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Rise and Fall of Zora Folley

BY Pete Ehrmann ON September 08, 2005
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(This article is co-authored by Marshall Terrill)

In the town where citizens don’t come more solid than Zora Folley are a park and a swimming pool named after the longtime heavyweight contender who is still the most famous resident to come out of Chandler, Arizona.

What there isn’t after 30-plus years is a clear explanation for the circumstances of Folley’s violent death that continue to perplex the family and friends of the man whose innate decency stood out in the often slimy world of professional boxing like lipstick on a frog.

“I’ve never felt comfortable with the facts surrounding his death, and I still feel uncomfortable,” says Lowell Huggins, a friend of the late boxer, a former Chandler policeman and currently the vice-mayor of the city of 200,000 residents just south of Phoenix.

Zora Folley was 10 when he moved there from Dallas, Texas, with his mother and two sisters in 1942. Longtime Chandler residents recall him as a diminutive kid who was picked on until a sudden growth spurt made Folley 6’1” and a solid 180 pounds as a teenager.

Baseball was his sport of choice until Folley, claiming to be two years older than his 16 years, joined the U.S. Army in 1948. His platoon sergeant at Fort Ord, California, was scheduled to risk his post heavyweight title against a serviceman named Lucius Tate, but at the last minute suffered an injury and asked for a volunteer to take his place in the fight. Although he had scant prior experience in the ring, Folley raised his hand.

It was Tate’s hand that was raised after their bout in which Folley was knocked down in each of the three rounds. But just like in the old Charles Atlas ads in which puny “Mac” comes back to whip the bully who kicked sand in his face, within a year Folley was good enough to beat Tate for the 6th Army championship. The All-Army and All-Service titles followed.

But the fiercest fighting Folley did as a soldier wasn’t in the ring. He won five battle stars in the Korean War, and always said that after experiencing the horrors of war, fighting in the ring held no fear for him.

Discharged in 1953, Folley signed a 10-year pro contract with Phoenix manager Al Fenn. The contract included a morals clause, but Folley didn’t drink or smoke, and his idea of a big time was being with his family. Few boxers have been upheld as role models, but the Chandler man fit the bill.

“We used Zora Folley as an example for youth and what they could accomplish if they worked hard and lived their lives right,” says Tom Carlson, a former teacher and coach at Westwood High School in nearby Mesa.

After winning a decision over Jimmy Ingram in his first pro fight, and then fighting a draw, Folley won 17 straight before contender Johnny Summerlin stopped him. But the Arizona man’s slick if unexciting boxing skills made Folley a top contender for the title held by Floyd Patterson in the late1950s and early ‘60s. However, manager Cus D’Amato steered his champion clear of Folley and other qualified challengers in favor of lesser ones, and it wasn’t until March 22, 1967, when he was 34 and had been in the rankings for over a decade, that Folley got in the ring with the heavyweight champion.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t Patterson wearing the belt then but a prime Muhammad Ali, whose biggest problem with Folley was the latter’s refusal to be drawn into the rasslin’-style type of ballyhoo the preening Ali enjoyed.

“That Folley’s such a nice, sweet old man ­ eight little kids, calls me Muhammad Ali, thanks me all the time for giving him a chance,” Ali complained to Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times. “How’m I ever gonna get mad at him and build up this fight?”

After knocking Folley out in the seventh round at Madison Square Garden, in a contest that was probably harder than any of the champion’s previous title defenses, Ali himself admitted that “things might have been different had we met 10 years ago.”

For the next three years, Folley fought sporadically until contender Mac Foster stopped him in the first round and closed out the Arizona fighter’s career at 79-11-6 (43 KOs).

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.

But that picture blurred for good on July 8, 1972. For one thing, nobody yet knows what Folley was doing at a motel in Tucson, two hours south of Chandler, with a man named Artis Broom, Broom’s wife Dorothy, and a Mesa woman named Ann Young.

Brown is recalled in Chandler as a typical celebrity “hanger-on” whose friendship with Folley puzzled those who knew the ex-contender. Broom had moved to Tucson, and Folley was visiting him at the Sands Motel. It was around midnight, and according to Tucson police, Folley and Broom were engaging in horseplay when an accident occurred.

“He and Brown were trying to see who was going to throw who in the water with his clothes on,” according to Sgt. Lyle Murphy of the Tucson Police Department.

Folley ended up in the water, and one of the women ran to the motel office and reported that he was badly hurt. An ambulance was called, and the former heavyweight contender was taken to a nearby hospital. At 1 a.m., 40-year-old Zora Folley died from his injuries.

They included, according to a statement given by the motel clerk to a Phoenix newspaper, a large bump on the forehead, a hole on top of Folley’s head, and another wound in the back on his head – pretty extensive damage for someone who ostensibly just hit his head falling into a swimming pool.

When he heard what happened to his friend, Lowell Huggins immediately drove to Tucson to check out the scene at the motel. But Tucson police would not allow him on the premises, which was not unusual since he was a Chandler policeman and out of his jurisdiction.

The autopsy report on Folley and the police report on what was officially ruled his accidental death are not available for examination today. The autopsy report was probably destroyed – standard procedure after the passage of so much time – and the police report, if it still even exists, can’t be accessed without the report number contained on the autopsy report.

Over the years, various dark theories and versions of what happened that night have circulated. A “mob” connection has been suggested by some; Jet magazine reported that when Folley died, two “suspicious” men were seen lurking around the motel. Others say that the Tucson police weren’t overly concerned about the death of a black man.

Joella Folley, Zora’s 71-year-old widow and still a Chandler resident, has never spoken publicly about what happened to her husband. Other family members and friends just shake their heads and prefer to remember how the city’s most famous resident lived, rather than how he died.

“Zora was a very honorable and soft-spoken man,” says Chandler grocer Eddie Busha. “He was a very prominent citizen and did more to put Chandler on the map than anyone else I know. He brought only fame and repute to this community.”

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