ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The boxing world has an unusual fight coming up. Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield will face off against Ethiopian boxer Sammy Retta in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. The big-name boxing match recalls the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. But before Ethiopia can make boxing history, Retta and Holyfield will have to make it into the ring, as NPR's Gwen Thompkins Reports
GWEN THOMPKINS: 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.
Major Shiferaw Teklu is a former officer of the Imperial Guard in Ethiopia, whose boss was the former emperor. So it would follow that his favorite boxer is considered a king.
Major SHIFERAW TEKLU (Former Officer, Imperial Guard, Ethiopia): (Through translator) Cassius Clay. I still love him. All his talks, all his bluffing. That's what I love about him.
THOMPKINS: 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.
Maj. TEKLU: (Through translator) 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.
Evander Holyfield, a.k.a. 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, a.k.a. The Knockout Artist, is 35 years old. He's been nowhere near a title fight either in Ethiopia or in Maryland, where he now lives. Evander Holyfield may be the guy who can put him on the map, so it would follow that Retta's favorite boxer is…
Mr. SAMMY RETTA (Boxer): Evander Holyfield.
(Soundbite of laughter)
He's a good fighter, as you know. He's one of the greatest boxer. And I mean, he beat everybody almost.
THOMPKINS: But whether anybody remembers the name Sammy Retta 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 August 19. And now, promoter Everton Boland says the authorities have committed to September 11, the Ethiopian New Year. By the way, Boland's favorite boxers are all Jamaican, like he is, but he says his hero is the legendary promoter, Don King.
Mr. EVERTON BOLAND (Boxing Promoter): King can do it all: heavyweights, lightweight, middleweight. You know, he did it all. Come on, he went to Africa. He goes everywhere in the world. I'm doing the same thing. I'm trying.
THOMPKINS: 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 here. The amateur boxing federation seems, well, amateurish. The phones don't work so well, power outages are frequent, and this is the rainy season, when everybody slows down to the speed of mud. But Boland says he's optimistic.
Mr. BOLAND: 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.
THOMPKINS: But anyone who plans to climb into the ring in Addis Ababa on September 11 needs to come quick. The city is at an altitude of more than a mile and a half high. A flight of stairs here can win a TKO against any foreigner, and some say that even at sea level, Holyfield is too worn out to be near a ring.
(Soundbite of boxing practice)
THOMPKINS: Sammy Retta has only been working the heavy bag for about 20 minutes, and it looks like the bag is winning. Up until recently, he 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 is a former amateur boxing star in Ethiopia. His advice to Retta is don't count Holyfield out yet: Keep your distance, dance and tire the old man out.
Mr. SISAY WOLDE (Former Amateur Boxer): (Through translator) Holyfield should never get closer to Sammy because if he get closer, he know how to attack him, then Sammy will not have a chance to win.
THOMPKINS: Boland says this fight won't be so much David versus Goliath, as much as it will be David versus another David.
Mr. BOLAND: So you don't know who can beat who at any time. But a Holyfield-Sammy Retta fight, this is going to be interesting because with an older man against a younger guy, it might just be peaking. I don't know.
THOMPKINS: It looks like the real winner will be the man who gets both fighters in the ring on time. Then, the history books can tell the rest. Boland is calling the match African affairs.
Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Addis Ababa.
(Soundbite of music)
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