Dewey Bozella, 52, lands an uppercut on his way to a unanimous decision over… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
It was more than three hours before the main event at Staples Center, and Dewey Bozella may have already produced the best moment.
The sole spotlight was to be on Bernard Hopkins, who was to defend his world light-heavyweight title against Chad Dawson. Hopkins' journey as the oldest fighter to win a title, at age 46 supplanting George Foreman by beating Jean Pascal in Montreal on May 21, was to be the big headline.
But the promoters also liked the Bozella story line — who wouldn't? — and put him in the ring at 5 p.m. against a winless (0-3) opponent, Larry Hopkins (no relation). Normally, the fourth fight on a nine-fight card is merely casual entertainment for the early arrivals, a space filler while people find the beer stands.
But there was a little more going on with Bozella.
First, he is 52, or 22 years older than his opponent. Also, it was well-known that this was to be his first, last and only fight. He left prison two years ago after spending 26 years there, having been convicted of murder in the death of a 92-year-old woman in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who had just returned home from bingo.
Bozella had maintained his innocence throughout. Twice, the parole board offered to release him if he admitted to the murder. Both times, Bozella declined, saying he would not admit to something he didn't do.
While Bozella stayed in fighting trim and became the light-heavyweight champion at Sing Sing, a law firm eventually took up his cause, found a retired detective who had kept a file on his case, and got him released. That was October 2009.
Saturday night, thanks to the story's having gained enough traction to get Golden Boy Promotions interested, Bozella got his shot. It could have been — should have been — a complete farce, something that sold a few tickets and filled a few inches in newspapers to help pump up the fight.
But that's not exactly how things turned out.
There were actually a couple thousand fans in the seats. There had been enough pre-fight buzz to warrant that. President Obama called Bozella on Thursday. Recently, a TV station had had him run up the steps in Philadelphia, a la Rocky.
Then, Bozella, looking slow and . . . well, old, for the first two rounds of the scheduled four, shook off the butterflies, started pursuing Hopkins and became the clearly superior fighter. That's assuming this whole thing was not a put-up job, which would be horrible, but certainly not beneath boxing's standards.
In the final round, as the 52-year-old chased the 30-year-old, Hopkins quickly established a new record for losing his mouthpiece. When boxers are tired, that is one trick they go to, because the referee stops the fight and takes the mouthpiece over to the corner for cleaning before hostilities are resumed. There was no way of knowing whether Hopkins was, indeed, spitting it out, or he just had a bad fit. It fit quite nicely, it seemed, in the first three rounds.
Hopkins lost the mouthpiece three times before being assessed a point penalty. Then he lost it three more times before the round, and fight, ended. The sixth time was especially memorable.
Bozella had Hopkins in the corner and was throwing punches. Suddenly, the mouthpiece flew out again and this time, Hopkins tried to catch it. He looked like an outfielder bobbling a fly ball. It dropped to the canvas, but Bozella had had enough and kept on punching, landing his best right hand of the fight just as the buzzer sounded, ending the fight.
The judges quickly called it a unanimous decision for Bozella, and the ring became a crowd of cameras and microphones. Bozella was ready for that, too.
"This was all I wanted, my dream come true," he said. "I used to lay in my cell, dreaming this would happen."
He repeated what he had said going in. No more fights. No promoter's dream match with HBO commentator Larry Merchant, who would kick Bozella's butt if he were 20 years younger.
"This is it. It's a young man's game," Bozella said. "I just want to thank everybody who made this possible — my lawyers, the California Boxing Commission, [Golden Boy's] Oscar De La Hoya, God."
Bozella said he will attempt to open a gym in his hometown of Newburgh, N.Y.
He also said that he kept punching right to the end, even after Hopkins had lost his mouthpiece just before the final bell. His reason was a classic footnote to this story.
"I didn't trust the judges," Bozella said.