SI Vault
Mark Kram
April 03, 1967
The heavyweight champion won an interesting fight against an aging but surprisingly worthy challenger. Now Ali's clouded future raises the possibility that the ring soon may be deprived of its most colorful figure
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 03, 1967

After Muhammad, A Graveyard

The heavyweight champion won an interesting fight against an aging but surprisingly worthy challenger. Now Ali's clouded future raises the possibility that the ring soon may be deprived of its most colorful figure

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The little sport from the West, 12 years old, whey-faced, hat on his knee, tie in place, hair slicked down, sat on the wooden bench next to the heavyweight who was now just a truck driver from Arizona. The kid's eyes were red, and he would not look at the fighter, who kept glancing out of the corners of his eyes at the son of his manager. Outside, in the dark corridor, a lightweight was howling: "Why do ya bums always fall over for that bum?" Zora Folley was not listening. He was listening to the sound of a dream dying.

"What I tell ya, what I tell ya?" the trainer, Johnny Hart, kept saying. "It was his right hand that ruined us. I warned him about Clay's right. I said double safety. Get out. Move back in a hurry when Clay gets set. Folley didn't do it. It was that simple."

The kid, Will Swift, had had enough. His face turned up at Folley, and his eyes were wet. "It's unfair," he said. "Clay cheats. That was no way for poor Zora to lose. That's not the way a prizefight should go. Clay confused Zora, flapping his hands, dancing and just doing crazy things. Poor Zora. I hate Clay. No, I don't. I know it's wrong. Clay is a great champion."

Folley was silent. Soon he put on his long, gray overcoat. While Muhammad Ali—with the Muslim guard prancing in front of him and shouting, "Out the way, get out"—entered the Midtown Motor Inn across from the Garden, Zora Folley departed like an old, humble preacher leaving a gospel tent. He faded into the darkness of Eighth Avenue, a street of no face and no names, where already the scramblers and the ramblers, and the price to get inside, were yowling that one Zora Folley was just another stiff for a bigmouth draft dodger.

Some critics came at you with the same pitch the next day, but the fact is—unless one was looking at Ursula Andress all night—Folley had nothing to apologize for. Even his "heart," which was quite suspect before the bout, stood up. He made the best fight he could, and it stands as one of the more interesting fights Ali has had. Age (he's 34 and had been in 85 bouts) and caution—his reluctance to vary, even slightly, the style that had given him 40 knockouts—beat Folley. He was also beaten by a patient, disciplined and "scientific" performance, which Ali had promised Folley just because he was such a "civilized, respectable" man.

Still, Folley did accomplish some things. He cut the ring down on Ali. He hit the champion more often than any other opponent with solid right hands and slip jabs. He did not panic when Ali got cute and, faking and feinting, he forced Ali to miss several good punches. On the negative side—besides being knocked out—he obstinately clung to one stratagem; while moving to his right, he kept looking to throw a right-hand counter. It did not take Ali long to learn that he could go in flat-footed and ram home his good right hand, which so many people doubt he possesses.

It is also a popular opinion that Ali just played with Folley the first two rounds, but it is more likely that he was measuring Folley's reactions and the strength of his punches. It wasn't until the third round that Ali began working. His straight left hands—not his jab—kept snapping Folley's head back, and these were the punches that started Folley on his way out. At the end of the third round, Ali told his corner that Folley had begun to tire, that his punches had lost some of their life.

In the fourth, Ali, now punching flat-footed, spun Folley around with a left hook and then banged a right hand in back of his ear. Folley went down; he was flat on his stomach, and then suddenly he was up, his nose streaming blood, and he was kneeling and looking to his corner for the count. Folley raged back, but he had left too much of himself on the floor. Ali, it appeared, carried Folley in the fifth and sixth rounds, but going into the seventh Herbert Muhammad, his manager, told him to "stop playin'." He did. Two rights, the first of which traveled roughly six inches, gave Ali his 29th straight victory and his ninth successful title defense, and sent Folley back to the anonymity in which he has long labored—and seems to prefer.

Back on his feet and alert, Folley began looking for his son Junior. The boy was brought into the ring, and he looked at his father and then he glanced down at his shoes.

"Come over here!" Ali ordered the boy. "Don't be ashamed. I know you are disappointed, but your father put up a good fight. He's a good fighter, a slick, scientific boxer, and if we'd met 10 years ago things might have been different."

Continue Story
1 2