Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. boxer and former world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield (shown here training in Zurich in 2008) is slated to take on challenger Sammy Retta in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Sept. 11, the Ethiopian New Year.
U.S. boxer and former world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield (shown here training in Zurich in 2008) is slated to take on challenger Sammy Retta in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Sept. 11, the Ethiopian New Year. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
The boxing world has an unusual fight coming up. Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield is expected to meet Ethiopian boxer Sammy Retta next month in Addis Ababa.
The boxing match in Africa — which will reportedly raise money for charity — is being cast by the promoter as another "Rumble in the Jungle," recalling the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight more than 30 years ago, in what was then Zaire.
Ali made history in that 1974 title fight, reclaiming the crown as heavyweight champion of the world.
But before Ethiopia can make its own history by hosting this non-title match, Retta and Holyfield will have to get into the ring first. So far, they're running late.
You can always tell a little something about a person when they mention who their favorite boxer is. Anybody who says Jack Johnson or Joe Louis is probably on Social Security right now. Joe Frazier? That fan is stubborn beyond belief — and not afraid to tell the whole world to take a hike. Sugar Ray Leonard? Oscar De La Hoya? A sucker for a pretty boy with a nice punch.
Maj. Shiferaw Teklu is a former officer in the Imperial Guard in Ethiopia; his boss was the former emperor. So it would follow that his favorite boxer is considered a king.
"Cassius Clay. I still love him. All his talks, all his bluffings. That's what I love about him," Teklu says.
Dawit Nida for NPR
Sammy Retta, 35, is an Ethiopian boxer known as "The Knockout Artist" who has been living in the United States for the past few years. He is shown here working out at the Bole Rock Gym in Addis Ababa.
Sammy Retta, 35, is an Ethiopian boxer known as "The Knockout Artist" who has been living in the United States for the past few years. He is shown here working out at the Bole Rock Gym in Addis Ababa. Dawit Nida for NPR
Muhammad Ali hasn't been Cassius Clay for more than 40 years. But Teklu and others in Addis Ababa are still calling him Clay more often than Ali. And that may be because Ethiopia's majority Orthodox Christians sometimes clash with the country's Muslim population. But the fight Teklu wants to see is the one between Evander Holyfield and Sammy Retta.
"I'll definitely support Sammy. He's my countryman. But I would be happy also to support both because the aim of this boxing match is for a charity," Teklu says.
Evander Holyfield, aka "The Real Deal," is 46 years old and a four-time heavyweight champion of the world. He wants another shot at the title.
Sammy Retta, aka "The Knockout Artist," is 35. He has been nowhere near a title fight, either in Ethiopia or in the Washington, D.C., area where he now lives. Holyfield may be the guy who can put Retta on the map. Not surprisingly, Retta's favorite boxer is Evander Holyfield.
"He's a good fighter, one of the greatest boxers. He beat everybody, almost," Retta says.
But whether anybody remembers Retta's name will depend on how good his bout with Holyfield is — and, more importantly, if it happens.
The fight was supposed to take place on July 26. Then there was talk about Aug. 19. And now, promoter Everton Boland says the authorities have committed to Sept. 11 — the Ethiopian New Year. By the way, Boland's favorite boxers are Jamaican, like he is. But he says his hero is the legendary promoter, Don King.
"King do it all — heavyweights, lightweight, middleweight — he did it all. Come on, he went to Africa, he goes everywhere in the world. I'm doing the same thing now. I'm trying," Boland says.
But pulling off an event like this in Ethiopia isn't exactly like calling up Madison Square Garden and fixing a date on the calendar. There is no such thing as professional boxing in the country. The amateur boxing federation seems, well, amateurish. The phones don't work so well. Power outages are frequent. And this is, of all times, the rainy season, when everybody slows down to the speed of mud.
But Boland says he's optimistic.
"I think I'll get it done. This is going to be good. This is a history fight, a heavyweight fight. This is the first time that a legend is going to fight an African. This is making history," he says.
'David Versus David'
But anyone who plans to climb into the ring in Addis Ababa on Sept. 11 needs to come quick. The city is at an altitude of 8,300 feet, more than a mile and a half high. A flight of stairs knocks out many a foreigner. And some say that even at sea level, Holyfield is too worn out to be near a ring.
Until recently, Retta was a super middleweight fighter. The Holyfield match will be his first as a heavyweight. And at 230 pounds, he is heavier than Holyfield.
Sisay Wolde, a former amateur boxing star in Ethiopia, says his advice to Retta is not to count Holyfield out yet: Keep your distance, dance and tire the old man out.
"Holyfield should never get closer to Sammy, because if he gets closer, he knows how to attack him and Sammy will not have a chance to win," Wolde says.
Boland says this fight won't be so much David vs. Goliath, as much as it will be David against another David.
"You don't know who can beat who at any time. But a Holyfield-Sammy Retta fight, this is going to be interesting because [it's] an older man against a younger guy, who might just be peaking. I just don't know," Boland says.
It's looking like the real winner will be the man who gets both fighters in the ring on time. The history books can tell the rest. Boland is calling the match "African Affairs."