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Christopher James Shelton,
Boxing Historian

Al Fenn | Manager/promoter Al Fenn | The Ringside Boxing Show

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Famous
Last Words
The final interview of boxing legend
Al Fenn, manager of Zora Folley


By Christopher James Shelton
Historian for The Boxing Amusement Park

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There was a time when Al Fenn was a major celebrity of Phoenix, Arizona.  Fenn was promoter/manager of most of the amateur Golden Gloves winners of the latter 1950s and early '60s.  As a pro manager, Fenn worked with Zora Folley, from Chandler, and they rank today as the most successful heavyweight team from the Maricopa County region.  This Dec. 3, 2008 interview finds me with a man still spirited, despite being on his way to chemotherapy to combat cancer diagnosed 11 months earlier.

FFenn died 83 days after granting this interview.

 

 

SHELTON: I have learned much about Zora Folley over the last several weeks. You are a real legend and celebrity of Phoenix - yet most Phoenicians are from somewhere else - and are not interested in Phoenix history. They do not seem to know or care that you and Folley nearly teamed up for the heavyweight championship.

 

 FENN: Well, I tried to train Folley right. Bring him along steady against the right opponents.

 

SHELTON: These early bouts were in Los Angeles and Clifton, Arizona?

 

FENN: Yeah,  we did well. I only wish that I had not matched him against (Johnny) Summerlin (Folley's first loss - 1955 - Los Angeles). That turned out to be a mistake. Folley was not quite ready for him.

 

SHELTONThat was one setback -- but only a setback as Folley steadily climbed the rankings.

 

FENN: Yes - that's true. I put Folley against this muscled guy -- a 'Madonis' - what is the word I am looking for?

 

SHELTON: Adonis.

 

FENN: That's it - 'Adonis'. This fellow Zanzibar was an Adonis -- and I met him in Safford and drove him all the way up to Clifton (September, 1954). The whole way there, Zanzibar had seen nothing like it before. Nothing but desert. Well, Folley knocked out this Adonis, Zanzibar (7th round), and that really impressed some folks. But it was the fight against (Nino) Valdes (September, 1956) that was the big one. This is what placed Folley on the (national) map.

 

SHELTON: The earliest Phoenix bout that I know of was against K.O. Brown on November 17, 1953. Could you tell me anything about the fight?

 

FENN: That was at Phoenix Madison Square Garden. All of the major bouts were held there. Of course that wasn't his real name ('K.O. Brown') but we wanted something that sounded right. (TKO win for Folley - as Brown was unable to come out for the 9th round). It was a real loss for the city when they tore down the Garden. The venue was important from a historical perspective. Many memories were lost in its destruction.

 

SHELTON: Folley was the legitimate No. 1 contender for the heavyweight championship throughout 1958. But Cus D'Amato (manager of Champion Floyd Patterson) clearly was avoiding Folley. That must have been frustrating?

 

FENN: I went so far as to contact our local congressman, Stu Udall. Udall was up in arms about what was happening -- like most folks -- and he went so far as to promise to introduce a bill in Congress to force Patterson to fight Folley. But as far as I know Udall had never actually done such a thing.

 

SHELTON: (I delicately tread with Fenn's biggest mistake -- matching Folley in September, 1958, against British heavyweight champion Henry Cooper in England). Could you tell me about the Henry Cooper fight in England? Folley was clearly the better pugilist, scoring a second-round knockout the second time they met (December, 1961). But that first bout gave Cus D'Amato an excuse to allow Patterson to avoid Folley. What happened in England with Cooper and that first decision loss?

 

FENN: (Disgusted) The English judges robbed Folley down there. Well, you know, you cannot beat one of their fighters by decision in their own backyard.

 

SHELTON: It appears that Sonny Liston was willing to fight Folley after he won the championship (September, 1962). But Liston allowed Patterson a rematch -- another first-round knockout -- and then fought Ali ('Cassius Clay' at the time) and lost the title. Liston's loss was probably Folley's last chance at a title shot in his prime.

 

FENN: Sonny Liston was the greatest heavyweight of all time. The best that I ever saw. (Liston scored a third-round knockout over Folley, July, 1960, which helped launch him to a title bout). Liston made a mistake fighting Ali. Ali was too fast and clever and Liston did not know what to do with him.

 

SHELTON: But that Liston loss (February, 1964) cost yourself and Folley a title bout.

 

FENN: Well, Folley yes, but not me. I signed Folley to a 10-year contract in 1953. So that ended in '63'. One of the final things that I did was to buy Folley a house. It had been a financial struggle for years and I had been against his getting married and settling down.

 

SHELTON: You did not like Folley's wife or you thought she would tame him too much?

 

FENN: No.  Folley was never an angry person or had bad habits. I liked his wife. No, I was already paying expenses for one person and a family meant paying for more. (Laughs). But I wanted to make sure Folley had something when our contract expired, and that is how he wound up with a house. After the changeover to (manager) Bill Swift, I still retained a 3 1/2-percent interest.

 

SHELTON: Folley eventually landed his title opportunity (March, 1967), past his prime (age 35), against an undefeated Muhammed Ali at his peak. What can you tell me about that bout?

 

FENN: Folley was not the best boxer. He could hit, but could not take a punch well. Folley had a good, consistent jab with a sneaky hard right. Swift trained him different than Johnny Hart (trainer) and myself. We wanted him to develop better footwork, develop a shuffle.

 

SHELTON: Like a Jersey Joe Walcott or Ali himself?

 

  FENN: That's right! It turns out that Folley needed this desperately against a guy like Ali. Ali was not the kind of guy that you just take out. If you wanted to beat Ali you had to take him out in later rounds. To take Ali to later rounds you needed footwork so that you were not an easy target for him. Folley would also need to train his legs extra hard, along with the footwork, because Ali will be patient and let an opponent wear down. You still need to be moving and have some kind of defense into the 10th round if you had any hope of beating Ali.

 

SHELTON: It is maddening to be a boxing historian and try to explain Ali to others. A major misperception of Ali -- in his time and especially today -- is that he was vulnerable against sluggers or bigger guys who hit hard. The pugilist who clearly gave Ali (as 'Clay') the most problems during the 1960's was Doug Jones, a fast defensive specialist with patience.

 

FENN:  That's exactly what I am talking about! Folley was not a defensive fighter by nature, but he would have to alter his style or have no chance against Ali. (After the seventh-round knockout, Ali spotted Folley's son crying. In a lovely gesture, Ali hugged the boy and told him neither he or anyone would have defeated his dad had the bout occurred years earlier, in Folley's prime).

 

SHELTON: So you never managed another heavyweight contender after Folley?

 

FENN: I promoted Sonny Liston briefly toward the end of his career (late 1968). He was still a good fighter at that time. One was in a Juarez (Mexico ) bull ring. Liston won both of those bouts. (A dominant and exciting third-round knockout in Phoenix over experienced Sonny Moore was followed by a second-round knockout over Willis Earls in Juarez).

 

SHELTON: The media reputation of Liston was of a scowling thug -- sort of a criminal.

 

FENN:  Sonny Liston was a very nice man. Quiet and soft-spoken.

 

SHELTON: So the media reputation that Liston was some sort of animal was unfair?

 

FENN: Well, those other fighters were scared of him. They were beat before they entered the ring against him. Liston encouraged that.

 

SHELTON: What was Sonny Liston's boxing peak?

 

FENN: It was before he was champion when he fought Clevelend Williams. Both were big guys and it was one of the greatest heavyweight bouts ever. (Two TKO wins for Liston against Williams -- both within 3 rounds -- in 1959 and '60).

 

SHELTON: What did Sonny Liston like to talk about: boxing or his family?

 

FENN: It was tough to get Liston to say anything. He was polite with a 'please' or 'thank you,' but he did not reveal any more of himself than was necessary. Dick Sadler (manager) was the talker of the two.

 

SHELTON: So your association with Liston did not last long?

 

FENN: Sometimes Liston fought too heavy and did not train like he should. They (Las Vegas ) got hold of Liston. He never did the kinds of things that brought him down when I knew him. He was clean. (Liston died of a heroin overdose at age 38 in December, 1970).

 

SHELTON: Liston and Folley lived parallel lives: born within 3 weeks of one another;  fought their first pro fight within three weeks of one another; fought their last pro bout within three months of one another; and they died within 18 months of each other. What could you tell me about Zora Folley's death?

 

FENN: It appears that it was accidental. I believe it was an accident. I guess Folley was stepping out on his wife. The guy he was with was a professional celebrity hanger on. They were meeting with these two women. I believe that the men began with horseplay, trying to impress the women. Folley pushed the man in the pool. As he did this he slipped off the ledge and his head hit against the hard surface.

 

SHELTON: There is much gossip about murder and conspiracy. I believe -- because Folley was a good man with a clean reputation -- that the police felt it unnecessary to tarnish his local image as a family man. Because the police revealed so few details -- except it was an accident -- this fueled the conspiracy rumors.

 

FENN: Oh, I hear the talk that Folley was murdered. They say it was the husband or boyfriend of one of the women that found them, became jealous, and whacked him. I don't believe it, though. I was at the funeral and his family seemed convinced that the police version. which was told to them privately, was the truth and that it was an accident.

 

SHELTON: You used the term 'whacked' and this makes me think of the mob -- and we are talking about boxing. Has the mob ever threatened you to lose a bout or anything like that?

 

FENN: The mob threatened both myself and my partner, Dave McCoy. The Nevada mob approached me one day and said that (pugilist) Irving Star belongs to them now.

 

SHELTON: Is that the only time the mob stole someone from you?

 

FENN: No, another fighter they wanted was Ray Coleman. (A fast hand-speed featherweight who fought out of Phoenix in the early to mid '60s). The mob called and warned me that they would kill Coleman's daughter. I laughed at them: "Ray Coleman does not even have a daughter!"

 

SHELTON: Could you tell me the name of anyone that was part of the mob?

 

FENN: An Italian by the name of Ralph Gambino. He worked the Nevada mob scene.

 

SHELTON: Did you believe that the mob was serious about their threats?

 

FENN: Well, Dave McCoy was later murdered in Los Angeles . He was suffocated with a pillow and they never solved his murder. I guess that could have been me.

 

SHELTON: That must have frightened you?

 

FENN: No. I was sad about what happened to Dave, but not as much as you might think. It is tough to break into the boxing business -- and maybe not everything we did was legal. But everything involving the two of us died with him. (Laughs). As far as Irving Star ... I warned him that he would regret betraying me, and the mobsters eventually burned him.

 

SHELTON: Boxing is a pretty sleazy world, so it must be difficult to remain clean and honest?

 

FENN: I did the best that I could. I have known hundreds of boxers. So many of them were in gangs and their life was headed nowhere. I helped them develop a discipline to their lives, and this in turn led to self-confidence. Many of these boxers were Hispanic and they did not go on to win the title, but they became successful with their lives. So many of them approached me after they had quit boxing and thanked me for helping to turn around their lives.

 

SHELTON: This must give you tremendous satisfaction?

 

FENN: Yeah, boxing is a business, but it turns out to be the human aspects that brought out my best and most lasting memories.

 

 

Bill Thompson, amateur pugilist/local television legend, told me in October, 2008: “Al Fenn is the man. If you want to know anything about the Arizona boxing scene -- he is the man with whom you should speak.” The task to locate Al Fenn with no assistance was deemed a priority. I somehow felt that time was limited with Mr. Fenn. I visited his former boxing gym, 22nd Avenue & Buckeye. It was dilapidated and vandalized with little other than graffiti and broken glass in a dangerous area of Phoenix. Tracy Callis, my mentor and friend from CyberBoxingZone wrote: “Don't do it, CS. An interview is not worth losing your life.” But Mr. Fenn was too important to Phoenix history, whether locals cared or believed me and nothing would slow me down. I tracked Mr. Fenn through his military background. He was a member of the World War II, 4th Marine Division, Chapter 33. President Glenn Thompson passed along my contact information. Thanks to Bill Thompson, Tracy Callis and Glenn Thompson. Less than 3 months following this interview, Al Fenn, succumbed to cancer on February 24, 2009.



 

 

 

 

 

Christopher James Shelton



 Christopher James Shelton is a product of the American West Coast. He has lived in Los Angeles and San Ysidro, California, Tijuana , Mexico, and currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Shelton was the editor of CHEEERS Soundboard, the first solely written/produced mental health recovery center newsletter in America.  He has several credits as researcher/writer/interviewer for CyberBoxingZone including: “Scandal In San Francisco (1896).” “The Last Bareknuckle Championship Bout (1889)” and “The Art and Science of Daniel Mendoza.”

  His research discovery credits include 19th century pugilists George Godfrey, Professor Hadley, Tom Hyer, John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain.  Family interviews, mixed with historical research, include lightweights Jack Britton and Billy Hawkins. 

Shelton conducted the final interview with legendary Phoenix manager Al Fenn, and asked candid questions about George Foreman and H.I.V. with former heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison.  HIs favorite historical article, “124-year-old woman challenges John L. Sullivan for the title," recounts the life story of a feisty 19th-century female slave named Sylvie Dubois.


Contact Christopher Shelton