PHILADELPHIA -- Even as he spoke with a reporter last week at the Joe Hand Boxing Gym in Northern Liberties, Dewey Bozella couldn't help but admire the figure in the oversized mirror near the back of the room. "That's right," he incanted in a warm baritone, inspecting his sculpted deltoids and flexing for good measure. "See that?"
If he comes off as proud, it's because he's earned it. After spending 26 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit, the 52-year-old Bozella is set to make his long-awaited professional boxing debut Saturday on the undercard of the Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson fight at Staples Center in Los Angeles (9 p.m. ET, HBO PPV, $49.95).
When Bozella climbs into the ring for the four-round cruiserweight bout, he will fulfill a dream that extends back to his days as a promising amateur, when boxing afforded an escape from a horrific family life that bottomed out when he witnessed his father beat his pregnant mother to death. (He was 9.) But an adolescence spent in and out of foster care was nothing compared to the heinous miscarriage of justice that condemned Bozella to more than half his life at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y.
Born and raised in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, Bozella had relocated upstate to live with one of his 11 siblings when he was fingered in the gruesome murder of 92-year-old Emma Crasper, who had apparently walked in on a burglary after returning to her first-floor apartment from a night of bingo at St. Joseph's Church in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She was discovered bound with electrical cord and suffocated by pieces of cloth and sharp metal.
Bozella was charged with the crime but a grand jury refused to indict him when they found no physical evidence to indicate he'd entered the home. In fact, Bozella had been bicycling miles away when Crasper was killed. But six years later, false testimony from two known criminals -- who cooperated with prosecutors in exchange for their freedom -- led to Bozella's conviction on two counts of second-degree murder. What little evidence the police did have was the fingerprint of a man named Donald Wise, who was convicted (with his brother Anthony) of a nearly identical murder of another elderly woman just three blocks away from Crasper's house. No matter. Bozella was handed a life sentence.
While in Sing Sing, Bozella -- whose previous education was minimal -- earned a bachelor's degree in general studies from Mercy College and a master's from the New York Theological Seminary. He met his future wife, Trena Boone, when she was visiting her inmate brother. He became the jailhouse light heavyweight champion and nearly defeated future world champion Lou Del Valle, who later became the first man to knock down Roy Jones Jr., when the then-Golden Gloves champ visited for an exhibition. He was a member of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a volunteer-run theater program taught in maximum security, writing and performing in several plays, including an adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (An aspiring director, he cites his influences as Clint Eastwood and Ron Howard.)
When Bozella was retried in 1990 after contesting the jury selection of his previous trial, the prosecution offered a plea deal that would set him free in exchange for an admission that he committed the crime.
"Most people here would have took the plea just to get the hell out of hell. I might have took it too," said Hopkins, who expressed an authentic sense of awe at Bozella's moral courage while sermonizing during a pre-fight media workout. "Half of his life was stuck in a box for something he knew he didn't do."
Bozella might have spent the rest of his life inside if not for his dedicated weekly letters to the Cardoza School of Law's Innocence Project, who referred the case to the New York City law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, where attorney Ross Firsenbaum took it on pro bono. It was Firsenbaum who discovered what Bozella had claimed all along: that key evidence had been withheld during the trials and that chief witnesses for the prosecution were felons whose stories were filled with inconsistencies, contradictions and self-serving fabrications. He was finally released when a New York State court vacated the conviction in October 2009.
But the opportunity to box didn't become a reality until after ESPN took notice earlier this year -- when he was presented the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs in July. Golden Boy Promotions took notice and connected Bozella with Hopkins, who invited him into his camp and asked longtime assistant trainer and confidant Danny Davis to oversee his training.
The 46-year-old Hopkins, who in May became the oldest boxer to win a major world title, was enthusiastic about helping Bozella achieve his dream. Having turned his own life around after serving a 56-month stretch at Graterford State Prison for armed robbery in the mid-'80s, Hopkins says he can relate to what Bozella has gone through. But the reigning 175-pound champion is quick to point out he did commit his crimes and wasn't saddled with the horror and deep emotional trauma of a wrongful conviction.
"That took a whole lot of balls," Hopkins said of Bozella's refusal to negotiate a release based on saying he was guilty. "You can't manufacture that type of spirit, man. There's a certain energy and drive in people that a lot of us will never understand."
Before he was cleared to fight on the Hopkins-Dawson undercard, Bozella was required to obtain a license from the California State Athletic Commission. It wasn't easy. It's not like Bozella let himself go while in prison: to the contrary, he worked out consistently and trained other fighters. But his first day at the Hopkins camp was an eye-opener.
"They almost had me throw up," Bozella recalls with an expression that moves between a smile and grimace. "I thought I had [my conditioning] together, and then when I got here I found out I was in kindergarten compared to what they do."
Davis uses the word "challenge" at least a dozen times in describing Bozella's training and says it "brought the best out in me." He put Bozella through the paces and refused to give him special treatment. Within four days, he'd slimmed down from 205 to 192 pounds. In just five weeks of training with the Hopkins camp, the face fat has given way to a cut and toned physique.
"He's so humble and he's not mad at the world," says Davis, who credits the experience with helping instill in him a newfound appreciation for each and every day. "He was doing an interview and he said, 'Society doesn't owe me nothing, I think I owe society.' I looked at him and I'm like that's a hell of a thing to say."
Two weeks ago, Bozella traveled to Sacramento and passed the state commission test to receive his boxing license: five minutes of jump rope, five minutes on the heavy bag and five minutes on the pads, followed by four rounds of sparring and two round of speed bag. When asked to describe his style, Bozella takes a long pause. "It's been so long I can't really say, so my style I think is 'Don't make a mistake,'" he says. "I'd like to be a boxer-puncher, countering off certain punches then moving on from there."
Bozella's purse for Saturday's debut against Houston's Larry Hopkins (who is unrelated to Bernard) will be in the low four figures. Regardless, he says it will be his one and only professional fight. He hopes to generate enough through his newly established Dewey Bozella Foundation to open a gym in Newburgh, N.Y., where he can use boxing to help keep youth off the streets.
Davis, who took on Bozella sight unseen out of loyalty to Hopkins, says he knew little more than a sketch outline of his newest fighter's backstory until nearly a week into their training, when he decided to look him up on the Internet while sitting in bed with his wife. Once they'd finished reading the extent of Bozella's ordeal, both were in tears.
"That night I couldn't sleep," Davis recalls. "I dreamt. And I dreamed that we walked down at Staples Center, we did four rounds, I jumped in the ring, he won the fight, I hugged him, we started crying."
Davis' cinematic reverie could prove prescient: If the movie rights to Bozella's made-for-Hollywood story haven't been optioned yet, surely they will Saturday if Bozella gets the result. Either way, he's won already.
"I learned a lot and I'm still learning a lot," he says, "and I'm gonna run with it, because I'm gonna take this with me wherever I go."