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March 22, 2012

Chandler Centennial recognizes 45th anniversary of Ali vs. Folley world heavyweight title boxing match at Madison Square Garden

On March 22, 1967, Chandler residents gathered around radios all over town to listen to a live sports broadcast featuring one of the community’s longtime residents, Zora Folley, who was competing in the boxing ring against the heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali. On the 45th anniversary of this fight, and in honor of City’s upcoming 100th birthday, the Chandler Centennial Steering Committee is sharing some of the history of Zora Folley’s life.

Zora Folley (May 27, 1932 – July 9, 1972)

Zora Folley was born in Texas on May 27, 1932. His family moved from Texas to Chandler in 1942, where he grew up playing baseball. Folley learned to box when he joined the Army in 1948. He won the 6th Army championship within a year, and eventually earned the All-Army championship and the All-Services title. He fought in the Korean War, where he earned five battle stars. Folley was discharged from the Army in 1953, returned to Chandler, and signed a professional boxing contract. He was known as a skilled fighter with a good defense and the punching power to go with it, which enabled him to defeat many of the top contenders for the heavyweight title.

At age 34, Folley was past his prime and nearing the end of his boxing career when he got the opportunity to fight for the Heavyweight Champion of the World title against Muhammad Ali in New York City’s Madison Square Garden on March 22, 1967. Ali, age 25, had changed his name from Cassius Clay several years prior, but some of his previous opponents had angered him by calling him Clay. Folley did not show the same disrespect and called the champion by his Muslim name, which helped earn Ali’s respect. Prior to the fight, Ali said that Folley was one of the nicest men he knew, which would make it difficult to fight him. He also admitted to feeling nervous leading up to the fight. 

The match was broadcast live on the radio, and hundreds of Chandler residents turned out to the football field behind Chandler High School to listen as their hero took on The Greatest. 

The bell rang and ringside announcer Don Dunphy said, “Muhammad Ali, the champion of all the world, in the white trunks. Folley, the challenger from Chandler, Arizona. The champion weighing 211 and a half. Folley 202 and a half.” 

The challenger was aggressive in the first round and landed several hard punches to Ali. As the fight continued, Folley was more cautious and counterpunched well in the face of Ali's jab combinations. Dunphy noted that, “Out of respect for Folley's punching power the champion's keeping his gloves up higher than he usually does.”

Then, in the fourth round, Ali hit Folley with a straight right to the chin and a left hook that sent the challenger to the canvas. Ali stood triumphantly over Folley, arms raised in a classic pose, with the referee telling Ali to move to a neutral corner. Dunphy announced, “The punches that put Folley down came so fast you could hardly see them.”

But Folley quickly recovered and waited to the count of “9” to stand. Within seconds of getting up, Folley landed a hard right to Ali's cheek, followed seconds later by combo of a hard left hook to the side of Ali's head and a straight right to Ali's face.

 “They said Folley wouldn't be a tiger, but he is,” Dunphy said. “This has turned into quite a fight hasn't it? ... Folley is coming back from that knockdown and he is scoring …There is nothing wrong with Folley's courage, believe me.”

“Zora, of course, is the sentimental favorite with the crowd,” Dunphy noted. But as the fight wore on those watching could see that the champion's speed was turning the fight his way. Then, midway through the seventh round, Ali struck again and Folley dropped hard onto the canvas. He tried to get up, but was too dazed to continue. The knockout was at 1 minute 48 seconds of the seventh round and Ali had retained the title. After the fight, Dunphy said of Folley, “he gave the champion the best battle of the champion's career.”

In the post-fight interview Ali said, “Folley bothered me for a while, he was smart, he was taking his time, he was stalking. But after a few rounds he started tiring and I caught him with a right hand lead.” “Did he hurt you at any time?,” Dunphy asked. “Well, a few body punches shook me a little, but not enough to hurt me ‘cause he didn't follow up, he wasn't fast enough,” the Champ said. 

“I have to say he's a decent man, he hit me with a couple of low jabs, but he apologized for it, and it was a beautiful fight” Ali added. “I was a little flat footed in this fight, because I usually do a lot of dancing. But I couldn't ... really, dance too much with this fellow, because he stayed still. He waited for me. I had to slow down to tag him, to keep up with his pace.” Later, Ali graciously added that he was glad he hadn't faced Folley in his younger days or the result may have been very different. 

This would be Ali’s last fight for three and a half years. He was stripped of his title the following month for refusing to be drafted into the Army and had his professional boxing license suspended. 

After the Ali fight, Folley fought 10 more times over a three year period. He finished with a career record of 79 wins (with 44 KOs), 11 loses, and 6 draws (according to

Folley retired to Chandler where he and his wife, Joella, raised nine children. In April 1972, Folley was appointed to the Chandler City Council, but only served a short time before he died in a tragic poolside incident at a hotel in Tucson on July 9, 1972. 

Chandler has also honored his memory with Zora Folley Park, at 601 E. Frye Road, Folley Pool, and Folley Street (and Place and Court). He was posthumously inducted into the inaugural class of the Chandler Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.

[This information was compiled from the Ch