman were to both go to Oxford Federal Prison in Wisconsin. We sat
next to each other on the bus, and I have to tell you I enjoyed the ride just
to see some trees! Hatchetman was like a big happy kid on the ride, and was
uncuffed to be a "trustee". That meant he brought water and
served lunch, as well as doing cleanup. Watching this older man's energy
and spirit was inspiring. My determination to do more than just survive
grew as I watched him.
"You get a good rest
Rocky," he said. "When we get to Oxford, heavy training
starts. You start with your comeback."
He meant it.
When we arrived at Oxford, which was
a double-fenced, razor- wired
hell in the middle of forests, Hatchetman was enthused.
"This is beautiful," he
said happily. "Good air. Perfect for a
He made me forget it was prison for a
Gradually I found out more about the
Hatchetman. It was a hell of
While Hatchetman was fighting in the late forties, he
admitted that due to training he neglected his wife. He made good money
as a fighter, and was renowned in the black community. He lived the high
life of nightclubs, entertainers, athletes, and the famous. Eventually
due to his neglect his wife took a Chicago policeman for a lover.
"She always had a thing for
those 'high yaller' fellows," he said, shaking his head.
Hatchetman found them together, a
fight ensued, and Hatchetman shot
the officer to death. His wife, mother of his only child, a son, ran
almost naked to a police station. Her testimony put Hatchetman away for
twenty long hard years. A year later, his wife's corpse was found in
All kinds of rumors floated around
the city and the prisons about
her death. It was said, that Hatchetman was a "mob" fighter
and she had
been killed in retaliation. Another rumor that--against all
logic--persisted until the present day was that Hatchetman killed her and
chopped off her head.
"Rock I'm telling you, this is the way it
happened," said ----------, a known Chicago Black Gangster Disciple gang
"Hatchetman came home and found her and the cop together.
the cop, killed his wife and chopped off her head. Then he went to a
bar, ordered a drink, put his wife's head on the bar and said, "Give her
a drink too."
I was told that story by at least
twenty seasoned convicts from
Chicago, who had heard of him or known him from Illinois prisons.
"That story was just a rumor,
Rocky," Hatchetman said. "I couldn't
have killed my wife even if I'd had the opportunity. I was in love with
her. She was my son's mamma. When I heard she died, no one grieved
much as me. But it wasn't any of my doing. These people in prison
heard the name 'Hatchetman', and shoot, they didn't know nothing about
boxing. They figured I got the name for chopping up people. They
didn't know it was because of my punching. I heard the stories but I was
so crazy back then, I didn't even care. But no, son, I never killed my
Hatchetman was bitter about the
sentence and he did his twenty years with hate. He formed a gang in the
prison system known as the "Black Gangsters", and established
himself as Gangster number one. He became the most feared man in the
prison system, not only because of his position as gang leader, but because of
the ruthless way he used his fists on anyone who opposed him.
"I was taken over by the devil,"
he'd say with disgust.
"Taken over by the devil"
meant just that. Hatchetman became involved the terrible activities that
prison hatred breeds. His reputation as a fearsome inmate grew.
Many a young boy in Cook County jail facing prison was greeted by seasoned
cons with the warning, "Man, they gonna send you to Stateville and ol'
Hatchetman will be waiting for you. He'll take a pretty young guy like
you and knock you out and use you like a girl. He's so big and mean,
there ain't gonna be a goddamm thing you can do about it!"
Hatchetman's reputation came to reach
mythic proportions. People forgot he had actually been a quality boxer
who'd knocked down champions. Eventually he joined the Black Muslims and
changed his name to Curtis X. He became a leader in promoting racial
hatred and violence--this only added to his rep.
I heard dozens of stories concerning
Hatchetman's activities during this period, one detailing how he fought the
entire "goon squad", a group made up of tough convicts, used by the
guards to break down incorrigible inmates. Goon squad members were hated
and looked down upon as snitches, and were housed away from the other
prisoners. They received early releases and benefits for this kind of
help, and they caused so many revenge murders that the use of such groups is
no longer permitted. The squad was cut loose upon
Hatchetman one day to discipline him, and outnumbered 20 to 1, he fought them
to a standstill. Finally he was tied down, drugged and given electronic
shock treatments to keep him quiet.
"That was terrible son,"
Hatchetman said. "Just terrible.
Terrible days and bad memories. No way for men to treat
Hatchetman did his time, and after
twenty years was released into the streets. He took his prison
reputation with him and became involved in many brutal activities.
Disaster finally caught up to him one night when he beat a man over a gambling
dispute. The man returned and shot Hatchetman in the head.
Bleeding badly, Hatchetman nevertheless overpowered the man. He took
away the gun and killed him. Hatchetman barely survived. After the
incident he was charged and found guilty of second degree murder, receiving
another twenty year sentence. Even today the bullet hole is visible in
his skull and he has to take
constant medication to prevent seizures.
This brush with death brought
Hatchetman to the brink of insanity. He admits to almost losing his grip, but
like so many men of religious conviction he had a profound mystical experience
that led him to devote his life to Jesus Christ. During this second
prison experience, which started when the Hatchetman was in his fifties, he
was a different man.
Hatchetman was sent to Pontiac
Penitentiary in Illinois, and this time he was armed with his newfound faith.
He became the head of boxing program, which produced the finest teams in the
history of the Illinois prison system. His training program produced
quite a few professionals, including "Jumbo" Cummings who fought Joe
Frazier to a draw in Joe's last fight. But more significantly, Hatchetman
coached hundreds of young men in the basics of boxing and training, and kept
them away from the hellish temptations of prison life. Many, many men
who were released from prison and became useful citizens will attest to this.
Hatchetman came to be a preacher of
moral behavior and tolerance, a voice of reason in an inferno of racial
hatred. Many inmates were saved a terrible beating because of
Hatchetman's intervention in the name of peace. It was a much different
prison "bit" for Hatchetman this time, and things went well for a
while. But eventually trouble found him again. Twice.
The first incident occurred after
Hatchetman had become the head cook in the kitchen. He had to fight off
gang leaders who wanted to steal a disproportionate number of hamburgers on
hamburger day for their gang. (Hamburgers and chicken are like gold in
prison chow halls.) Hatchetman informed them that they couldn't do that--if
they did then other inmates would not get fed. As long as he was head cook
each inmate would get his fair amount. He told them they could have the
leftovers after everyone had been fed. Of course he was in the right,
and one on one, man to man, he was a match
for any three of them, even at that age. They backed off. But
later he was ambushed by "hit men" with knives who stuck him in the
back several times. Once again bloody but unbowed, Hatchetman not only
survived but gave chase, forcing the attackers to lock up for protection.
They tried him, but nobody got those extra burgers. He still carries the
scars from that attack.
The second incident was more tragic.
A powerful inmate in his twenties, the enforcer for a black prison gang, was
harassing a much smaller inmate for sexual favors. Hatchetman saw what
was going on and asked him to please leave the smaller man alone. The
enforcer, taking Hatchetman's plea as a disrespect for his position, cursed
and threatened him. Before long, he began harassing Hatchetman and
announcing that he was gonna kill him. Hatchetman did not start a fight,
but took to carrying a homemade "ice pick" for self defense.
day the enforcer got behind Hatchetman and hit him on the head, an almost
killing blow with a lead pipe. The blow bashed in Hatchetman's skull,
and with blood flowing like water, in a crazed rage, the Hatchetman wrestled
down his attacker and killed him with his "ice pick", after saying
that he was sending him "to hell, where he belongs." Surviving the
crushed skull, which left a depression in his head that is still visible next
to his earlier gunshot wound, Hatchetman was found guilty of first degree
murder and placed on "death row".
Entering the hell of loneliness and
darkness again, this time Hatchetman was sustained by his faith. After
about a year, his prayers were answered by a white ex-inmate from Southern
Illinois, who had turned over a new leaf upon release and become a expert
paralegal--he was also a heavyweight who had been trained by Hatchetman during
his prison time. The man recalled Hatchetman's many kindnesses and came
to his rescue. After a lengthy appeals process, Hatchetman's conviction
was overturned on the grounds of self-defense.
The Hatchetman had almost four years
left on his sentence, but because the dead man had been a member of a large
prison gang, it was unsafe for him to be in the State of Illinois correctional
system. It was decided that for his own protection he would finish out
his time in the Federal system, and this is where I got to know him.
When I arrived at Oxford, I was glad to finally get
into the fresh air, but even a walk around the track tired me. I was in
awful shape. Hatchetman became my trainer., and I found a friend about my age,
a ex amateur fighter named Wali Ali, who had been a "Fruit of Islam"
bodyguard of Muhammad Ali, who also wanted to get back in shape. We
decided to be Hatchetman's boxing stable--we were called the "Over The
Hill Gang" by the other inmates.
"Listen," said Hatchetman .
"I'm from the old school, and if I'm the trainer we do it my way.
I'm like Jack Blackburn or Doc Kearns. I'm the boss. What I say
goes. I give the order and you do what I say. I don't want any
backtalk. I want discipline and obedience. I'm doing this for you.
Not for myself. You'll see the result. But no questions. Just
action. First rule--always bring a
towel and a cap when I train you...."
Me and Wali started running on the
track like "two old Kentucky mules," and were as slow as dripping
honey. But one mile, becane two, then three, and after a while we were
doing five and finishing up with a sprint.
"C'mon, c'mon," cried
Hatchetman as the ninety degree heat bore down on us and, tiring, we
approached the final sprint. "Think about Rocky Marciano with a
split nose! He never quit! Think of old man Archie Moore getting
off the canvas! He never quit! Think of great fighters! Joe
Louis! Billy Conn! Henry Armstrong!"
How the hell could we quit with him
yelling that at us? No way.
Eventually we got to where we would carry a twenty-five pound
weight up and down hills for a half hour. He pushed us just as hard in
our other exercises--heavy bag, speed bag, jump rope, medicine ball and
Ali and I started off splitting one
round on the heavy bag. That was all we could manage, being so out of
shape. But soon, with the Hatchetman pushing us, we wcould do a
half-hour apiece with no problem, at top speed. The younger inmates were
One time Wali was on the heavy bag
during a hot day, and was in the eighth round, struggling with the heat,
"I'm gettin" tired,"
he said, knowing that Hatchetman would disapprove of his talking, yet so
exhausted the words just came out.
"You take that tired talk to
almighty Allah or whatever you call God," said Hatchetman in a loud
voice. "Complaints like that are His business. But I want ten
rounds out of you! He can have the rest..."
All the inmates within listening
distance turned around in shock. Ali just looked at me, shook his head, and
That's the kind of trainer Hatchetman
was. No nonsense, and a answer for everything.
Another thing about Hatchetman that
commanded respect was that he would hit the bags and run, too. At this
time he was about seventy-seven years old and about two hundred and twenty
five pounds--he was amazing.
Among inmates there's a saying that
"prison preserves you." Which is to say that the rest and
natural discipline of prison life keeps you looking like you did when you came
in, without much aging. I have to agree with that saying; I have seen
many men in prison who look and act at least twenty years younger than their
calendar age. But the Hatchetman, along with Sonny Franzeze, a Columbo
family capo, who was also seventy-eight, with thirty years of prison under his
belt...they were the most amazing physical specimens I ever saw.
Hatchetman's fists were so big, we
had no bag gloves for him, so he taped his hands and wore big knitted mittens
that he made himself. Then he would hit the heavy and speed bags for
eight or ten rounds. Hard crunching punches, that popped with power,
widening the eyes of any onlookers. His hands were so heavy, he would
throw a sweeping punch in which the inside of his fist would strike the back
of the bag and knock it sideways. This was an old tactic he had used to
"I'd do that to knock their
equilibrium back," he said. It was a killer.
He'd do his exercises and roadwork
with the same vigor. He was just an incredible genetic specimen.
You couldn't help but love him and respond to his coaching, seeing how great
he was at his age, and considering what he had been through.
I got in better and better shape, and
after about a year and a half, Hatchetman took me to the prison law library.
"Rocky, now that you walk and look like a fighter
again," he said. "I want you in this law library. I want
you to research your case and start fighting this thing in the appeals courts.
You have a life sentence and I want you to never give up the fight."
He then said a prayer.
"It don't hurt to have God help
you, Rock," he said.
He was right.
My prison life became a tornado of training and studying
I could go on and on talking about
the good things Hatchetman did behind the walls of prison, but suffice it to
say he was the voice of reason, common sense, and survival to many men at a
time when they needed a friend the most. He had a knack for picking out
inmates who seemed lost and helping them. Most importantly of all he
steered people away from gangs and racial hatred.
"Son, I've been a gangster, a
boxer, a bodyguard, a Black Muslim, a gang leader, and the most feared man on
the block. I've been in the lonely pit of hell, locked in with the devil
trying to take my soul. It was Jesus Christ that pulled me out.
I've been through everything and only Jesus Christ is left as the answer.
That I know. He saved me and He can save you..."
It was hard to not listen to this big
black-skinned man with the massive shoulders, huge fists and gentle voice.
He commanded your attention for he spoke from experience.
When he'd see black inmates, who were
in the majority, talking racial hatred and planning violence against whites
and others he'd say, "Don't tell me about slavery being a white and black
thing only. If the truth is known, niggers sold niggers into slavery and
made money from it. Judge a man for what he is, not his color."
Hatchetman had a curious hobby for
such a war-like man. He knitted. The big knit caps and gloves that
he knitted were all over the prisons. The big knit caps that Archie
Moore used to wear near the end of his life were gifts from the Hatchetman to
his old nemesis in the ring.
"I gotta love Archie," he'd
smile. "He always used to come to see me and aupport me in prison.
Joey Maxim too. They are two real champs."
My favorite times with Hatchetman
were when we'd discuss the old fighters and his fights. There weren't
many in prison who knew his era and could talk about it, and he loved that I
could. These were some of his comments.
"Walcott was the best," he
said. "Jersey hit like a mule and he knew how to draw you in."
"Moore hit the hardest of anybody I fought.
Either hand. He could drop a bomb on your head. Every round was
tough. I only hit him twice and both times I floored him. I don't
know how he got up. I hit him so hard I thought I killed him, but he
just got up. Archie was strong."
"Maxim was strong. He had
a very strong body. He could hold you in close. That was his
thing. That's how he beat me the first time. The second time I nailed
him early. After that I had to fight him twenty days later. He ran
like a thief and I wore the cuffs. But give him credit. He was as
good as any. After that knockout everyone ran from me."
"Melio Bettina was clever,
rough, strong. I was tired from Lee Q. Murray. Fought him a month
before. But Bettina was tough. Him and Moore would have been a
"I fought Lee Q. Murray six
times. He'd be a champ today. He would'a beat Riddick Bowe or
"Jimmy Bivins was all arms.
He never tried to punch with me. He knew better. All arms and
elbows. Good fighter."
We talked about them all Lloyd
Marshall, Tony Musto, Willie Reddish, Nate Bolden.
"You were a sparring partner for
Louis weren't you, Hatchetman?" I asked.
"Just for a second," he
laughed. "Oh he hit so hard! He'd try to kill you. Nothing
was worth that kind of money. He knocked out big Max Baer for damn sake!
Knocking out Baer was like chopping a tree! Oh, Louis could hurt you!
I got out of his camp quick."
Did he hit harder than Max Baer?
"Louis could hurt you, but Max
Baer could kill you!" He laughed.
"After he killed fighters he held back. He became a
clown. But his sparring partners told me he could kill you by accident.
He could hit that hard. But Louis was the better fighter."
"What match would you have liked
to have seen?"
"Tony Zale versus Ray
Robinson," he said, with eyes far away in the
past. "Zale was so strong and tough, and Ray wouldn't have ran.
would been some fight."
"Who was the best pound for
"Being from Pittsburgh," he
said., "I knew how good Burley was, and
Billy Conn. Don't forget Zivic. He was a killer, but they kept the
cuffs on him. There was so many. But for some reason I think of
Charles. Before he killed Baroudi he was beautiful. I was
Marciano beat him like he did. I didn't think anyone his size could
beat him twice like that. That gives you an idea of how tough Marciano
was and how hard he hit. Marciano's secret was his ability to avoid
women and night life. He could keep coming and with that chin and
power, he couldn't be denied."
"How much did you weigh in your
prime?" I asked.
"About 188," he said.
"How come so little?" I
said. "You're a big guy. How come so
"Back then heavyweights didn't
carry no fat like now. They wanted
to be quick. Plus no one lifted weights. They slow you up. Louis,
Dempsey, Walcott all could have weighed two fifteen or twenty if they
wanted. Baer was a giant. But the thing was, no one carried fat
"Could the modern fighters have beaten the old
"No way. Ali couldn't have
beaten Louis or Marciano. Even the
best of the modern guys like Monzon, Hagler, Foster, and Sugar Ray
Leonard. No way could they have dominated in my era. Duran is the
of the moderns and even without the cuffs I don't know if he could have
beaten Ike Williams. Kids come up tougher back then. They were
I noticed how much respect Hatchetman
gave to the older Chicago and
New York mob guys who were locked up with us. It seemed he couldn't
break the habit of thinking they had big power, even in here. These
were very old guys from his era; they were fight fans and remembered the
Hatchetman. Watching ho whe was around them gave me a picture of how
powerful the mob must have been in the fight game during his time.
We used to sit and talk boxing with the mob guys,
and fixed fights
and "handcuffs" and so on were routinely discussed. They
famous fights and famous fighters, too. Hatchetman never disagreed with
them. He'd only smile and nod, giving me the impression it was all the
"Handcuffs were for fighters not
to lose too bad, but by a
decision, or to let someone go the distance," Hatchetman told me.
fixed knockout was for bigger money."
"Did you wear the cuffs?" I
"Everyone wore the cuffs if you
wanted to make money," he said.
"That's the business, Rock."
"Was Ali and Liston on the
level?" I asked.
"C'mon, Rock," he said with
a smile. " That one had the cuffs on
Sonny tighter than a noose. It's all over now. God's got a better
now for both of us."
About four days before Hatchetman was
to be turned loose to the
world on parole for the first time in twenty years, I witnessed a final
One of my friends had sent me a copy
of Bert Sugar's Boxing
Illustrated Magazine. It had a copy of a story by Herbert Goldman, a
boxing historian, called "The Hardest Punchers in Boxing History".
glanced over the article I couldn't believe what I was reading.
That same day I also got a package from a prince of a man named Sal
Rappa, another boxing historian from New York, who used to send us
boxing stories, opinions, and pictures, generously giving of his time to
lighten the burden of trapped men who loved boxing. Sal has written for
Ring Magazine, is a member of the legendary Ring #8 out of New York, and
is a beautiful man who I will never forget for caring enough about us as
men to respond to our questions. In this instance he sent us upon
request the complete boxing record of Curtis "the Hatchetman"
The timing of these two pieces of mail seemed to testify that somebody
up there was thinking about Hatchetman.
I ran to the prison gym where
Hatchetman was surrounded by the
young guys he was coaching in boxing. I called him over, and the other
guys crowded around. I handed him his complete record and told him it
was from Sal. This touched him so deeply that he was silent. Then
gave him the Goldman article to read. It had a list of the men he
considered the fifty hardest hitters of all time. Oh there were the
guys you expected. Wilde, Louis, Baer, Dempsey, Marciano, Liston,
Saddler, and other champions. But number fifteen....Number fifteen was
"Curtis 'Hatchetman' Sheppard". Hatchetman closed the book
his name, and a tear came down the face of this big, dark man who had
known so much pain.
When the day came for Hatchetman to
leave, he was dressed in his
freshly ironed prison khakis and as excited as a little kid. He was
seventy-eight, but in shape like a person thirty years younger. With
everybody wishing him good luck, I just stood there happy for him.
Imagine, he was pushing eighty, and going to the world for the first
time in twenty years, yet he was excited like a kid. He kept talking
about a little "Fish Fry" place he was going to open up.
"What about money,
Hatchetman?" someone asked.
"I don't worry bout money
," he said with a confident look. "I
made money, money didn't make me. I'll be okay."
Finally he came to me and hugged me
and kissed me.
"I found the love of a father
for a son in you, Rock," he said.
"If you didn't become a champion in the ring, still you
can be in shape
like one. I expect you to keep in shape, keep training, and stay in
that law library and fight your case. My prayers are that you will
overturn your conviction and walk out in the health of a much younger
man. You will then beat them like I did. I'll pray for you, and
He had tears in his eyes and so did
He left and it felt like half the
prison left with him, so empty
did it seem. I was blessed to have known him. I kept my word to
and stayed in shape and in the law library fighting my case. Some few
years later I overturned my conviction and walked out of Federal prison
a free man in strong physical condition, through my own efforts in the
law library and prison gym, and the prayers of a old heavyweight
Every once in a while I'll see
Curtis' name mentioned with the
black "Murderers Row" of fighters of that era that never got a
the title: Burley, Lytell, Marshall, Bivins, Williams, and others.
I know that the Hatchetman was a champ in the real life, and after all
that's where it counts.
WAIL! Contents Page