Dewey Bozella: Wrongfully Convicted Man Wins Pro Boxing Debut Match

Dewey Bozella wanted just one shot, one chance, to box professionally.

After spending 26 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, he finally got the chance to step into the ring - and he made the most of it.

Bozella, 52, won a unanimous decision over Larry Hopkins, 30, in Los Angeles on Saturday night, bringing the crowd at the Staples Center to its feet.

"I used to lay in my cell and dream about this happening," Bozella said. "It was all worth it. It was my dream come true."

Bozella became one of the oldest boxers ever to fight in a sanctioned match, and for the first two rounds Saturday night he looked it.

But he appeared to gain confidence as the bout went on, and his superior conditioning over his much younger opponent began to show.

Bozella landed his best right of the night as the buzzer for the fourth and final round sounded.

It was a fitting ending for a boxer who said he was fighting with a simple message: "Don't ever give up."

Across all those years behind bars, Bozella had every reason to lose hope, every excuse to give up.

Four times he could have walked out of New York 's notorious Sing Sing prison a free man - if only he would have admitted to the crime. Each time he refused, maintaining his innocence.

In October 2009, Bozella was formally cleared and 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 Saturday night.

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.

Dewey's Life

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was 9 years old when he witnessed his father beat his pregnant mother to death. One brother later was stabbed and killed. And another bother was shot in the head.

Young Dewey fell into a life of petty crime.

He moved to upstate Poughkeepsie, N.Y., took up boxing and began to turn his life around. But trouble soon came knocking.

In 1983, he was charged in the killing of a 92-year-old Poughkeepsie woman. He said he was far away from the crime scene, and no physical evidence ever linked him to the crime.

But he was convicted based on the statements of two convicts who won their own freedom in return for testifying against him.

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 he was convicted again.

"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 earlier this year.

In boxing, Bozella found salvation. He spent his days in Sing Sing's gym, and his nights earning his GED, and his bachelors and masters degrees. He met a woman who was visiting another inmate, fell in love, 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 explained.

For years he wrote the Innocence Project the same letter, week after week, urging them to take up his case. After five years 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 investigation, 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 someday someone would come knocking on my door," the retired 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.

In Oct. 2009, Bozella was formally cleared. Finally, he walked out of prison a free man.

This past week has been overwhelming. On Thursday, President Obama called to wish Bozella luck.

"I heard about your story," 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."

And then, on Saturday night, he finally boxed in his long-awaited professional debut.

"This was my first and last fight," Bozella said when it was all over. "This is a young man's game. I did what I came to do. I appreciate what everyone did for me. This was one of the greatest moments of my life."