By Jeff Zimmerman
Photos by Robert Hughes
Although this past Saturday night was full of world title fights in the ring, an inspirational night outside the ring and with bigger fights at stake, took place at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas at Meet The Champions II benefiting Paulie Ayala’s Punching Out Parkinson’s (www.punchingoutparkinsons.org). A full house of Parkinson’s sufferers and non-sufferers alike gathered together with the sole purpose of raising funds for this dreaded disease. The theme of the evening that was echoed throughout was “never give up.”
The Punching Out Parkinson’s boxing program is the brainchild of former 2X World Champion Paulie Ayala that began about two years ago with four patients suffering from the disease to 50 plus currently. Ayala uses the same boxing fitness program that he teaches his amateur and pro fighters and calls these fighters “his champions.”
“These are my champions. You have to know who you are and believe in yourself. It’s all about perception and these are my fighters, my champions,” Ayala told the packed room overlooking the racetrack.
Ayala added, “I try to change their way of thinking and they change how they are able to perform. They go from not believing to performing without tremors and instability. The first change is in their mind and after that everything else falls into place. Most people’s perception is their reality and when they change their perception they change what they can create out of themselves.”
Ayala brought in some heavy hitters to help bring attention to his cause including 4X World Champion and Hall of Famer Terry Norris and Dewey Bozella who spent 26 years behind bars for a murder that was finally proven he didn’t commit. Norris lives with Parkinson’s symptoms and not the full blown Parkinson’s disease, a distinction he made in his speech but doesn’t fully understand the difference.
“They say I have Parkinson’s symptoms but not the disease, I am not sure what that means. Whatever, it’s pretty much the same thing.”
This was the first public speaking engagement for Norris who was admittedly nervous to speak and for a long time left it to others to speak on his behalf. “We would go through a drive-thru and my 4 year old daughter would place the order for us.” Norris also got an assist from his wife Tanya who joined him on stage for a short period to discuss the challenges of living with someone with Parkinson’s.
Norris did an amazing job and got more comfortable along the way as displayed when he removed his jacket and showed off his bulging biceps to the delight of the crowd. Even though his speech was over and his wife had left the podium, Norris wanted to keep going and entertain the crowd. He made sure everyone understood how he won his first world title against John “The Beast” Mugabi, a story he had told earlier. Everybody loved it.
Norris got one of the biggest laughs of the evening when he shared his story about his first love, baseball, when he was in high school and had many scholarship offers, but ended non-ceremoniously. In a game with Norris on first, the first baseman intentionally spiked him in the face multiple times on head first slides back to the base.
“I told him if you do it again, you are going to be in trouble. I meant it. I slid in head first. He spiked me right in my face, it hurt, it really hurt. I came up swinging and I knocked him out. Another guy came in, I knocked him out. A guy from left field came, I knocked him out. And then I looked at my team looking at me in the dugout and I looked at the other team coming towards me and I had to defend myself so I was swinging. And by now out of their best players, 4 guys were down.”
Norris added, “My baseball career was gone, that was the end of my baseball career.”
Bozella, although he does not have ties to Parkinson’s, gave a powerful speech about not giving up on life and to continue fighting, something that all Parkinson’s sufferers deal with everyday. Bozella used the platform to tell his riveting life story beginning with his troubled childhood including the murder of his brother, to the murder of a 92 year old woman that led to his imprisonment at Sing Sing Correctional Facility and his last ditch effort for freedom that started with contacting the Innocence Project that eventually led to the proof of his innocence and eventual release in 2009. He also shared his ties to boxing as he became the Light Heavyweight Champion of the prison and got the opportunity to fight as a pro earning the win in 2011.
Gary Schmitz, one of Ayala’s “champions” and the Chairman of the Steering Committee for Paulie Ayala’s Punching Out Parkinson’s weighed in on the impact the fundraiser should have on the program and was also impressed by Norris.
“The impact of last night (Saturday night) was great for our program and all that are fighting this disease, to have the boxing community to show up at our event was huge in so many respects. Awareness is key to helping others and last night we took a big step forward with help from Mike Doocy, Dewy Bozella and especially Terry Norris. Terry’s story was moving and I had no idea of his Parkinson’s struggles. It just once again proves it can happen to anyone, you just never know, but together we can learn how to fight this disease.”
The World Boxing Council added a nice touch to this already spectacular event that also included dinner, a raffle and silent auction. They donated signed gloves by Mike Tyson and Canelo Alvarez. PR Director Deborah Hawkins was also on hand to pay tribute to Ayala, Norris and Bozella for their work outside of the ring and honored each of them with a WBC plaque.
“The World Boxing Council was very pleased to participate in the Punching Out Parkinson’s event last night in Texas. Paulie Ayala is doing an outstanding job helping so many in his Fort Worth Gym (University of Hard Knocks) as they fight this insidious disease. Paulie Ayala and Terry Norris had brilliant careers as boxers. Dewey Bozella was an inspiration for his courage and determination in and out of the ring, and now the 3 of them deserve to be recognized for their good works. They are the best in boxing has to offer as they spend their lives helping others. We humbly salute them and proudly call them friends.”
Ayala was appreciative of the support from the WBC.
“Once the WBC heard about this event, they were really excited to be involved. And for them to donate to the program and foundation, that right there spoke highly of them. I was grateful for them to be involved in this program and present the plaques and they also wrote the foundation and gave a check.”
Overall, Ayala could not be more thrilled about how the event turned out.
“We had more than double in attendance from our first event last year. We had about 450 people compared to 200 last year. Everyone spoke from their hearts and really inspired the group from their own adversity.”
Ayala continued, “It was a hit, a good night. It was great to see Terry, I hadn’t seen him since 2004, and it was a great reunion. It was also great to meet Dewey. He has a real inspiring story and unbelievable determination. It really spoke about him as a person and his moral character to not confess to something he didn’t do, stand up for what you believe and the truth will set you free. Everyone needs to hear his story.”
Ayala is already looking ahead to next year with hopes to duplicate the success of this one plus more.
“I want to do the same thing next year, continue this reunion with these fighters and speakers. I hope to book them again next year and try to incorporate a 2 night event. One night will be the speaking engagement and one night a fight night. This is what I would like to see happen in the future and continue this reunion with these guys and continue with this program and watch it explode.”