Saturday, October 20, 2007

Zora Folley, My Dad, and a Mysterious Death

His name was Zora Folley. Unless you're a boxing history buff, or an ESPN Classic junkie, you probably haven't heard of him, but he's considered one of the best heavyweight boxers to never win the title.

He was born in Dallas, Texas in 1932, and moved to Chandler, Arizona in 1942. Baseball became his sport of choice. He entered the U.S. Army at the age of sixteen, claiming he was eighteen. His real beginning as a boxer was probably due to a quirk of fate: He had scant boxing experience when he was asked to replace an injured contestant--his platoon sergeant, as it turned out--in a match scheduled at his base at Fort Ord, California.

The match was originally set up for the post heavyweight title, but that title was held by Folley's injured platoon sergeant. Folley lost the match, but decided to stay with boxing, becoming an absorbed student of the sport. A year later, Folley beat the man who'd beat him during his first match. Soon after, he won the 6th Army championship, then went on to win the All-Army and All-Service titles. He fought in the Korean War, earned five battle stars, and left the Army in 1953.

Folley turned pro soon after leaving the Army. He became a top contender during Floyd Patterson's reign as heavyweight champion, but never got the chance to fight Patterson for the title. That was partly because of a loss to Henry Cooper in 1958 (Folley won the rematch in 1961), but some claim that Patterson manager Cus D’Amato (who decades later would become Mike Tyson's manager) ducked Folley, considering him too great a risk to Patterson's championship.

With his hoped-for bout with Patterson never coming about, his chance at the heavyweight title came in 1967, at the age of thirty-five. His opponent was Muhammad Ali. It would be Ali's last fight before his three year ban from boxing. Despite the fact that many boxing cognoscenti considered Folley to be in the twilight of his career, Folley gave Ali one of his toughest pre-ban battles, the fact Ali knocked him out in the seventh round notwithstanding.

Ali saw Folley's son crying in the crowd after the fight. Ali sought the boy out, hugged him, and told him that no one could have beaten his dad had the fight happened years earlier, in Folley's prime.

Folley went on to fight for three more years after his defeat at the hands of Ali, although at irregular intervals. He retired after Mac Foster stopped him in the first round in 1970. His career closed out at 79 wins, 11 loses, 6 draws, and 43 knockouts.

Denied a chance at the title during his prime, Folley could have chosen to wallow in self-pity in a downward spiral toward a parody of his former self. Instead, Folley defied the stereotype of the washed-up fighter by becoming a pillar of the community in his home town of Chandler. A well-spoken, thoughtful gentleman, liked by most everyone, he was elected to the city council. In an article on the Sweet Science website, Pete Ehrmann wrote this: If he’d been the stereotypical down-and-out ex-pug, the circumstances surrounding Folley’s death probably wouldn’t have raised many eyebrows. But in fact, Folley actually gilded his stature as one of Chandler’s top citizens after his retirement from boxing. Always dapper and well-spoken, he became a salesman for Rudolph Chevrolet, and when the city fathers were looking for someone to fill a vacancy on the City Council, Folley was an easy choice. The happily married father of eight was the picture of the kind of post-boxing success that eluded so many former fighters.

Sadly, 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 Folley’s 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.


The questions surrounding Folley's death are harbored mostly by friends of Folley's, Chandler residents, and some boxing history enthusiasts. I harbor that intrigue too, since I feel a connection to Folley, however thin.

It's a "two degrees of separation" thing: my dad, for a short time, became acquainted with Mr. Folley.

My dad was in the Army during Korea, completing his basic training at Fort Ord, California. (I was also stationed there after graduating from Army flight school, and you can read about an experience I had at one of Dad's old haunts here.) After watching him during hand-to-hand combat training, the D.I.'s decided that Dad had a talent for boxing. After he finished basic, he was selected to serve as cadre at a basic training company, with the eventual plan that he would go to Airborne training before deployment to Korea. The real reason Dad got held behind in a cadre slot was his boxing talent. Dad's company commander felt that he had the potential to excel as a light-heavyweight.

Dad, within a few months, took on several other boxers at Fort Ord, and was undefeated after a fairly concentrated string of fights. His trainers decided that he was ready to fight the post light-heavyweight champ, but they were unhappy with Dad because he didn't enthusiastically apply himself to defensive fundamentals. That is, he would rely on reflexes and quickness to evade punches, and was sloppy with his guard. They felt that a certain heavyweight on post, known for his amazing quickness and attention to fundamentals, could teach Dad a lesson or three.

That man was Zora Folley.

Although Dad's trainers called it a sparring session, there was a fairly sizable crowd at hand to see an undefeated light-heavyweight take on Folley, who was at the time either the All-Army or All-Service champ. (I can't remember, recalling Dad's accounts, which title Folley held during the "sparring session.") However, Folley knocked Dad down three times in the first round. The fight was over.

Dad was jarred by his encounter with Mr. Folley. He'd had little trouble with fellow light-heavyweights he'd faced, and was beginning to feel invincible in his weight class. He saw a 6th Army title in his future, maybe more. He didn't necessary expect to get the best of an accomplished heavyweight, but he did expect to at least give him a good fight. "I didn't see half of his punches coming," Dad told me. It was a sobering experience for a guy who'd previously relied on a defensive style perhaps best described as "Muhammad Ali Lite." Dad talked of quitting. His trainers urged otherwise. Folley himself paid a visit to the barracks to encourage Dad to continue. Although he wasn't swayed from his discouragement by Folley's visit, nor by the urging of his trainers, he was impressed by Folley the man. "He was a first-class guy," Dad said, "a real gentleman."

I've often told people that Zora Folley ended my dad's boxing career. However, I'm guilty of simplifying a bit too much. The fact is, I'll never know whether Dad would have chosen to continue with boxing (although he told me he was leaning strongly toward quitting), because soon after his fight with Folley, Dad came down with rheumatic fever. His decision was made for him, at that point.


High-profile assassinations will fascinate folks for decades. Like many people, I often wonder if there is more to the JFK, RFK, and MLK killings than meets the eye. I find myself hoping that we'll know the real truth in my lifetime.

By contrast, the death of Zora Folley isn't much mentioned in magazine articles or TV crime shows today. His death made a splash on the national news scene, but only for a short time. He may not have been the victim of foul play, and any case, I suspect that not that many people are still wondering if something nefarious happened at that Tucson motel in 1972.

I do, though. Perhaps its because of that "two degrees of separation," but for the rest of my days, I'll wonder if we'll ever learn the real truth about the death of Zora Folley, that "first-class guy" and "real gentleman," who, for a few rounds in 1967, gave Muhammad Ali a run for his money.


David said...

Digging deep there Hal. All the more reason to regularly check for your posts. I never know what I'll learn.
Keep Writing,

Redlefty said...

Agreed, I'd never heard the name Zara Folley before. Thanks for the great writing.

Big Daddy said...

Very good thinking. I was a Phoenician and as a kid I looked up to Zora. The death seems even more suspicious now that no police reports or autopsy. RememberArizona was a magnet for organized crime and boxing was controlled by the East Coast organized crime factions in those days. Sonny Liston was a prime example. Anyway this is buried deep and it's history. Still it has a lot of things that could make you think it was foul play.

Pat Doherty said...

I have just watched Zora Folley box Ali on a boxing gold in England. I wondered what happened to Zora after boxing ! Very sad how he passed away. I enjoyed the article written by Hal, it opened my eyes and got me thinking.His family should still be allowed to question the authoritys and get closure on this matter... Pat

Anonymous said...

Hi Hal, I am the youngest daughter of the late Zora Folley, I communicated with you before in the past. I see you are still writing. I still wonder about my Dad's death as well as my siblings. My Mother pasted away in October of 2011. There are 7 of us Children left, we lost 2 sisters Denise in 2010, and Francine in 2012. There's 3 girls and all 4 boys left. We still still talk about Mom and Dad and still very proud of his accomplishments. Proud of the Folley Memorial Park, Folley Street named in his honor but that still doesn't make it any easier or ease the sick feeling that we get when we think of what really happened to my Father. I've heard a few stories and there's a book on amazon written by a man from Chandler Az that supposedely spoke to people back then and he had some theories. Only God knows what happened to my Dad and if and whomever killed him, or had something to do with it, they will have to answer to the good Lord for their sins as will we all....Thank you for keeping his name in the light!

Anonymous said...

Enough Said I'm Zora's son Robert

Anonymous said...

Zora was a great fighter, and the real boxing fans will never forget him.