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.
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."