Dewey Bozella: Champion of Life

By David Matthew on October 12, 2011
Dewey Bozella: Champion of Life
Hopkins was in awe of Bozella: “Dewey’s story is bigger than anything I accomplished.”

When I cover Hopkins-Dawson Saturday night at the Staples Center in L.A., I will be thinking of, and rooting for, Dewey Bozella…

“The hero and the coward both feel the same thing. But the hero uses his fear—and projects it onto his opponent—while the coward runs.”—Dewey Bozella via Cus D’Amato

There are warriors whom we admire because of their exploits in the ring—and then there are warriors beloved because of their unthinkable achievements in life. Dewey Bozella falls into the latter category. But come this Saturday he may also fall into the former category as he makes his pro debut at the age of 51 on the Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson PPV (HBO) undercard. 

Even as Hopkins—freshly crowned as the oldest fighter to ever win a title— prepares to face Chad Dawson, it is the story of Dewey Bozella, the 2011 recipient of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, that is captivating hearts and minds as his pro debut draws near. Bozella’s real life blockbuster-like story of resolve, determination, and fighting spirit makes even the most highly anticipated mega-fights pale in comparison.

In 1983 Dewey Bozella arrived at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York to serve a 20-years-to-life sentence for murder. When he was nine years old and living in Brooklyn, New York, Bozella watched his father beat his mother to death.  A few years later he saw his brother stabbed and killed with a knife. After this string of tragedies, Bozella moved upstate to Poughkeepsie to seek a fresh start. But just months after arriving, he was arrested and charged with the murder of a 92-year-old woman. Despite the only evidence against him being sworn testimony by local criminals, it was enough for our broken justice system to try Bozella and find him guilty of homicide.

Bozella maintained his innocence throughout his trial and subsequent imprisonment. “I’d die before I told you I did it,” Bozella said. “I can’t live with you or anyone else telling me I killed that old woman.” 

So strong was Bozella’s resolve and commitment to his innocence that during a retrial in 1990 he was given the opportunity to walk out of court a free man if he would admit he committed the crime—and he refused. “Everything I stood for would’ve been taken away from if I admitted that I did it.” What Bozella stood for was an unwavering belief in true justice—and integrity that was nonnegotiable. After refusing to admit his guilt, Bozella returned to prison. But his determination to prove his innocence grew even stronger. 

While in prison, Bozella trained relentlessly during the day as if he was a world-class boxer. At night he was in the classroom earning bachelor and master’s degrees. While the judicial system had done all in its power to crush him, Bozella’s life force couldn’t be contained by mere concrete and steel. “Even though he was behind bars,” said Bozella’s wife Trena, “Dewey woke up every day loving life. When we could visit with him, he would always come down smiling, laughing. That was just Dewey.” That a man who suffered what Dewey Bozella had suffered, and “would always come down smiling, laughing,” speaks volumes about who he is. We often lionize our sports celebrities and place them on the highest of pedestals. But these celebrities just play the role of Champion on TV for our entertainment. Dewey Bozella lives it.

Bozella’s determination to prove his innocence was infectious. After writing to the Innocence Project (a non-profit legal organization dedicated to proving the innocence of the wrongly convicted through DNA testing) every week while in prison, they finally referred Bozella’s case to the law firm Wilmer Hale. After discovering evidence that had been suppressed by the prosecution in Bozella’s original case, the Wilmer Hale attorneys made quick work of exposing Bozella’s bogus conviction for what it was. After 26 years of serving a sentence for a crime he did not commit, Bozella’s conviction was reversed, and he was released from prison in Oct. 2009.

“Boxing is what saved me,” Bozella said. “Along with boxing comes moral obligation and responsibility. The main thing with boxing is discipline. It helped me to find that freedom I needed. That was my peace.”

With the weight of the world stacked against Bozella, he found salvation in the warrior culture known as the sweet science.

“During prison time you’re in a box,” Bozella explained, “every second, every day, every year, every decade… There’s no hope.”

Bozella was in a box serving a 26-year sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. But it was a different box, the boxing ring, where Bozella—like Andy Dufresne breaking through a sewer drain to emerge from Shawshank prison—found redemption. 

While many may think it’s simply a nice gesture for Golden Boy Promotions to be awarding Bozella a primetime slot on the Hopkins-Dawson undercard— they’d be wrong. Bozella developed into a remarkable boxing talent in prison.

He became the prison’s undefeated Light Heavyweight champion, and his prowess was so highly regarded that a special match was organized at Sing Sing between him and New York City’s Golden Gloves champ and former Light Heavyweight champion Lou Del Valle.

“It was one of those fights,” recalled Del Valle. “It was a war. He was one of those guys who just kept picking. The fight was stopped after he was cut. But I was the lucky one, because if I had been cut he would’ve probably won. I walked out of Sing Sing like, ‘Man, I dodged a bullet!’”

Many will look at Bozella’s age and question his ability to perform in the ring. But he is only five years older than the great Bernard Hopkins—who was himself in awe at Bozella’s story. After everything that Bozella has been through, his age seems less than trivial, especially in light of a dream come true: To fight as a professional boxer as a free man. 

“Dewey’s story is bigger than anything I accomplished,” admitted Hopkins. “I’m not saying I didn’t work hard for last 20-something years. But you’re talking about a life that was basically taken, after his life had a chance to do a four-rounder, after he had a chance to do something small for the boxing world. The people in L.A., the commission, from Golden Boy, everybody, gave this man an opportunity to do something that was basically taken away from him. His career was taken away. That’s one thing. But his life was taken away, and that is bigger than the sport, bigger than any materialistic thing. He got his life back—and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

Covering boxing and getting to meet the world’s greatest fighters is a thrill for me. But when I saw Dewey Bozella in Atlantic City a couple weeks ago at the Sergio Martinez vs. Darren Barker fight, I couldn’t help but be drawn to him. While the cream of the HBO crop was in the building, including a swagger-heavy Martinez, it was Bozella whose star shined brightest. As I greeted him, and he returned the gesture with a genuine smile and a warrior’s embrace, I felt decades of incarceration and body-breaking training on his physical frame. And in his eyes I saw a fire for life and living that I could never hope to describe. When I wished him luck in his upcoming fight he increased his grasp on my hand and said, “You know I will give it everything I have.”

When I cover Hopkins-Dawson Saturday night at the Staples Center in L.A., I will be thinking of, and rooting for, Dewey Bozella.

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2011 Arthur Ashe Award - Dewey Bozella

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  1. jkeno 07:48am, 10/20/2011

    Inspiring story!

  2. The Thresher 09:11am, 10/12/2011

    I’d read it and comment but I’m sick as a dog with the grip. Later Dave

  3. Joe 08:08am, 10/12/2011

    Maybe a few decent checks from Golden Boy and the State of NY will allow this guy to “enjoy” the rest of his life.  Incredible story.

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