LEBANON, Ohio — Boxing up-and-comer Dale Crowe didn't want to take the fight.
The brawny heavyweight from Ohio was invited to clash with former heavyweight champion Greg Page — a man almost twice his age — for a regional belt in a small northern Kentucky venue.
That fight more than eight years ago marked a painful turning point. Page, a former WBA champ attempting a comeback, suffered brain injuries and a stroke and remained paralyzed until his death April 27 at the age of 50.
Crowe won by a knockout in the 10th round but was crushed by grief over Page's injuries. His love for boxing disappeared. He coped with the guilt by turning to drug abuse and violent outbursts — including one that landed him in a state prison for 20 years. Crowe now says the trip to jail may have saved his life.
Back in 2001, he knew nothing good would come from stepping into the ring with Page, who was 42.
"The pressure was on me because I'd either lose to an old man or I'd beat an old man and nobody would give me much credit for it," Crowe said from inside his Ohio prison.
Page suffered brain injuries, slipped into a coma and then had a stroke during surgery. The paralysis on his left side confined him to a wheelchair. Fight organizers were later criticized for not having medical personnel at ringside.
The wounds Crowe suffered were less obvious.
"This fight, this tragedy that happened because of that boxing match ... it tore my husband's whole life completely up," said Holly Crowe, who married Dale Crowe at a prison ceremony last year. "I don't think he'd be sitting where he is now if that night hadn't occurred."
Crowe, 32, is inmate No. 519303 at the Warren Correctional Institution, where he is scheduled to serve until 2026 for involuntary manslaughter and aggravated robbery.
Crowe felt guilty about Page's injuries after the fight and started wondering about his own vulnerability. In his next four bouts, Crowe went 0-2 with two draws.
"After Greg, I started getting hit; I got scared. Got a little gun-shy, and I started wondering what was going on in my head," Crowe said. "I was just done."
He was angry and killed the pain with drugs. Steroids fueled his fights outside the ring. One night in 2002, Crowe was high on drugs — it was usually a mix of alcohol, cocaine and painkillers — when he says former friend Frank Branam threatened to kill Crowe's young son, and the 230-pound fighter hit Branam.
Then Crowe punched Branam again. And again. And again.
"One of the blows hit his throat, I repeatedly hit him and he couldn't breathe," Crowe said. "I know I took it too far, and I just couldn't stop. It's not an easy story to tell."
Branam, 23, was dead.
Crowe told no one of the killing, even when Branam's body was found in a trash container. Crowe denied involvement when interviewed by police.
About the same time, Crowe's new trainer suggested he meet with Page and his family for the first time since their fight. He reluctantly agreed.
The Page family welcomed him "with open arms," but seeing Page paralyzed and bedridden was the hardest punch Crowe had ever taken.
"I walked in and I kind of teared up, because I didn't realize how hard things were on Greg," he said. "He couldn't do anything from the neck down."
Page's wife, Patricia Page, said the former foes began a close friendship that day. He still calls Patricia "Mama Page."
"He's a wonderful kid and has a great heart," Patricia Page said. "My family loves him; my kids love him."
After their meeting, Crowe restarted his career and had Page sitting in his corner for a handful of successful comeback fights. His past sins finally caught up with him, though. He was drinking one night and spilled details about killing Branam. Someone overheard and went to the police.
He was in court in early 2006 on an unrelated matter when he was arrested by detectives, who told him he had been indicted on a murder charge. Later, when prosecutors told him they had a strong case, he chose to take a plea deal for 20 years.
"I tapped out," Crowe said.
He says prison may have saved his life: It pulled him out of a seedy boxing scene, and he got off drugs and started writing letters to people he wronged, including Branam's family.
"I really think if this hadn't happened, me coming to prison, I'd be dead of an overdose or somebody doing something to me," he said.
Meanwhile, Crowe said his newfound friend was dealing with his own kind of prison. Mama Page called one day, telling him time had taken its toll on Greg. He was dead.
Patricia Page reminded Crowe, who was left feeling responsible for his friend's death, of what the ex-champ told him after the two met.
"Greg said, 'Dale, look, we both went into the ring to do a job that night. It could've just as easily been you that got hurt,'" she said. "He said God has a purpose for all that is happening."
Now three years into his sentence, Crowe has a sense of peace about his turbulent life. He speaks lovingly of his new wife — and the Page family. He's determined to show his 10-year-old son, Mason, that you can turn around a bad situation.
"All that experience you get, the more drama you go through, it's just like, eventually you learn to slip punches, you absorb some of the pain, your defense becomes pretty good to all the negativity around you."