The Forgotten Contender: Zora Folley meets Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was gifted with a long and stinging left. It snapped out like a cobra’s tongue. When Ali was in his prime in the 1960’s, the blow was extremely quick. He would use it to set-up his rapid-fire combinations.
The punch rendered heavyweight champion Sonny Liston impotent in 1964. After six rounds of action, Liston’s eyes were swollen from numerous jabs and hooks. The fight was over.
Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, was the new champion. Within a three-year span, he defeated Liston in a rematch, former champion Floyd Patterson, George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, Karl Mildenberger, Cleveland Williams and Ernie Terrell.
Just five weeks after defeating Terrell, Ali faced long-time contender Zora Folley at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Folley was 34 at the time, and on the back nine of his boxing career. He had engaged in 85 fights, winning 74, and had been knocked out more than once.
Ali was a heavy favorite on fight night. Many expected a quick stoppage. Ali was nine years younger and had looked brilliant knocking out Williams the year before.
Apparently Zora Folley didn’t get the memo. He was extremely confident a few weeks before the match. And why not?
During his 17-year career, he had defeated Chuvalo, Oscar Bonavena, Bob Foster, Doug Jones, and Henry Cooper, the same fighter who had knocked Ali on his butt in 1963.
Watching these fights is like something out of a H.G. Wells story. You’re transported back in time when legends like Rocky Graziano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Joe Louis walked the earth. It’s glorious to hear the crowd at the Garden roar when they’re introduced.
Before the match starts, Folley is observed waiting patiently in his corner. He would practice patience throughout his fight with Ali.
In the opening stanza, Ali circled, while Folley stalked. The challenger landed the first punch of the fight, a right hand to Ali’s chest. Ali missed with a combination. Folley connected with a few body blows and his own left jab. Ali jabbed a couple of times and missed.
Folley’s Sunday punch was his right hand. Two minutes into the round, he let the right go. It crashed off Ali’s chin. Seconds later, another found pay dirt. The crowd screamed, but Ali stayed on his toes and moved away.
Ali met Folley in the center of the ring in Round two. He fired his educated jab, but Folley wasn’t in class to receive it. He watched and waited. Another right, this time the overhand variety, touched Ali. Ali ducked and weaved but still couldn’t reach the challenger. Folley was the aggressor. Every few seconds he’d fire his right. Surprisingly, it continued to connect.
Folley had won the first two rounds. There was no panic in Ali’s corner. He appeared to be sizing up his opponent. Folley had fared better in the early going than Liston had in his two encounters with Ali.
Ali made some changes in Round three. He weaved around the ring, using feints and constant head movement. He moved closer to Folley, bouncing on his toes–looking to unleash some punches. He finally found Folley’s chin with a couple of jabs.
Folley was content to counter back with shots to Ali’s body. Ali landed a sneaky right near the end of the round that would foreshadow what was to come.
Ali fought flat-footed in Round four. He was s sharpshooter on the prowl. He caught his prey with a lead right–followed by a left that dropped Folley on his face. The fight looked to be over, but Folley sat up at the count of four with a surprised look on is face. He looked to his corner and beat the count. Ali tried to end the fight, but Folley fought back with both hands. Another right sent Ali to the ropes. The defending champion connected with a strong right near the bell.
Rounds five and six were competitive. Ali’s jab wasn’t slumbering anymore. He connected with a number of stinging blows. Folley continued to fight back. Ali altered his style in both rounds, switching from flatfooted to movement. Folley looked a little tired, while Ali was dancing and stinging.
Round seven would prove to be Folley’s waterloo. Before the heat began, Ali’s manager, Herbert Muhammad, whispered in Ali’s corner to “stop playin.”
Ali followed orders. Two rights connected. He stalked and popped. Folley landed his own punch, but Ali rolled with it and quickly went back on the attack. A three-punch combo did damage. Seconds later, a short right deposited Folley on his face.
This time, though he gamely tried to beat the count of ten, Folley failed. Muhammad Ali had won his 29th consecutive fight.
After the bout, he gave Folley his due.
“Folley bothered me for a while,” said Ali in the ring. “He was smart, he was takin his time and stalking. A few body blows shook me up.
“He was a better fighter than Sonny Liston, or Floyd Patterson or Ernie Terrell. He was slick, tricky and a good boxer.” Ali said.
Zora Folley would die five years later under mysterious circumstances. He was 40 years old.
His memory shines brightly in his adopted hometown of Chandler, Arizona. The city dedicated a park in his honor. Throughout his short life, Folley carried himself with dignity.
He was more than game when he met the self-proclaimed “Greatest of all Times” on March 22, 1967.
Folley was driven and anxious to earn Ali’s respect.
I’d say he did.
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