Boxing and the Meaning of a Life

This is a stale-dated story by now, but it’s a good one. (And what do you care about being chronologically cutting-edge? You wouldn’t be here if you craved punctuality or pragmatism.) I I saw a headline, while sport-snorting  in mid-October, something about a 52-year-old guy making his pro boxing debut. I harrumphed and muttered about the latest athletic idiocy and hit Next. The headliner on that card was 46, for crying out loud! Grumble grumble.

I’m no boxing fan, though my limited exposures to the so-called “mixed martial arts” craze have made me a little sad about boxing losing to that sordid circus, and I have irritated sons and nephews with what they consider boxing chauvinism. I revered Muhammad Ali as a kid, and stubbornly and patriotically paid attention to George Chuvalo’s implacable shuffling and incredible chin. I was jazzed by Rocky I. It’s a stupid sport, really, whose highest achievement is to scramble the opponent’s brain. Still, I persist in finding in its basic contest – not the seediness of promoters or the trashiness of Vegas and ring girls and foul-smelling cigars – something honourable, at least compared to the punch-the-prone-and-helpless-ness of the so-called Ultimate Fighting.1 Knowing my mainly peace-loving ways, my bride was surprised to hear me including boxing, during one of my periodic rants about the ever more bloated Olympic calendar, as a Keeper sport in the Official Howdy Olympiad. It is a sport with a deep tradition and widespread participation, one in which poor countries (the Philippines) and individuals (most kids fighting for the red, white and blue) can compete, and one in which the small athlete can be successful.2  In an ideal world, boxing might wither away, but in this one, its squared circle of brutality is partly redeemed by its culture of effort, courage and inclusion. Still, I wonder about those who watch it, and haven’t for decades.

Back to the middle-aged pugilist, I later noticed that he had won his bout and retired. The story of Dewey Bozella — yes, that Dewey Bozella — upon further reading, turned out to be fine and rich, not at all the pathetic and ridiculous publicity grab I had imagined. It was a sanctioned fight on a major card (it was a preliminary to yet another Bernard Hopkins title defence), yes, but the real attraction was the backstory of Mr. Bozella himself, and why he was boxing when surely he should be gardening on weekends, hinting of his readiness for grandchildren and checking the maturity of his retirement savings plans.

By age 26, Bozella was in Sing Sing prison in New York state for a murder committed years before, a murder he didn’t commit. He’d been involved in some petty crime as a youth, but it was a sleazy jailhouse informant (and, evidently, not much else) that got him convicted. His conviction was ultimately overturned, but not before he’d been jailed over 25 years, and also not before he had refused several plea-bargain opportunities to shorten his sentence, refusing to admit guilt in return for release. He took up boxing in Sing Sing, becoming the light-heavyweight champion. Later, he earned two degrees while incarcerated. When evidence was finally unburied about the true culprit, Bozella was released – on his own terms – and was determined to fight as a free man, to have the smallest taste of what he might have done had his prime years not been taken from him.

Bozella seems a quiet man. The interviews I’ve read suggest no hubris or false bravado, nor even much bitterness. He knew this narrow slice of athletic life had passed him by, but he was bound that he’d show what a man can do if he’s determined, and he was determined to have one professional fight. Just one. He trained. He was refused a boxing licence. But his story was slowly becoming known, including to Hopkins, who’d had a short prison term of his own. Touched, the many-times champion “B-Hop” – oh, the eternal adolescence in a grown man’s jock nickname! – arranged for new friend Dewey to be trained professionally. It was gruelling. It was successful: Bozella not only made the licensing grade, but his young opponent that October evening remains winless in his pro career. And now Dewey Bozella is done. He got the chance, the small shot at an utterly inadequate redemption, and that’s all he wanted. It was enough. Now he wants to open a gym in his home town, and help boys and young men learn some of the lessons he had to learn in one of the hardest ways imaginable.

There is, sometimes, something deeply heroic in the stubbornness of a man. I think of Winston Churchill, speaking at his former school during World War II, bulldogging his way through the legendary micro-speech: “Never, never, never, never, never give in.”3 Dewey Bozella is an ex-athlete, at best, and what is ennobling here is that he knows it. He knows what sport is, can be, and ought to be. He retired undefeated from a pro “career” that a reasonable man would never have envisioned, and here’s to foolishness. He walked away from his brief embrace of the siren of pro sports, completely on his own terms, and having exacted from that fickle beauty the small tribute that he felt he deserved. May no cynical promoter tempt him to be used for more.

1 Which name is perfectly bitter in its exaltation of human savagery by proxy, and by the way what freaking century do we live in, anyway?

2 I love wrestling for this reason, and it has the added advantage that only the ears become cauliflowered, not the temporal lobes. High school wrestling features in one of my favourite films of the last couple of years, Win Win. Real drama, non-toxic comedy, fine acting, and a really superb young wrestler making the sporting scenes not only believable but exciting.

3 Yes, a legendary speech indeed, because, although the speech did happen, and was short and centred on perseverance above all, it was considerably longer than seven words.  It was about a five-minute talk, in fact, which did include this among its concluding words: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Dude could write.

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