PHILADELPHIA - In his bleakest days, confined to four walls and almost no shot of freedom, Dewey Bozella could see the boxing ring.
He could hear real fans, not inmates, chanting his name as he answered the bell for a bout. He pictured the dank and dark surroundings of his prison cell replaced by the bright lights of the marquee, his prison number swapped for his name on the back of a silk robe. Bozella could see himself, the champion of Sing Sing.
Serving time for a murder he did not commit, Bozella dreamed of just one real fight in the outside world.
"I just wanted to know what it's like to feel like a pro," he said.
He'll find out Saturday.
Two years after he was exonerated of murder, the 52-year-old Bozella will make his professional boxing debut fighting as a special attraction on the Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson card in Los Angeles.
Bozella fights two years after he walked out of a courtroom cleared for a gruesome murder he did not commit. Convicted for the murder of 92-year-old Emma Crapser, on her way home after a night out playing bingo, Bozella served 26 years in prison before the conviction was overturned in 2009.
Never in the darkest of days did Bozella waver in maintaining his innocence. Armed with a plea bargain offer in 1990 that would have released him from prison on the spot had he admitted guilt, Bozella refused and was sent back to jail.
He said he'd rather die in prison with a clear conscience than live in freedom known as a murderer.
"This is the outcome," Bozella said. "It's a gift."
Honoured by ESPN as its 2011 Arthur Ashe Award winner for his courage, Bozella mentioned his dream of having one fight. Hopkins and Golden Boy promotion worked to make it a reality.
His grit and courage have helped him come a long way from New York inmate No. 84AO172. He's been training in Philadelphia, courtesy of Hopkins, and spent a recent workout going through the same demanding pre-fight grind as any other boxer. Even with his amazing change of fortune, there are no smiles out of Bozella as he takes his licks against a heavy bag. When a trainer barks at him mid-whack to drop and give him 20, Bozella does.
Bozella is fit, looks about 20 years younger than his age and expects to weigh in at about 195 for his fight against Larry Hopkins. He's done everything asked of him and has asked Bernard Hopkins, also an ex-convict fighting well past his prime, for advice. The two have run the streets of Philadelphia together, and Hopkins' team helped Bozella pass the California State Athletic Commission test in late September.
"This is what it's about," said Bozella after a workout, smiling and sweating, "enjoying the last part of my life."
The first 50 years were outright hellish for him. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Bozella was only nine when he witnessed his father beat his pregnant mother to death. His father skipped town, and Bozella was raised in foster care — but more often the streets. He had a brother who was stabbed and killed (Bozella would later confront the killer in prison) and another brother was shot in the head. Bozella roamed the streets, fighting, committing petty crimes and living life without direction or purpose.
He moved to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and was there for a mere four months when his life changed forever. He was suspected in 1977 of killing Crapser. Bozella was fingered by a suspect in another crime and eventually charged for her death. But a grand jury found there wasn't enough evidence and refused to indict him.
With a second chance, Bozella vowed to steer clear of the streets. He picked up boxing at a gym run by former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and tagged along with him on several trips to weekend bouts. For the first time, Bozella felt fulfilled and thought he had found his calling.
Life unravelled in 1983 when false testimony from convicts that granted their freedom cost Bozella his. Bozella was arrested again for Crapser's death and in December 1983 was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years to life. He collapsed to the ground in tears, crying out that he didn't do it.
"When I was young, I was bitter," he said. "I thought I would never get out of prison. I thought I might die in there."
His attitude changed when boxing became his salvation. Bozella felt fleeting moments of freedom when he stepped into the ring. He was Sing Sing's light heavyweight champion and fought Golden Gloves champion Lou Del Valle, who later knocked down Roy Jones Jr. Bozella found his focus in the ring, and that discipline helped turn him from a student of the game to a student who hit the books at night. He earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree, forgave the inmate who killed his brother, and met his future wife, Trena, who was there visiting another inmate.
He also refused to admit to the crime, even with his freedom on the line.
"I didn't do it," he said. "I couldn't live with the fact that for the rest of my life, I'd have admitted to something I didn't do. If it cost me my freedom, then it cost me my freedom."
Hopkins, the light heavyweight champion, was stunned that any man would turn his get-out-of-jail free card.
"Most people would have taken the plea just to get the hell out of hell," he said.
Bozella started a weekly letter writing campaign to the Innocence Project, a foundation that uses DNA evidence to help clear the wrongly accused. After years of letters, they agreed to take his case. But there was no physical evidence. It had all been destroyed. The case eventually came to the attention of the firm WilmerHale, and it agreed to accept Bozella's file pro bono.
In 2007, lawyer Ross Firsenbaum met with Bozella and found a man losing hope. Over the next 18 months, Firsenbaum led a team that eventually found the arresting officer, discovered evidence had been withheld during the trials and proved Bozella had nothing to do with the killing.
In 2009, Bozella walked out of a court room a free man.
"He believed he was going to get out of prison," Firsenbaum said. "He had a plan for what he was going to do with his life when he got out of prison."
Bozella would like to share his story as a public speaker. But the pain of his wasted 26 years still runs deep, and he's reluctant to talk about life in prison.
"There are still a lot of mental effects that are inside of me," he said. "I don't want to talk about it. I don't socialize with it. I've tried my best to live my everyday life to the best of my ability. I deal with things on my own."
He started working with kids, and word of his ordeal spread. ESPN heard his story and honoured him with its Arthur Ashe Award at the ESPYs, putting him in a line of winners that include Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Pat Tillman.
"I don't think a lot of people would risk 15 or 10 more years in prison, which happened, to finally be set free and gain his life back," Hopkins said. "That, to me, is bigger than anything that I accomplished."
Like so many fighters, Bozella promised he'd retire after this one bout. He knows he's beating the odds again at 52 and hopes his story can inspire others like him.
"There are thousands of other people going through what I went through," he said. "There are people facing death. They could be executed at any given second. My story is the story of many people. I think that by me being able to speak about it not only helps me rehabilitate myself and give something back, but help those that are around me. Please, don't ever give up."