Boxer Wins At Last
The willingness to climb into a boxing ring -- and brave being punched in the face, or even knocked unconscious -- is something that we tend to associate with youthful bravado or foolhardiness. That's why it was so startling last Friday to see a fight card at Staples Center in Los Angeles that featured not one but two middle-aged pugilists.
The main event featured 46-year-old Bernard Hopkins, who in May became the oldest boxer ever to claim a major title by winning a unified light-heavyweight championship fight against 28-year-old Jean Pascal. Hopkins, who's boasted that he will keep boxing until the age of 50 and who's been known to do pushups between rounds to show off his vigor, once again faced a younger opponent, 29-year-old challenger Chad Dawson. Alas, Hopkins injured his shoulder early and had to concede.
But oddly, it was a nontitle undercard bout featuring an even older pugilist that got more attention from the sports world. That's because one of the fighters, 52-year-old Dewey Bozella, has a personal story so extraordinary and compelling that it sounds like something made up by a Hollywood screenwriter.
New Yorker Bozella was fingered by dubious police informants for a robbery-murder of which he was innocent, and served 26 years in prison. As this New York Times article details, during that time, Bozella actually passed up chances at parole and a plea deal, because he refused to admit guilt for a crime he hadn't committed. Instead, during his confinement at Sing Sing, Bozella took up boxing as a way to work out his frustration at the rotten deal he'd been dealt. He turned out to be good enough to win the prison's light-heavyweight championship.
Finally, Bozella, who also earned two college degrees while incarcerated, caught a few breaks. Lawyers from the Innocence Project uncovered evidence that led to his exoneration and release in 2009. After that, ESPN took notice of his ordeal and in July gave him the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, an honor previously bestowed on the likes of Muhammad Ali and the late football-star-turned-war-hero Pat Tillman. That, in turn, led Golden Boy Promotions to offer Bozella a chance to fight professionally.
I doubt that anybody would have knocked Bozella for turning down the offer, since a guy who's survived a quarter-century behind bars doesn't really have to prove his toughness. But the ex-convict instead decided to seize the opportunity. He'd fight just once, he decided, and use the event to promote his other dream of opening a boxing gym and using the sport to help troubled young people in the way that boxing helped him to make it through prison.
Getting licensed to fight in California, which has imposed exacting standards in an effort to protect fighters against brain injuries, wasn't easy. It was just as tough for Bozella to convince his trainers that he could get in the sort of shape it takes to stay on his feet in the ring against a fighter a couple decades younger. "I'm thinking, I'm going to kill this old guy," one of his trainers, Danny Davis, told The New York Times. "There's no way this guy can make it through my training."
But somehow, Bozella did, and apparently became the oldest fighter ever to fight professionally in the Golden State. Thus, last Friday evening, while people who'd come to see the Hopkins-Dawson main event were still finding their seats and buying beer at the concession stands, Bozella climbed into the professional ring for the first and only time of his professional career. He faced Larry Hopkins (no relation to Bernard), who had an undistinguished 0-3 record as a pro, but one significant advantage -- he's 30 years old.
Without the hand speed and power of youth, Bozella had to rely on finesse and out-maneuvering his opponent. According to ESPN's account of the fight, Bozella got tagged with a few hard shots in the first two rounds, one of which created a welt under his left eye. But over the last two rounds of the four-round bout, he gradually took control and began to dominate the other fighter, and finally caught him with a right cross just before the bell, leaving Hopkins dazed against the ropes. As family and friends gathered around Bozella, the judges awarded him a unanimous decision.
Afterward, Bozella told ESPN that he'd achieved his goal -- not by winning the fight, necessarily, but simply by refusing to give up in the face of adversity. "I hope it will encourage someone else in a worse position to say 'If he can do it, I can do it,'" the fighter explained. I'm guessing that he'll achieve that, too.
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