Curtis "The Hatchetman" Sheppard

Discussion in 'Boxing News and Discussion' started by El Gavilan, Jan 26, 2004.

  1. El Gavilan

    El Gavilan Guest

    A friend of mine sent me this article a few years ago, and it reminded me of the conversations I had as a kid with my uncle about fighters of this era. This is good reading from a variety of perspectives. He's right about a lot of things. Enjoy!!

    The Hatchetman

    By Aram "Rocky" Alkazoff

    The "Hatchetman".

    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
    of them.

    I remember how impressed I was by Rocky Marciano, how he had destroyed
    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 timing."

    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 life sentence.

    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 correctional system.


    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 knew me.

    "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
    training camp."


    He made me forget it was prison for a second.


    Gradually I found out more about the Hatchetman. It was a hell of
    story.

    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 Lake Michigan.


    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 leader.


    "Hatchetman came home and found her and the cop together. He stabbed 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 as 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 wife."


    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 each other."


    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. One
    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
    calisthenics.


    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 impressed.


    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 kept punching.


    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 dismantle boxers.


    "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 the law.


    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 good match."


    "I fought Lee Q. Murray six times. He'd be a champ today. He would'a beat Riddick Bowe or Holyfield."


    "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. That
    would been some fight."

    "Who was the best pound for pound?"

    "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 Ezzard Charles. Before he killed Baroudi he was beautiful. I was surprised 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 light."

    "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 weight like today."

    "Could the modern fighters have beaten the old timers?"

    "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 myera. Duran is the best 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 hungry."

    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 talked of
    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
    truth.

    "Handcuffs were for fighters not to lose too bad, but by a
    decision, or to let someone go the distance," Hatchetman told me. "A
    fixed knockout was for bigger money."

    "Did you wear the cuffs?" I asked.

    "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 plan
    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
    moving scene.

    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". As I
    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" Sheppard.
    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 I
    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 after seeing
    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 God is
    with you."

    He had tears in his eyes and so did I.

    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 him
    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
    fighter.

    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 chance at
    the title: Burley, Lytell, Marshall, Bivins, Williams, and others. But
    I know that the Hatchetman was a champ in the real life, and after all
    that's where it counts.
     

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