Dewey Bozella was a promising amateur boxer who prayed that the sport could lead him away from a life that he was desperate to escape. At just eight years of age he had witnessed his pregnant mother brutally murdered at the hands of his father, before being forced to grow up quickly in various foster homes and on the streets of New York.
Having been robbed of a normal childhood, life did not get any easier for Bozella when at 16 he lost his brother who was stabbed to death. His youth had been defined by loss and rejection, but there was one place he felt at home – in the boxing ring. He moved to Brooklyn and began to train in the Floyd Patterson gym, showing genuine promise.
His life was then turned upside down when on June 14 1977, 92-year-old Emma Crasper walked in on a burglar and was gagged, eventually dieing due to a lack of oxygen. Bozella, 18 at the time, was believed to have committed the horrific crime but there was no evidence and he was duly released. However, six years later he was once again arrested after two inmates told prosecutors that he was guilty.
There was immense pressure from the local community on the police to find the perpetrator, and despite evidence being found at the scene pointing to another man, Bozella was sentenced to 20 years inside a maximum-security prison. It is here than his amazing story truly begins.
Incarcerated in the Sing Sing Correctional Facility along with 1700 other inmates, Bozella was determined to convince the authorities of his innocence. In a similar story to that of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter who was also a promising boxer wrongfully imprisoned, Bozella refused to give up hope that one day he could have the decision overturned.
It would be seven years before he could appeal and was awarded a second trial. Once again he was convicted and it appeared that there was no hope of proving his innocence. While serving his time, he refused to be drawn into the gangs and violence that go hand-in-hand when locked up 24 hours a day. With little hope of a successful appeal, he dedicated his time to gaining an education.
Having been denied the chance of a normal school life, Bozella wanted to further his education and eventually obtained a bachelor’s degree from Mercy College and a Masters from New York Theological Seminary. Working as a counselor for a number of inmates, it was not just his studies in which he excelled.
Bozella still had one burning passion – boxing. He refused to use the skills he had honed in the gyms of New York in brawls and petty feuds, but instead competed in the boxing tournaments held in prisons across the country. It was here that he felt at home, could channel his anger and could in some way escape the day-to-day life behind bars. He went on to become the light-heavyweight champion of Sing Sing Prison and even faced a world champion between the ropes.
Perhaps his proudest moment in the ring came when he was presented with the opportunity to face New York’s golden gloves champion Lou Del Valle. He had truly believed that his hopes and dreams had been destroyed when he was faced with life in a tiny holding cell, but this was a moment in which he could escape and imagine another life surrounded by screaming fans and flashing cameras.
There may not have been a paying crowd in attendance, but the inmates were able to witness a true boxing contest between two highly skilled individuals. The bout was eventually halted after Bozella suffered a cut above his eye, but as Del Valle recalls, it was a tough encounter.
“I walked out of Sing Sing, like wow, I dodged a bullet,” revealed the fighter who would go on to become the WBA light-heavyweight champion of the world, winning 36 of his 44 contests.
But this was a mere moment in which he could mentally escape the torment of being behind bars and knowing his innocence. On four further occasions he was told by a parole board that if he admitted his guilt and showed signs of remorse, then his case would be considered and the possibility of an early release discussed.
“I would rather die in prison than admit to something I didn’t do,” declared Bozella who continually wrote to the Innocence Project in a hope that they would help him launch a successful appeal.
It would be a total of 26 years before Bozella would be allowed to walk out of that prison an innocent man. The law firm Wilmer-Hale eventually took up his case and uncovered new evidence that exonerated him. His original prosecutors had failed to disclose the proof that he was innocent and the Supreme Court Justice James Rooney finally declared him a free man.
Released on October 28, 2009, his passion for boxing remained and he quickly sought out a role working with youngsters at a gym in Newburgh, New York. He discouraged kids from joining gangs and warned of the dangers involved. Yet, there was a nagging feeling that there was still something that needed to be achieved.
As a youngster he had promised himself that he would have a professional fight. On October 15, 2011, just under two years after being released, his dream became a reality. Having worked incredibly hard to earn his license, and thanks to the support of promoter Oscar De La Hoya and fighter Bernard Hopkins, with who Bozella trained alongside, he stepped inside the ring for his one and only professional fight against Larry Hopkins.
“Bring it. You can’t hurt me no more than I’ve already been hurt. Black eye, busted lip, busted nose, broken rib… you can’t hurt me no more. You can’t. I’ve been knocked down so many times I had no choice but to get back up or lay down and die. And I ain’t ready for that yet, so I’m going to fight,” declared Bozella before the contest.
This time there were no prison guards or inmates calling for blood, instead a packed crowd at the Staples Centre, Los Angeles, showing their support for a 52-year-old Bozella who outworked his younger opponent to earn a majority decision over four rounds.
It was a stark reminder of the career that had been cruelly snatched away from this incredible individual. Bozella had gone from a man with little hope of earning his rightfully deserved freedom, to receiving a phone call from the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, offering his support and encouragement.
It is a truly remarkable tale of courage and conviction that has eventually led Bozella to freedom and the accomplishment of a life long dream.