On a spring evening the years ago in the black ghetto in Charleston, S.C., a 16-year-old boy named Bobby Lee Hunter was goofing along with some friends in the Cottonpatch Snack Bar, where hot dogs were dealt across a linoleum counter and you could see the strollers through a greasy window. It was a place where people from the neighborhood around Do As You Choose Alley used to hang out, and they all knew Bobby Lee Hunter as a tough little street kid who had quit school in the seventh grade and was staying with his grandmother and had nowhere much to go that would take him anywhere good. The streets were full of kids like that. If Vietnam didn't get them, their faces would fade into the concrete of the ghetto life. Or there was always jail.
A man entered the Cottonpatch Snack Bar. In a moment there was an exchange of words over some girls, followed by bumping and shoving in the narrow aisle between the stools and booths, and then threats were shouted in Gullah, the loud, thick, sweet language of many Charleston blacks.
Suddenly Bobby Lee Hunter had driven a knife into the man's ribs. Bleeding and scared, the victim refused an ambulance and stumbled out the door. Twelve hours later he had bled to death from his wound.
Hunter had been in trouble before on the street, but nothing like this. A small figure—about five feet tall at the time and weighing slightly more than 100 pounds—he stood up in court and heard himself sentenced to 18 years in prison for manslaughter. Removed abruptly from the Charleston ghetto, Hunter was locked up for about a month in the Central Correctional Institution, the main prison, before being transferred to Manning Correctional Institution, just outside Columbia. Manning is called a medium-security prison—brick and concrete-block buildings gathered behind high double fences made of wire, watched over by guard towers, patrolled at night by dogs. It is intended for younger convicts and its main business is a laundry that turns out clean linens for the state.
At first Hunter was a silent, moody prisoner, bewildered and angry. "I'd been on the street so long, you know," he says now. "I was always cutting up and sometimes being bad, but we laughed a lot. Then I got overmad at that man in the snack bar, and the judge put me away. All I could think about when I got inside was 18 years. Man, 18 years to go. If I couldn't be on the street I just wanted to be by myself, alone. I didn't want nobody jiving with me."
The other prisoners gave Hunter the nickname Little Rat because of his stature and his appearance of misery. They learned, however, not to push him too hard. He answered with quick fists and could hit with astonishing power. While he was proving this, Hunter was absorbing his share of non-fistic punishment: frequent stretches in the hole (solitary) or on the shelf (locked into a cell).
After a couple of years at Manning, where he had begun folding sheets in the laundry four hours a day for $18 per week, Hunter was approached by Red Douglas, who worked for the Department of Corrections. A stocky man whose face has obviously caught a few punches, Douglas used to walk the yard at CCI, the main prison, with a pair of eight-ounce boxing gloves slung around his neck, looking for recruits for the boxing team. The athletic director at Manning had pointed out Hunter and said, "I think we've got a wheel here."
"How come you want to bust up your hands hitting people's heads?" Douglas asked Hunter. "If you like to fight so much, get on a team."
Hunter liked the idea. With a good welterweight, Roger Kirkpatrick, a fighter called Frog (Leroy Miller) and a few others, Hunter dug holes, mixed concrete and strung cable for an outdoor ring on the athletic field at Manning. At Hunter's first scheduled fight in the new ring, his opponent refused to appear. The inmates sent up a shout to see Hunter in action, and another opponent, 50 pounds heavier than Hunter, was brought into the ring. Accustomed for years to fighting bigger people, Hunter punched him out.
Red Douglas began taking Hunter along with the Department of Corrections boxing team. By now Bobby had grown to 5'2" and 112 pounds. When they could not find a flyweight for him to box, he would fight bantams, light weights, welters. At a warmup match for the All-Army tournament, Hunter knocked the Third Army champ down twice and won the decision.
With permission of the wardens involved and of Department of Corrections Director Bill Leeke, Douglas would load up his car with boxers and drive them anywhere he could find a likely tournament. "When I'd take those black fighters into Klan country, I'd always tell 'em if they won by a knockout, don't come back to the car but look for me somewhere down the road," Douglas laughs.
In April of 1970, Douglas bought some clothes for Hunter and several other fighters and escorted them to the National AAU Tournament in Trenton, N.J. Hunter was beaten there. "Bobby Lee never had been so far from home. I think he was kind of confused," says Douglas. By now Hunter had begun training at the Memorial Youth Center in Columbia under the direction of Chris Hitopoulos, a druggist who had gone to the University of South Carolina with Douglas. In December of 1970 Hunter beat the national AAU champion. Douglas had been transferred to the Juvenile Corrections Department in August, with the job of chasing escapees, but in the spring of 1971 he and Hitopoulos took Hunter to the national AAU in New Orleans. Hunter was supposed to sleep in the New Orleans jail, but Douglas would smuggle him out and into a motel. It may have been unusual penal procedure, but it was sound managing. Bobby Lee won the national flyweight championship.
Hunter was then invited to the Pan-American Games, but Douglas was busy tracking down 97 inmates who had left the detention center without approval, and he could not go. He recommended Hitopoulos as Hunter's escort, but Hitopoulos was not a police officer. So Hunter, with Leeke's O.K., chose Ray Satterfield, who had resigned as a supervisor in a glass manufacturing plant and become a prison guard at Manning. Though Hunter lost a disputed decision in the Pan-American Games, he won a bronze medal, and when he returned there was a press conference for him in the governor's office. Douglas and Hitopoulos had not been asked to attend, but Douglas went—in his words, "A little snooted up"—and he said a few things you are not supposed to say in front of the boss. He has not traveled with Hunter again.
Since then Satterfield has been Hunter's companion on the road, his expenses paid by donations, and it has proved to be a long road. For starters, he and Bobby Lee went on an AAU boxing tour of Russia and England. In London, Hunter decisioned the British champ in front of a black-tie crowd in the ballroom at the Hilton. In Russia he split two bouts. Though they share a room when they travel, Satterfield allows Hunter considerable freedom while Satterfield searches out the company of boxing coaches to try to increase his knowledge of what is going on in the ring. "I know it never crosses Bobby's mind to run off. He has too much at stake." says Satterfield.
Hunter has now found himself a celebrity at the age of 21. Girls he has never seen write him letters. At least three movie companies have inquired about doing his life story. He has appeared on an ABC-TV special and on The David Frost Show. Before the latter, he was understandably terrified. "I didn't know how to talk like those people do." he says. "I had bad butterflies. But as soon as I walked into the lights it was like getting into the ring and it was O.K." What wasn't O.K. was the meal he had at Sardi's, the flashy restaurant show people like to be seen in. Bobby Lee ordered fried chicken, which he likes a little better than he likes fried shrimp, which he likes far better than he likes anything else. "They brought me out a plate of something like I never saw before," he says. "It was chicken with a bunch of stuff on it."
By last month, amid speculation about Hunter defending his AAU title, going on to the Olympic Trials and perhaps winning a gold medal for the United States in Munich this summer, there seemed to be some danger that Bobby Lee's ambition was cooling down. He was trying to train himself; running four miles a day around the prison yard, punching the bag in a hallway, sparring when he could locate someone to fight him. But he still gained 10 pounds. He had refused to cat prison cafeteria food and was living on bologna and canned peaches he bought at the commissary. He arrived at the commissary a few minutes after closing time one evening and Satterfield, who was on duty, refused to sell him anything. Bobby Lee felt the chains of his circumstance.
"Bobby might be kind of low," said his friend Frog, sitting on the grass in front of the dormitory building at Manning on a cool, windy afternoon. "He's a good guy, you know. When he comes back from a trip he'll go into the wards and tell the guys what all happened. He's got a lot of friends, and he jives around a lot with everybody. But it's not hard to get low in here."
The same day Hunter would not say much about what was on his mind. He lay on his bunk, beneath the plaque he had won in Russia, reading boxing magazines. He talked about his travels, about a Russian who had dazed him with a right hand that came in over Bobby's left. "I got to stop dropping that left," he said with a slight smile. "I think maybe I could use some coaching."
Ten days before the national AAU tournament opened a fortnight ago in Las Vegas, Chris Hitopoulos and Red Douglas were called hack to work with Hunter. His weight dropped. He won his state AAU division and journeyed to Las Vegas with Satterfield, Roger Kirkpatrick and Reggie Barrett, a Charleston amateur boxing coach. Hunter avoided the shows and the casinos and. when he could, the movie cameras. With reason. He faced five fights in the Convention Center in three days.
Hunter won his first bout by a decision and had a tough time of it. In his second fight he missed a few whistlers with both hands early in the first round and then knocked out his opponent with a left hook that was struck so fast it couldn't be seen. But it could be heard—like a toy balloon exploding. The third fight was another knockout, this time in the third round, the victim a boxer about six inches taller than Hunter. In the semifinals he outpointed Gary Griffith, the 1971 champion in the 106-pound class, and was upset with himself that the fight had been close.
For the finals, Hunter was matched against Ricky Dean of the Navy. In his crowding, aggressive, left-handed style, evocative of Joe Frazier, Hunter kept coming forward. He stunned Dean with a left hook and put him away with a right. It was a TKO at 1:03 of the first round, and Bobby Lee Hunter was the AAU flyweight champion again.
After six years in prison, Hunter will be eligible for parole in June 1973. Fortunately, it is no longer an Olympic rule that no athlete may compete if he has the intention of turning pro, for prison has prepared Bobby Lee only for fighting or folding sheets in a laundry.
"All I'm thinking about is Munich and the Olympics," Hunter says. "But it might be nice to take a trip to Japan or the Philippines someday. I hear they like small fighters over there."