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Zora Folley-Unsung Heavyweight


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One of the best heavyweights never to win a world title, the guy with the unusual first name Zora also went under the unusual nickname of “Bell”. Despite defeating guys like Eddie Machen, George Chuvalo, Oscar Bonavena, Henry Cooper, Bob Foster, Nino Valdes, Doug Jones, Mike DeJohn and Bob Cleroux, Folley came up short in his only world title attempt (which came late) when he was stopped in 7 by Muhammad Ali, in 1967. He was obviously avoided by at least one of the previous champions, but also lost a few important bouts before that. 

Zora Folley was born in Dallas, Texas, on 27 May 1931 and moved to Chandler, Arizona in 1942, with his family. He played baseball there and in 1948 he joined the Army, where he took up boxing. He won the 6th Army, All-Army and All-Service titles. 6’1 (186 cm) Folley had a reach of 77 inches (196 cm) and fought from orthodox stance. He fought in the Korean War as a sergeant and was awarded five battle stars. He turned pro in September 1953 and won 18 fights, 12 by ko and drew 1 before losing for the first time to Johnny Summerlin by a corner retirement in 6. That was in June ‘55 and in December that year he again lost, to Young Jack Johnson (who would later be shot dead) by corner retirement in 5. He scored his first bigger victory on 25 September next year, when he beat world class contender and strongman Nino Valdes by UD10. He followed that up with two back to back wins over tough journeyman Wayne Bethea, both by SD. 

On 9 Aoril ‘58, he faced Eddie Machen for the first time, a rather small but crafty boxer, and the result was a split draw. On 25 July, he became the second boxer to beat and knock out Pete Rademacher in the pros, by KO4. He then went to London to fight Henry Cooper at Wembley and despite dropping him in the third and cutting him badly in the last two rounds, lost a disputed ten round decision. He then stopped the Commonwealth champion Joe Bygraves by TKO9, in November, one month later. After scoring decision wins over Alex Miteff and Willi Besmanoff, he rematched Eddie Machen on 18 January ‘60 and this time won clearly on all scorecards after 12 rounds. However, he then ran into the feared “Black Bear” Sonny Liston on 18 July and was down twice and saved by the bell in round 2 before getting knocked out in round 3, after 28 seconds. This damaged his ranking and Liston went on to fight the champion Floyd Patterson instead of him.

Things didn’t get much better next year, when he faced the 6’4 Argentinian puncher, Alejandro Lavorante and got knocked out in 7 rounds after getting dropped twice in the sixth and twice in the seventh. He did however avenge the loss to Cooper in December that year, flattening him in 2 rounds in his most impressive victory yet and probably ever. He started 1962 by knocking out Mike DeJohn, another tall puncher like Lavorante, in 3 rounds. He then impressively outboxed and outclassed tough Canadian Bob Cleroux in April, before scoring a UD10 against Doug Jones in a close fight in August. However, in the rematch with Jones in December, Folley got knocked out for the third time, in 7 rounds again, after first dropping Jones in the first round. He again decisioned Cleroux in May of 1963, but then lost to the 6’6 Ernie Terrell by UD10 in July. In January 1964, he scored a good win in a tough fight against the toughest fighter ever, George Chuvalo, winning clearly on all scorecards after 10 rounds. 

After controversially drawing against Karl Mildenberger in Germany, he rebounded by knocking out Gerhard Zech in 4 and then fighting the fresh Argentinian upstart Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden, 26 February ‘65. Folley dropped the inexperienced Bonavena in round 8 and gave him a boxing lesson, winning by a near shutout-decision. He then faced the tall and lanky light heavy Bob Foster in New Orleans on 6 December and outboxed him as well to win by a wide decision. He finally got to fight the world champion Muhammad Ali on 22 March ‘67, after scoring three more minor wins. It would be Ali’s last fight before going into house arrest and also was the first world heavyweight championship bout to be held at Madison Square Garden since Ezzard Charles vs Lee Oma in 1951. Ali was a 7to1 betting favorite. Folley showed no intimidation and hit Ali more than any other challenger until then with right hands and slip jabs. Ali started to assert himself in the third and in the fourth sent Zora down, first spinning him around with a left hook and then hit him with a right behind the ear. Folley got up and went at Ali, but was already too spent. He was stopped in round 7, yet again, after Ali connected with two long rights. 

Folley was now a spent force, aged 36, having chased that world title dream for 14 years but failed. He lost to Brian London on points away in Liverpool and lost the rematch with Bonavena in Buenos Aires, by MD, in November ‘67 and June ‘68 respectively. After winning 3 more easy fights, he got knocked out in 1 round by Mac Foster, 29 September ‘70, and retired after that, aged 39. His record consists of 79 wins, 44 knockouts, 11 losses and 6 draws. Tragically, he died only 2 years after retiring, on 7 July 1972, after allegedly hitting his head near a motel swimming pool after some “friendly roughhousing”. He was only 41. He fathered nine children and worked as a car salesman in his hometown of Chandler, also being a member of the local city council. 

Zora Folley was a talented boxer who today would probably become a world champion, or in this century for sure. He just wasn’t good enough to be that in such a strong heavyweight era as the 1960’s were. He possessed both the skills, the punch and the ring guile. Had his chin only been a little better…


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  • 2 weeks later...

- - Boz, Zora maybe good enough to beat Patterson to take his title, but, alas, Mob affiliated, thus earning Cus' NYET!!!

Agreed, very underrated and amazing man and career. Not his fault as the Mob had their hands on most fighters back then. Floyd coming up as Olympic champ had a special immunity, esp when Cus became his trainer.

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