Dewey Bozella

Dewey Bozella, who was wrongfully imprisoned, speaks in the Reitz Union Rion Ballroom on Thursday night.

Emily Doyle, Alligator

Hurt, pain, anger.

This is what Dewey Bozella felt in 1983 when he learned he would be spending 20 years to life in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York for a murder he did not commit.

He was declared innocent more than 26 years later.

"My journey was a 32-year journey. It took me that long to prove my innocence," he said in a phone interview.

About 500 people stood and applauded as Bozella took the stage in the Reitz Union's Rion Ballroom Thursday to tell his story.

"Never let fear determine who you are. Never let where you come from determine where you are going," he said. That's my message."

The 2011 Arthur Ashe Courage Award recipient had turned down more than four plea bargains and maintained his innocence.

While in prison, he earned his GED diploma, bachelor's degree and master's degree. He also met his wife.

"I made progress with my life. I got over 52 certificates," he said. "I took every program they had. I would've gotten my Ph.D. if they'd let me, because I realized how important education was."

Bozella also said boxing is a huge part of his life.

The Sing Sing prison light heavyweight champion made his professional boxing debut at age 52 in October 2011 at the Staples Center. Before he beat his opponent, Larry Hopkins, by a unanimous decision, he received a call from President Barack Obama wishing him good luck.

Accent Speaker's Bureau paid Greater Talent Network $12,500 for Bozella to share his story. The event was free and open to the public.

"This is a story that people will remember for the rest of their lives," Accent Speaker's Bureau Chairman Corey Portnoy said.

Bozella answered questions from the audience when he finished his story.

Antonio Dowels, a 22-year-old sports management senior, asked Bozella about his relationship with God. Bozella and his wife answered the question, but he also came down to hug Dowels, who is permanently in a wheelchair because of a car accident.

Ean Phillips, a 19-year-old applied physiology and kinesiology freshman, was moved by the speech.

"I'm pretty overwhelmed," he said. "That was pretty inspirational. I'm almost on the verge of tears."

Bozella said he hopes to be a role model for America's youth and to use boxing as a teaching method.

"They can learn through me to never give up on yourself," he said in a phone interview. "Never let nobody tell you what you can't do."