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.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Victor Wooten Bass Solo

When I got home after my last hitch, Rhonda and Dylan surprised me with a ticket to see Bela Fleck and the Flecktones at the Cascade Theater in Redding. It was a school night, so Dylan didn't go, and since we don't do babysitters, Rhonda stayed home too. I'd been wanting to see those guys live for some time now, so it was a real treat. I was going to post a video by the band, but while searching for one that conveyed their essence on YouTube, I came upon this solo performance of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," played by the Flecktones' Victor Wooten on bass. I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Truth, Justice, and the State of Jefferson

When I was growing up in southern California, most of my elementary school teachers mentioned that there had once been a movement in northern California to create a separate state. Not many particulars were mentioned, other than that there was a prevailing feeling that politicians in Sacramento weren't fairly representing the interests of folks living in the region. In high school, as I recall, the northern California statehood movement was never mentioned. I more or less forgot about the whole thing.

When Rhonda and I got back together about fourteen years ago, we had a big decision to make. Y'see, she lived in northern California, while I lived down in Ventura County. She loved living in Shasta County, and the housing prices there were much more reasonable than down south. I'd always liked it up there too--my dad had a high school buddy who lived there--so, I moved up north.

Rhonda would often have the stereo tuned to the local National Public Radio station, Jefferson Public Radio. The station's studios were in Ashland, Oregon, just a bit north of the California/Oregon border. (If you've heard of Ashland, it's likely because of the internationally touted Oregon Shakespeare Festival.) It was during that time that I learned, thanks to JPR, that northern Californians weren't alone in their desire to create a separate state. No, it was actually an effort made up of mostly rural northern California and southern Oregon counties. During station breaks, a recorded announcement would often air explaining the station's mission, and it mentioned the "State of Jefferson," said to be "the home of some serious, and not-so-serious, efforts to create a new state."

As I settled in to the northern California life, the "not-so-serious" side of the State of Jefferson movement seemed to hold sway. Indeed, Jefferson seemed a whimsical state of mind, sort of a collective outlook that might be labeled "Northern Exposure Lite."

The State of Jefferson movement wasn't always so whimsical. In the fall of 1941, a guy by the name of Gilbert Gable got the ball rolling in a big way. Gable was the mayor of Port Orford, Oregon. His speeches urging the establishment of a new state--formed by southern Oregon and northern California counties--were at first meant only as publicity stunts to draw attention to the poor roads of the region. Many citizens of the region, however, wanted more than just publicity: they actually wanted a new state. The feeling was that if the area was to grow economically, the poor infrastructure would need vast improvement. The legislatures in Salem and Sacramento, as the thinking went, cared little about making things better in their region.

The movement grew quickly, and in November 1941 the provisional capital of Jefferson was set up in Yreka, California. Later that month, a bunch of guys carrying hunting rifles began stopping traffic south of Yreka. They handed motorists copies of a Proclamation of Independence. The handbills stated that the state of Jefferson was engaged in "patriotic rebellion against the states of California and Oregon."

The guys with hunting rifles were probably the reason that the State of Jefferson was catapulted into the national news scene. People began to take the succession effort seriously; the movement had gone way beyond a mere publicity stunt. The rebellion soon competed on front pages with Germany's aggressions in Europe. Jefferson was big news. In fact, a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, Stanton Deleplane, wrote a series of articles on the "rebellion" that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1942.

Hollywood newsreel companies showed up for the swearing in of the governor of Jefferson, Judge John Childs of Crescent City, California. It was a big event indeed, with parades and marching bands preceding the inauguration ceremony on the courthouse lawn. The newsreels were scheduled to show nationally during the week of December 8th.

Alas, the movement to create the new state of Jefferson got knocked on its ass, however indirectly, by the Japanese. The bombing of Pearl Harbor happened on December 7th, and overnight, the state of Jefferson vanished from the headlines, and the Jefferson inauguration newsreels were shelved. New roads were hastily built in the area to access the natural resources harbored there, which created many new jobs in the region. Many more residents joined the war effort by enlisting in the armed services, or going to work in factories. In the space of just two or three months, the Jefferson rebellion had mushroomed from a mere publicity stunt to a serious movement. With the outbreak of World War II, however, the movement, seemingly overnight, lost all the wind in its sails. There were bigger fish to fry.

And yet, the idea of Jefferson as a "state" has never died. Jefferson, today, has its own radio stations, art scene, and music scene. The people of northern California and southern Oregon have not forgotten that they have more in common with each other than their supposed brethren in Sacramento and Salem. Megan Shaw, a fifth generation Oregonian, wrote this regarding Jefferson on the website Bad Subjects: All cynicism aside, I do not believe that the United States is yet prepared to interpret a political movement that is a synthesis of rural anti-federalism and labor activism, one that in some ways is classically conservative and in other ways classically progressive (yet at the same time is not quite either). If the State of Jefferson had not removed itself to the cultural sphere, it would have risked following the route of such separatist movements as the Montana Freemen and the Republic of Texas. Those movements relied on fairly narrow bands of support that were not deeply entrenched in the culture. I support the State of Jefferson continuing to work in the long term toward greater self-definition, and towards legal separation from Oregon and California if that is the population's wish. I believe that they are entrenching their movement in the region's culture in a way that can make such a transition possible. One jazz band at a time.

Jefferson lives on in the hearts and minds of the folks living there. It may be, for the most part, merely a whimsical "state of mind." Somehow, though, I suspect that the legislatures in Sacramento and Salem are mindful that, if they screw up too much, they could awake one morning to find that it's 1941 all over again.