Maybe it is not necessary to identify Zora Folley, but there is an urge to do so, to say Zora Folley is a fighter. Zora Folley (a beautiful name, easily comparable to Mahatma Kane Jeeves, Larsen E. Whipsnade or Gaston B. Means) has been in 85 fights, you see, but few are aware that Zora has ever been near a ring, or, for that matter, that he even exists. First of all, who ever heard of a fighter coming from Arizona and, second, who ever heard of a fighter whose idea of a big time is standing in line to make a bank deposit? He is even quite fond of his wife. The Junior Chamber of Commerce has got to be handling Zora Folley.
"He's the only heavyweight champion," says George Nader, mayor of Chandler, Ariz., "they'd put on the back of a Wheaties box. If he wins."
The mayor can forget it. Barry Goldwater had a better chance in the last election than Folley has against Muhammad Ali next week in the first heavyweight title fight in Madison Square Garden in 16 years. Curiously, this is not because Folley does not possess the skills. On the contrary, he is certainly the most competent fighter Ali has had to defend against. He is the best combination puncher among the heavyweights, a great "book fighter" and a counterpuncher who can lay back and pick an opponent to pieces. "Leave him alone, and you're in trouble," says Angelo Dundee.
Nobody, it seems, doubts Folley's abilities. The big question with him, aside from his age (he's 34, maybe 36), is located below the neck. Hemingway had another word for it, but the less literate and less sensitive in boxing just say, majestically waving their cigars, "Da bum has a lot of dog in 'im." This is a rap handed out often and quickly in boxing, but who really knows? Unfortunately, Folley has fought across 14 years with this tag on him: no Heart. The case? He does not always get up off the floor, and he does not win the big fights; Sonny Liston, Doug Jones and Alejandro Lavorante knocked him out, and Henry Cooper and Ernie Terrell decisioned him. "I got heart, don't nobody have to worry about that," says Folley.
March 20, 1967
Nevertheless, the fight will present a different kind of action from what has been seen in Ali's recent title defenses. Folley, in a lordly, upright stance, does not chase his opponents. Ali, who prefers to be chased, will have to, and indeed intends to, pursue Folley, to stay on top of him and not allow him to "get off" his combinations. With his awesome hand speed and magnificent physical condition, Ali should have no trouble in disarming Folley. Zora's defense is good, but when he is caught with a volley of combinations his offense is nullified and he goes into a shell and covers. Unless he changes his style, Folley should be in a shell most of the night, which will consist of, say, six or seven rounds.
Folley, if left alone, can do a lot of damage with his best weapon, a short, powerful right hand that "has eyes." This punch has given him 40 knockouts. "It's the closest thing to a mule's kick that I've ever seen," says his trainer, Johnny Hart. "He just takes it back and whump, he pops it in there."
No one, of course, can predict the pattern of Ali's fights—he is such a master improviser—but if he chooses to spend the opening rounds testing and tempting he could find Folley to be quite dangerous. Conceivably, Folley might even stagger Ali, but would he seize the moment? Past experiences indicate that he would let Ali get away. Folley had Henry Cooper down in the third round, but Cooper, badly cut, got up to bull Zora all over the ring and win. Folley allowed the same thing to happen in his second fight with Doug Jones. "Maybe, at those times," he says, "I was thinking too much, but that's the way I fight. Lookin' all the time, you know, what to do, what to throw and how the other guy reacts. It makes me sick to waste a punch. I'll fight the same way against Ali, but for some reason I feel different inside for this one. For once, you know, a fight has real meaning for me."
The meaning for Folley is obvious. He has labored in obscurity and without much reward for a fighter who has been in the ratings for 11 years (No. 1 in 1958). Only a man with great perseverance could have withstood the gnawing frustration of being avoided and still retain his desire. Yet he conceals his bitterness without too much effort—except when Floyd Patterson's name is mentioned.
"If Floyd had given me a shot," says Folley, "I would have been champion years ago. But he was afraid of me. He kept dodging me, and I was out in the bushes. It seemed like it was always another year or two of just hoping and waiting, and little fights. Always little fights in small towns. I am grateful to Ali for this chance, but he's not kidding me. He gave me the fight only because he's completely convinced he can whup me."
Patterson was not Folley's only problem. He and Bill Swift, his manager and close friend, were caught in a strange financial web. Swift's father was the son of the founder of Swift & Company and his mother's father had controlled Morton Salt Company. Bill, through real estate and cattle, had acquired wealth of his own, but after a number of bad investments and a costly divorce he had lost most of his money. "I was broke," says Swift, a former rodeo performer and truck driver, "and I tried to get a job, but because of my name and the family's reputation for wealth, nobody believed me."
"There were times," admits Swift, "when the purses from Zora's fights helped me to support my family. Perhaps if my finances had been better we would not have taken some of those fights and would have saved the losses. As it was, I took fights we didn't need. There was no reason to take on Liston. Jones, the second time, was foolish, too. Folley had just gotten over the flu and he was still weak when he fought, but we needed the money. There were others like that. Short-notice fights, fights when he wasn't right or those that we did not need. All of this didn't help his career, but Zora never reproached me."
This is not difficult to understand. Folley is a gentle, silent man and, like Swift, he is a western type. He hides his emotions, does not reveal much of himself; the only indication that something might be churning inside him is when he jiggles his leg and slowly grinds his teeth, and then he looks like a perfect setup for an ulcer. "I keep my irritations well hid," says Folley. "They're covered up way down deep and I guess that's where they belong." Folley is also not interested in conversation, but when he does say something he means it. When, for instance, he says he respects Ali as a fighter and a man he is not just trying to be nice. When he says he does have "heart" and looks at you with those big, lifeless eyes, who can doubt him? Besides, there is another record of which no one speaks.
Folley earned five battle stars as a rifleman and B.A.R. man with the infantry in Korea during those savage engagements at Pusan, Inchon and Bloody Ridge. "I can't get nervous anymore," says Folley, "I left all that back there. The Chinee would pour in and come at you screaming, blowing the bugles, and you couldn't stay nervous long. That's all there seemed to be—Chinee, blood and mud. You knew if you could hold on long enough you'd make it. Maybe that's where I learned to stick it out in this boxing when everything was going wrong. Maybe that's why I think I got all the heart it takes. Ali is only one man, not a thousand Chinee."
If Folley, speaking, is somewhat a departure from the usual fighter, he is even more so physically. He has a smooth, soft face which is decorated by a thin mustache. The ridges above his eyes are not exaggerated, the nose is not misshapen and his stomach is unmarked by dissipation or age. "I guess," he says, pounding his stomach with his right hand, "that's because I don't have any time for anything else but my eight kids and working around the house."
Folley lives in Chandler in a pink cinder-block house surrounded by an encampment of frayed white cottages. It is a warm, bright house, and inside it always seems to be filled with screen doors being slammed, the laughter of kids, the chatter of neighbors and the smell of good, solid food. On the walls are a couple of religious pictures, and on a shelf three books: Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia, The Power of Positive Thinking and Word Power Made Easy.
"I don't believe anything will change after I win the title," he said, sitting in the living room as his kids flew by. "I'll live here with my friends, probably in the same house. I've been all over the world, seen lots of places. Great cities and beautiful towns, but nothing beats Chandler. It's really nothing much to look at, but I like it. I like the desert and the way things look and feel."
Then Folley got up and began his roadwork for the day, a seven-mile walk down the length of a Southern Pacific Railroad spur. It is a lonely walk, but Folley was not bothered by it. He likes to look at the weird cactus, the greasewood trees, the mesquite and the ominous shadows of Camelback Mountain, and on this day, his last before going to New York, he was strangely silent. His mind, it seemed, was a million miles away from that day when some guy waving a martini, 20 years from now, will bring up the name of Zora Folley in a Trivia exercise.