LOS ANGELES – Dewey Bozella won't win a world championship, but not many boxing champions get a telephone call from President Obama, either.
The 52-year-old, who was falsely imprisoned for 26 years for a 1977 murder he did not commit, made his professional boxing debut a successful one, outpointing Larry Hopkins on Saturday at the Staples Center in a four-round cruiserweight bout.
The cavernous arena was only about a third full when he fought, but the majority of those who were in the building roared their approval in the waning seconds of the bout as it was clear that Bozella was going to come out on top.
Bozella won what he plans on making his only pro bout by scores of 39-36, 38-37 and 38-36. His opponent was gasping for air as the bout ended. Hopkins had spit out his mouthpiece five times in the fourth round in an effort to catch his breath. Just before the bell, Hopkins spit out the mouthpiece, caught it in his boxing glove and was cracked on the chin by a Bozella right hand.
"This is one of the greatest experiences of my life," Bozella said.
Bozella was only 18 when he was arrested in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1977 for the brutal murder of 92-year-old Emma Crapser. He was released four months later for a lack of evidence, but was re-arrested in 1983 and was convicted of murder.
But Bozella always maintained his innocence and even declined a plea deal in 1990 that would have gotten him out of prison for time served when his first conviction was overturned.
"I'm not a murderer," Bozella said.
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Turning down the deal, he had to spend 19 more years at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y., where he became the prison's light heavyweight boxing champion.
He was a model prisoner who earned his high school equivalency diploma, as well as a bachelor's degree from Mercy College and a master's from the New York Theological Seminary.
On Thursday, after significant media coverage about his story, Bozella said Obama called to congratulate him and wish him luck. Bozella had trained for years with the hope he'd be released and be able to compete for a world title.
That wasn't to be, but he managed to become one of the rare professional fighters to retire undefeated.
"It's my dream come true," Bozella said. "I used to sleep in my cell and dream about this happening."
Bozella was in the kind of shape that most 52-year-old men can only dream about. He had a muscular chest and a flat stomach and was clearly in better shape than Hopkins, who was flabby around the middle and gasping for breath only minutes into the bout.
Bozella ate a big overhand right in the first, which all three judges gave to Hopkins. But Bozella got busier as the fight went on, outlanding Hopkins by a better than 2-to-1 margin. According to CompuBox, Bozella landed 48 of 208 punches, while Hopkins was just 20 of 132. Bozella went to the body hard in the second round and several times, seemed to bother Hopkins with his shots to the midsection.
Hopkins tired visibly in the third and Bozella, stunningly, picked up the pace. He pushed Hopkins back to the ropes and connected repeatedly with clean, hard shots.
By the fourth round, Bozella had captured the crowd, which was rooting him on like it was a movie. The fans were standing and cheering as he poured it on at the end.
"I didn't want to leave it in the hands of the judges," Bozella said.
Bozella plans to open a gym in Newburgh, N.Y., dubbed "The Murder Capitol of New York" by New York magazine, to help at-risk youth.
His boxing career is over, but it ended with the kind of flair that few do.
It won't quite make up for losing half his life for a crime he didn't commit, but it clearly meant a lot to him.
And for once in boxing, the story of the old guy had a happy ending.
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- Larry Hopkins