by Aram "Rocky" Alkazoff
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 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
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
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 out boxed 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
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
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."
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
"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
"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
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 sit-ups 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
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
"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 old' 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 goddamn 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 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
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
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.
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, became 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 could 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
"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
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
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
"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
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 support 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
"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
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
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
"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
"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 my
era. 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 him when 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
"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
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?"
"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
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.