Zora Folley: Late Train to the Richest Prize

By Mike Casey on June 8, 2013
Zora Folley: Late Train to the Richest Prize
Zora never really looked like a man who believed he could win the heavyweight crown.

“I have fought more contenders than any other heavyweight around,” Folley said. “But how many people know about it?”

He did okay for a while in the one and only chance he got at the heavyweight championship. Zora Folley, the eternal contender, the quiet man of the heavyweights, boxed very nicely for several rounds against Muhammad Ali on the big stage at Madison Square Garden. In the last chance saloon of his career, Zora went after Muhammad and found the champion’s jaw with several crunching rights. This was not the night to play safe and be cagey.

Then Ali upped his game and got serious. The first really meaningful punches flashed out languidly from his athletic frame to produce a sudden knockdown in the fourth round.

Muhammad thought he had won the fight right there and raised his arms, but his celebration was premature as Folley gamely got to his feet and fought back with spirit. The resurgence didn’t last for long and Zora never really looked like a man who believed he could win the heavyweight crown.

In the seventh round, quickly and suddenly, he was unhinged. Before he knew it, he was lying spreadeagled on his stomach, face buried in the canvas, apparently dead to the world. Then he came to with a strange suddenness, a stunned look on his face, like a man waking up in somebody else’s bed and not knowing how he got there. He attempted to rise, but cartwheeled into the ropes and crashed back again for the full count.

It was a bizarre knockout. Did Ali’s finishing punch—a flashing right cross that looked almost innocuous—really shatter old Zora to that extent or was it the long and winding road that had finally tired him out? Some people said that it was all a bit too theatrical and that Folley just wanted to go home.

The big chance had come too late in his career, on March 22, 1967, more than thirteen years and 85 fights after his professional debut.  When Folley was at his best, Floyd Patterson had avoided him, Ingemar Johansson hadn’t thought of him and Sonny Liston had crushed him. Other hiccups, more of a self-inflicted nature, had also served to keep Zora firmly in the position of perennial contender. Quiet. Reliable. Always there in the top ten. A classy boxer. But one of those men who always missed his flight when it was crucial to be on time.

This was a shame, because we yearn to see the nice guys of life win and Zora Folley was a nice man of great class and dignity. Even in battle, he looked elegant, a boxer of skill and economy of movement, almost stately. He wasn’t a knockout specialist and was never big at the box office, but his well rounded skills could generally master all but the elite of his contemporaries. Folley, however, always seemed to lack conviction in the most important bouts of his career.

There were distinct similarities between Zora and his fellow contender, Eddie Machen, and many boxing writers gave a knowing smile when the pair hedged their way to a cautious draw in a 1958 final eliminator for Patterson’s world crown. The inconclusive result seemed so apt.

After Ali at the Garden, Folley pushed on with a career whose ending slowly beckoned. He knocked off journeymen Wayne Kindred and Nick Sosa before closing his 1967 account with a trip to England and a match with Brian London at the Liverpool Stadium. I saw that fight on TV as a boy and remember how disappointed I was. London too had been embarrassed by Ali, and Brian and Zora resembled a couple of guys shuffling around at the Lord Mayor’s show after everyone else had gone home. London won a fair decision, but the world rankings remained undisturbed. Brian and Zora were no longer members of the top club.

Draw

Folley went on to draw with Roger Rischer and Al Jones in 1968, but ended his campaign for the year in July with a majority points loss to Oscar Bonavena. When Oscar was climbing the ladder back in 1965, Zora handled him easily at the Garden, knocking him down in the eighth round and posting a comfortable victory. There was also the telling occasion in that first encounter when Folley compassionately held the young bull up as he appeared to be heading for the deck. Imagine what Liston would have done to Oscar in similar circumstances.

Folley was a joy to watch in that fight. Relaxed and fluid, his right hand always guarding his chin and his left held low, he was always in position to jab and hook. He was a cautious boxer, too much so for his own good at times, but he was delightfully easy on the eye as he patiently went about his business, prizing Bonavena’s defense apart with jabs and little feints.

By 1969, Zora was drawing on what little water was left in the well. He regained some of his old consistency with three straight wins over modest opposition in Sonny Moore, Tony Sims and Billy Joiner. Folley was then idle for ten months and it seemed that he had gracefully left the stage on a winning note.

Then he came back for a sad and brutal swansong. He was knocked down six times by former Marine Mac Foster in a one round rout in Mac’s hometown of Fresno. Foster, badly beaten by Jerry Quarry earlier in the year, was looking to build his confidence again. The mismatch should never have been made. It taught Mac nothing and gave Zora the bookend to his career that he didn’t deserve. His exit from life, a short time later, would be equally sad. It came out of the blue, much like Ali’s knockout punch, just as everything was looking fine.

A very popular citizen in his Arizona hometown of Chandler, Zora became a salesman for Chevrolet and was later picked to fill a vacancy on the city council. But what on earth happened when this clean living family man went to a hotel and started larking about with friends?

Discussing Folley’s bizarre death in 1972, writer Hal Johnson said: “Folley’s squeaky-clean image was tarnished in the eyes of some by the intrigue surrounding his death, in 1972. Folley had been visiting a friend and two women in a motel in Tucson.

“As the story went, Folley and his friend engaged in horseplay near the pool, seeing who could throw the other in, and Folley ended up in the pool. One of the women ran to the motel office to report that Folley was badly hurt. Folley was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died about an hour after midnight. He was forty years old.

“A motel clerk told a local reporter that Folley’s injuries included a large bump on the forehead, a hole on top of his head, and another wound in the back on his head. People would soon question how Folley could suffer such extensive injuries by simply falling into a pool.

“Over the years, many theories have made the rounds as to how Folley really died, but with the autopsy and police report long lost or destroyed, it appears that the questions surrounding his death will never be put to rest.”

Picture

Zora Folley was what we used to call a picture boxer. His was the classic style of the textbook where all the essential fundamentals are in place. He was a stand-up boxer of old-style British correctness, but nicely oiled with American fluidity and easy grace. He boxed beautifully and could deliver the knockout wallop when he saw fit. Folley was always destined for the professional ranks after a glowing Army career in which he won all but three of 62 contests and captured the All Army championship whilst serving in Korea.

He started slowly and unspectacularly as a pro, winning his debut over Jimmy Ingram in the fall of 1953 and then being held to a draw by Cal Chambers. Then Zora suddenly took off and won seventeen in a row before his manager Bill Swift reached a little too high too soon. In a 1955 summer match with the lanky and dangerous Johnny Summerlin in Los Angeles, Folley was knocked down in the first round and knocked out in the sixth. The Arizona youngster wasn’t yet ready to tackle the quality men of the division, but the lesson wasn’t learned. Initially it was feared that Summerlin had broken Zora’s jaw.

After rallying back with three wins, Folley was thrown in with another erratic danger man in Young Jack Johnson. It was another painful experience, with Zora retiring at the end of the fifth round with a broken rib. Bill Swift saw the need to calm everything down and stop rushing his prospect. Folley was lightly raced in 1956, winning all six of his fights, and the change of tack resulted in his steady climb up the heavyweight ladder.

He closed his account that year with a points win over Wayne Bethea at the old St. Nicholas Arena in New York, in a fight that marked Zora’s television debut. The viewers were impressed with his classy boxing, and Folley outscored Bethea again at Syracuse just a month later.

An active 1957 campaign saw Bill Swift protecting his fast rising prospect with a busy but sensible eleven-fight campaign against solid but not threatening opposition. The tactics were wise. Folley was gaining in confidence all the time and would soon learn how to beat the top men and break into the elite circle.

Former champ Jack Dempsey noted that Folley was looking good, but Jack added his belief that the stylish Eddie Machen was the better of the two would-be world champions. Eddie, from Portland, Oregon, certainly had more flair and daring than Folley and had zipped up the world rankings with great style. It seemed only logical that Eddie and Zora should meet. In the spring of 1958, by which time both men were top contenders, they clashed at the great old Cow Palace in San Francisco.

The twelve-round stalemate resolved nothing and gave world champion Floyd Patterson and his super-cautious manager Cus D’Amato a handy excuse to continue their campaign of picking “safe” challengers. Too respectful of each other, too cute and cagey for their own good, Zora and Eddie canceled each other out and didn’t set the world on fire in the process. Both boys were classic movers and counterpunchers, but all the talent in the world needs some “oomph” and passion to go with it. It was these necessities that Folley and Machen lacked in the defining fights of their careers.

Five months later, Machen traveled to Sweden and suffered a brutal first round knockout at the hands of Ingemar Johansson, a spectacle that chills the blood to this day.

Deserve

Folley wanted a title match with Patterson, but did Zora deserve it? Did he ever really deserve it during the years of Floyd’s reign? Too often the man from Arizona shot himself in the foot. But let us pause for a moment and consider a pertinent question. Would the Folley or Machen of this era have beaten Patterson in a title match? I don’t believe so.

Machen got his chance against Patterson too late in the day in 1964, a year after Floyd’s second humbling by Sonny Liston. Patterson outpointed Eddie in Sweden and looked very impressive in doing so. I doubt that result would have been much different in 1958 or 1960.

Floyd was inhibited and mentally crushed by Liston, but wouldn’t have been in that frame of mind against Machen or Folley. Patterson was an intelligent boxer, a very dangerous puncher and much more adventurous than Eddie and Zora. Machen, always a circumspect boxer, became even more cautious after the Johansson disaster, while Folley dropped the ball too often at important times.

It is important to stress that the heavyweight division of Folley’s era was still rich in talent, as was just about every other weight class. Top contenders fought each other far more often and therefore suffered more losses. Even Liston, who was knocking everyone silly, had suffered a defeat. Today’s ridiculous elevation of the ‘0’ on a boxer’s record to sacred status would have been laughed at in days gone by. Defeats to opponents of similar ability were regarded as an essential part of a boxer’s education.

Jersey Joe Walcott knew what it was like to overcome adversity, but proved he had the moxie when he threw that picture perfect left hook in Pittsburgh to rip the heavyweight championship from Ezzard Charles. In Folley’s case, there was always the feeling that he would never get over the line, even if the gods had been more charitable to him.

In October, 1958, six months after drawing with Machen, Zora ventured to England for a match with Henry Cooper at the Empire Pool. It was a wonderful battle, but it was Cooper who won a deserved decision. On his return home, Folley got himself back on track and reeled off ten successive victories, including a unanimous decision over Machen in a 1960 rematch.

With Patterson locked firmly into his three-fight series with Johansson, Zora got a fight with Sonny Liston in Denver. Folley went the way of most against Sonny, being almost contemptuously brushed aside in three rounds. Weary of going nowhere fast, Zora had stumbled into the darkest phase of his career.

A couple of wins over Willi Besmanoff and Norman Letcher led to a match at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles with the handsome Argentinian sensation, Alejandro Lavorante.

It was feared that Lavorante, who had huge box office potential, was being rushed. He had only thirteen fights behind him and the general feeling was that a seasoned campaigner like Folley would give the young gun a boxing lesson. But Zora suffered a nightmare as big Alejandro decked him four times and knocked him out in seven rounds.

Wonder

Folley began to wonder if his big chance at the title was gone. Manager Bill Swift, understandably, was also sensitive and frustrated. For one thing, he was sensitive about Zora being constantly profiled as a “cautious” boxer: “You know,” said Swift, “they slapped Zora with that cautious rap after Liston knocked him out. But they fail to mention that Zora was ahead at the time, so how cautious can you be and still gain the edge?”

Folley persevered. He always did. He was never a sulker or a moaner. “I just want to get the recognition I deserve,” he said. “I have fought more contenders than any other heavyweight around. But how many people know about it?”

Folley needed a big and sustained winning run in order to push his way into the top contender’s spot, but there always seemed to be someone ahead of him in the rankings. In late 1961, Zora returned to England for a rematch with Henry Cooper and stunned the local crowd by knocking out ‘Enry in two rounds.

In 1962, there followed a two-fight series with the tough and talented Doug Jones that seemed to be a microcosm of Folley’s career. In August, he outpointed Doug in Denver, but it was the exciting second match that had people talking. At Madison Square Garden, before a TV audience, Zora appeared to be on his way to a repeat victory when he floored Doug in the first round.

But Folley lost his way as his concentration wavered. He was his usual serene self when the fight was at long range, but became visibly uncomfortable when Jones began to close in and fight up close.

Doug had learned a lesson in that first round. It didn’t do to hang your head up in the air without moving it. Describing the fight later, Jones said: “Now Folley is waiting for me to go in. He’s in the rocking chair, ready to pivot in with a right to the chin. He lands a couple and they don’t hurt. I’m a little cocky and I keep pressing. He lets the slingshot go. This time he catches me right, really right. And before I know it, I’m sitting down saying to myself, ‘What are you doing here?’

“In the third, I close ground on Folley and he might as well forget the rocking chair. He isn’t going to get any more chance to sit in. I give him a licking in that round. In the fourth, in the fifth and the sixth. With no punching room, he’s nothing. I’m not afraid of his power anymore, because I know it’s gone out of him. In the sixth I hit him a right and I feel he’s ready to go. In the seventh I put over a left and a right and he sags down. He isn’t going to beat the count – and he doesn’t.”

Setbacks

Between the disheartening setbacks, Folley was always winning lesser fights against generally good opposition. It is an intriguing fact that in his 96 professional bouts, he never did suffer consecutive defeats. By the summer of 1963, however, when he dropped a decision to fellow contender Ernie Terrell, Zora was still taking two steps forward and one step back.

Then it happened—a late career purple patch that saw him go unbeaten in twelve fights. The late charge for championship glory included quality wins over Billy Daniels, George Chuvalo, Oscar Bonavena, Bob Foster and Henry Clark, and a draw with Karl Mildenberger in Germany.

All of which brings us full circle to the big chance against Muhammad Ali, Folley’s late train to the richest prize in sport. Zora was just five days short of his thirty-sixth birthday when he stepped into the ring that night at Madison Square Garden; and for a while there he did okay.


Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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Zora Folley W 10 Wayne Bethea, round 5



Henry Cooper | Zora Folley I 1/1



Sonny Liston vs Eddie Machen 1960



Doug Jones vs Zora Folley II



Oscar Bonavena vs Zora Folley



Muhammad Ali vs Zora Folley - March 22, 1967 - Entire fight - Rounds 1 - 7 & Interviews



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  1. Chris 12:12pm, 08/25/2017

    I remember the Folley/London fight when it was shown live on TV in England, and it was also on YouTube for a while.

    London was a clear winner, Folley was like a statue and London seemed able to hit him at will.

    Can’t say about the first Cooper fight as I haven’ t seen it in its entirety.

  2. Bob Stevenson 06:22pm, 07/11/2016

    Good read, but Folley lost to Brian London and Henry Cooper only in the minds of Britons.  And, there was no draw against Roger Rischer, the fighter was Roger Russell.  And, “prizing” for “prying”?  Take a deep breath now and then, why don’t you?

  3. Hal Johnson 01:19pm, 04/09/2014

    Great article that filled in some gaps in my knowledge about Mr. Folley. Thanks.

  4. Mike Casey 01:02am, 06/11/2013

    Thanks for your thoughts, Mike and Tex. Zora weighed just a tad over 202 for Ali, Mike - pretty much his average weight in his prime years.

  5. Mike Schmidt 12:18pm, 06/10/2013

    Very very nice Mike. Ali looked like a guy moving thru a not so spirited sparring match, who having had Zora’s sneaky right zip close to his whiskers decided to end the evening’s workout. I am curious and have never taken a peek—was Foley of the cruiserweight poundage??

  6. Tex Hassler 02:57pm, 06/09/2013

    I was going through Army basic training at Fort Bliss at El Paso Texas when Folley fought Ali. Some way I got to see the fight on tv. Folley was always near the top but never made it to the top. Folley, Machen, Liston and Marciano all died in a short time period. Folley’s death will probably always be a mystery unsolved and that is tragic.

  7. Mike Casey 11:27am, 06/09/2013

    Yes, George, and it’s odd how such memories linger in the mind. A lot of our favourite fighters from the sixties and seventies are now gone. I still see them all as the age they were then!

  8. George Thomas Clark 11:20am, 06/09/2013

    I still feel bad when I remember reading about Folley’s 1972 death in a swimming pool accident… Too many fighters die young and in strange ways…

  9. Mike Casey 03:52am, 06/09/2013

    Thank you, Mike! Yes, Ali’s pre-fight behaviour was quite uncharacteristically exemplary!

  10. Mike Silver 10:40pm, 06/08/2013

    Wonderful read, Mike. Brought back memories of the first heavyweight championship I ever attended. The result puzzled me then and after numerous viewings, still does. One of the strangest heavyweight title fights ever. Even Ali’s behavior was out of character. He refused any ‘theatrics’ with Folley, never made up a name for him—almost like he was sorry for the guy. Maybe he knew in advance Folley had agreed to the dive. Don’t forget every Ali title opponent was threatened by the Black Muslims. I am 90% sure he swan dived when he felt it was time. I think Teddy Brenner was quoted as saying he thought it was a dive. But Folley in his prime was the near perfect boxer—just beautiful to watch.

  11. Mike Casey 11:52am, 06/08/2013

    Very interesting stuff, Clarence - thanks for the additional information. That would certainly explain the injuries. Terrible shame and I remember it clearly at the time. Machen, of course, met with a similarly tragic death after being plagued by bouts of depression.

  12. Clarence George 11:11am, 06/08/2013

    Wonderful article, Mike, on a shamefully neglected boxer.

    I once wrote a piece on his mysterious death.  Despite Folley’s reputation as a dutiful husband and father, I concluded that he made a pass at the man’s wife, preferring her to the single woman.  The man’s jealousy, fueled by booze, led him to hit Folley on the top and back of the head (the blow to the front could have come from the fall), before throwing him into the pool, the women backing up the horseplay story.  We’ll never know for sure, but what’s certain is that death by accident doesn’t fly—not with three separate blows to three different parts of the head.

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:46am, 06/08/2013

    Zora’s effort against Ali echoed Sonny Liston’s…..the only difference being the fact that Folley was a highly skilled “performer”.

  14. Ted 10:20am, 06/08/2013

    Names like Roger Rischer and Al Jones are as Old School as greasy bacon and slithery eggs over and easy. Only true aficionados know who these guys were.

    “Machen traveled to Sweden and suffered a brutal first round knockout at the hands of Ingemar Johansson, a spectacle that chills the blood to this day,” as the merciless and shameful referee counted an unconscious Machen out while looking and smiling at someone in the crowd. Chilling isn’t the word for that one, especially with the way the crowd would respond to each Ingo punch.

    I just love this stuff..

  15. Ted 10:11am, 06/08/2013

    S and M…....??

  16. Mike Casey 06:51am, 06/08/2013

    Very odd, Ted - the head injuries never tallied with the ‘horseplay’ theory. But all records of the incident were apparently lost.

  17. Ted 06:38am, 06/08/2013

    Man, what a splendid read. And what an effort. These lengthy articles take a lot of work and refining.

    Still, I would like to know what he was doing with the two women that would result in his death.

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