Dewey Bozella wanted just one shot, one chance, to box professionally. Now, at the age of 52, he finally got the chance to step into the ring.
Bozella was one of the oldest persons ever to box in a sanctioned match when he won a unanimous decision over Larry Hopkins at the Staples Center in Los Angeles tonight. Bozella fought with a simple message: "Don't ever give up."
For more than a quarter century, he had every reason to lose hope, every excuse to give up.
He spent 26 years in New York's infamous Sing Sing prison for a murder he did not commit.
Four times he could have walked out a free man -- if only he would have admitted to the crime. Each time he refused, maintaining his innocence.
Boxing as Salvation
In boxing, Bozella found salvation.
This most brutal of sports gave Bozella an inner peace, and the strength to carry on. Day after day, month after month, year after year, the hope of having one fight as a free man kept him going.
In October 2009, Bozella was formally cleared. He was finally released from prison and this past summer, he was honored by ESPN as its 2011 Arthur Ashe Award winner for his courage.
Boxer Bernard Hopkins heard Bozella's story, and offered him the chance to fight on the undercard of his championship bout against Chad Dawson at the Staples Center tonight.
"This is not a charity case," Hopkins told the Los Angeles Times this week. "This man is fulfilling his dream."
For so long, a dream is all Bozella had.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Bozella was 9 years old when he witnessed his father beat his pregnant mother to death.
One brother later was stabbed and killed. And another brother was shot in the head. Young Dewey fell into a life of petty crime.
He moved to upstate Poughkeepsie, N.Y., hoping to turn things around. He took up boxing and trained at a gym run by former heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson. He showed promise. But trouble soon came knocking.
In 1983, he was convicted in the brutal killing of a 92-year-old Poughkeepsie woman.
There was no physical evidence tying him to the killing; he said he had been bicycling far from the scene. But two convicts fingered Bozella in return for their own freedom. He received a sentence of 20 years to life.
"Every day I had to ask myself, 'How do I survive this nightmare, Sing Sing,' a place where hate and anger are the order of the day," Bozella told ESPN earlier this year.
"I didn't merely want to survive, I wanted to thrive," he said. "Boxing awakened me. I felt free during my workouts for the first time. I was no longer a prisoner."
In 1990, Bozella won a second trial. As the jury deliberated, the prosecutor offered him a deal -- admit guilt, and walk out of prison. Bozella refused. And then the jury convicted him.
"I'd die before I would tell you I did it. I can't, I can't. You are not going to make me say something I didn't do," he told ESPN.
Bozella spent his days in Sing Sing's gym, and his nights earning his GED, and his bachelor's and master's degrees.
He fell in love with a woman who was visiting another inmate, and got married.
"I learned to take myself from the bad position and make it a better position, because if I hold onto it I'm just going to burn with hatred," he said. "If I have to die in prison, that's just the way it is."
Bozella continuously reached out to lawyers and to journalists, and for years he wrote the Innocence Project the exact same letter, week after week, urging them to take up his case. Five years after receiving the first letter, the Innocence Project agreed -- only to discover that the police had destroyed all of the physical evidence in the case.
The law firm WilmerHale eventually took on the case and tracked down the senior lead detective in the case, leading to an astonishing break.
The detective handed over a copy of the case file -- the only file he had taken home with him after he retired.
"I had figured some day someone would come knocking on my door," the detective, Arthur Regula, told ESPN. "There were certain things in the case that made me have doubts whether Dewey Bozella was actually involved. I just could never throw it away."
The file revealed that prosecution witnesses had lied, and that another suspect had confessed to the crime -- information that had been withheld from Bozella's lawyers all those years.
Obama Calls Bozella
On Thursday, as Bozella prepared for his first -- and he says, only -- professional fight, he received a phone call. It was President Obama.
"I heard about your story and wanted to call and say good luck in your first professional fight," Obama told him. "Everything you have accomplished while you were in prison and everything you have been doing since you got out is something that I think all of us are very impressed with."
A short time later, a beaming Bozella spoke to ABC New York station WABC-TV about the dream he harbored all those years.
"My message is, 'To never let fear define who you are, and never let where you came from determine where you are going,''' he said.
"When I was in prison, they were telling me, 'You can't do this, you can't do that, it's never going to happen.' And now look," he said. "It was something I believed in my heart would happen, and now the possibilities are happening."