The first, prolific championship reign of Muhammad Ali, which saw him defend his title eight times in two years, had, regrettably, always been more about politics than sports. Shortly after becoming champion with an upset victory over Sonny Liston in 1964, the man the world knew as ‘Cassius Clay’ revealed his membership in The Nation of Islam and changed his name. In 1966 he refused to be drafted into the military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War. The heavyweight champion of the world was already a pariah and a lightning rod of controversy. Now, for most, he was a disgraced draft dodger.
There was little in the way of buzz or excitement for Ali vs Folley. Unlike some challengers, the Texas native was always respectful, never calling the champion by his birthname as others had. He even went out of his way to publicly thank Ali for giving him the title shot no one else had. But the political side of things came to the rescue and brought renewed interest to the match when the military issued a summons to Ali for April 11th and the champion talked up the possibility, soon to be proven correct, that the impending showdown with the draft board meant his career might be put on ice for a while.
“This may be the last chance to see Muhammad Ali in living color,” he declared. “So if you have always been wanting to see me, you better come to the Garden.”
And while it was not a sell-out crowd in Madison Square, it proved to be a record gate for boxing in the Garden, not to mention the first heavyweight title match in the venerable arena since Ezzard Charles defeated Lee Oma there in 1951. That bout had attracted some eleven thousand on a snowy January night, while Ali vs Folley drew just under fourteen thousand, a respectable turn-out given the fact that few, if any, gave Folley a serious chance of winning. The challenger was officially a seven-to-one underdog.
But no one can say Folley wasn’t game, that he didn’t come to fight. In fact, his persistence resulted in him landing more flush blows on “The Louisville Lip” than any previous challenger (with the possible exception of George Chuvalo, if you include the latter’s groin shots), though his jabs to both body and head and counter right hands caused Ali little concern. But Folley’s persistence also meant he never varied his game plan, which was to patiently wait for a chance to land his counter right. The lack of concerted pressure meant Ali could box as he pleased and revel in his natural advantages in height, reach and quickness.
In the early rounds, Ali, amazingly light on his feet, circled the ring and danced and worked to establish the tempo and distance he wanted. In round three he began boxing in earnest, putting some heat on his jab, and in round four, the champion, clearly the bigger and stronger of the two, started countering Folley’s left lead with a right cross. Not long after the challenger found himself face-down on the canvas.
For a moment it looked like the bout was over, but Folley sprang up and beat the count and then proceeded to fight with renewed urgency in the rest of the round. But it was clear that Ali was simply too fast, while Folley struggled just to maintain the champion’s respect. For reasons unknown, Zora failed to keep his left hand up and Ali continued to sharp-shoot with his right.
Still, Folley was game and kept coming forward to unload shots. A clean right hand in round six even caused Ali to take an involuntary backwards step, and shortly after the start of the seventh Zora landed another right and forced the champion to the ropes. But these fleeting moments of success meant little. He clearly lacked the power to hurt the champion and it was Ali who was winning the rounds.
In the end it was the underrated power and astonishing hand-speed of “The Greatest” that decided the outcome. While officially only eight pounds heavier, Ali almost looked like he belonged in a different weight class in comparison to his smaller challenger, and when the champion came forward to put his full weight on his shots, Folley was at a serious disadvantage. Mid-way through round seven Ali connected with a counter right on Folley’s temple and the blow stunned the challenger. Ali’s, follow-up right, thrown with amazing quickness, compounded the damage and Folley went down hard. He tried to rise but could not beat the count.
A few weeks after the bout, Sports Illustrated interviewed Folley and the veteran who held wins over a long list of capable pugilists – including Bob Foster, Doug Jones, Henry Cooper, George Chuvalo and Oscar Bonavena – had nothing but fulsome praise for the man who had outclassed him.
“The right hands Ali hit me with just had no business landing,” said Folley. “The knockdown punch was so fast that I never saw it. He has lots of snap, and when the punches land they dizzy your head; they fuzz up your mind. [He’s] the trickiest fighter I’ve seen.”
In fact, as far as Zora Folley was concerned, Muhammad Ali was the best heavyweight boxer who had ever stepped through the ropes, bar none.
“He’s had 29 fights and acts like he’s had a hundred. … [T]he moves, the speed, the punches and the way he changes style every time you think you got him figured … This guy has a style all of his own. It’s far ahead of any fighter’s around today, so how could those old-time fighters, you know, Dempsey, Tunney, or any of them keep up?”
Who would know better than Folley how to rate the talent and skill of his undefeated adversary? Which makes the fact no one would see Ali step into a boxing ring again until October of 1970 all the more regrettable, if not tragic. The pugilistic peak of Muhammad Ali never happened. It was stolen away from us by a misguided and tragic war and the politics of the day. But we got a glimpse of what might have been just before the door slammed shut: an unprecedented blend of speed, timing, footwork, durability and, yes, power, that was virtually unbeatable. Or so said Zora Folley. — Robert Portis