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Finding a cab or getting served at any of the area’s Ethiopian restaurants won’t be so easy Saturday evening. Sammy Retta’s fighting.
Retta can walk the streets of Alexandria, where he now lives, in relative anonymity. But within the Ethiopian community, locally and globally, he’s a star. His stature is also rising in the boxing universe. Retta’s won all of his professional fights by knockout, though there’s some disagreement over just how many tussles really count. His camp claims 17 fights; officially, he’s 12-0. In any case, Retta expects to add another win, and welcome some more fans onto his bandwagon, during Don King’s fight night at the MCI Center, the first of what Abe Pollin hopes will be many such events at his downtown arena.
The four featured bouts on Saturday’s card will be televised live on the Showtime network (Retta is scheduled to go on between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m.). Retta’s eight-round super-middleweight matchup against probable fall guy Ed Bryant (10-5, 5 KOs) is scheduled to go off before the cameras are turned on. But, deep as he is on the undercard, Retta could well sell more tickets than any other fighter on the bill.
“The Ethiopian people are very close here, and everybody knows me,” he tells me. “And they will all come to see me.”
He was born Samson Retta in Addis Ababa in 1975. His father was an amateur boxer of some note in Ethiopia, who told young Sammy he would grow up to be a champion. An uncle fought for the national team at the Moscow Olympics. Before lacing up the gloves, Retta left home at 16 to attend college in London. He took up boxing there with a club team. According to Retta, he declined an opportunity to become a member of England’s Olympic squad at the 1988 games in Barcelona because it would have required that he change his citizenship.
He turned pro (despite a degree in computer science) after coming to the U.S. in 1995, and he chose to settle in the D.C. area because of its large population of Ethiopian nationals, estimated at about 140,000. He quickly developed a following here, and word that he was going after the goal his dad had set for him spread back home, too. Every bum he put on the canvas put more countrymen into the soft-spoken, baby-faced fighter’s corner.
Traditionally, boxers command just a speck of the adulation accorded long-distance runners in Ethiopia. But when Retta went home in May to fight there for the first time as a pro, it was as if the biblical Samson, the guy who went to war armed only with the jawbone of an ass, had returned to Israel. In a country whose economy ranks among the world’s worst, one racked by famine, and civil and border wars, crowds lined the streets from the airport to downtown Addis Ababa just to cheer Retta on. His boyhood home was within running distance of the Hilton Hotel, where the fight was held. Before a national television audience and a sold-out ballroom (and the ubiquitous Jesse Jackson), Retta dispatched of a tomato can named Mariano Ramirez in the first round, setting off a citywide celebration.
“I could not believe the reception,” says Allan Ebert, the D.C. attorney who represents Retta. “The whole motorcade ride was amazing, and then when the fight was on, the city seemed deserted, because everybody was inside watching it on TV. When the fight ended, everybody poured into the streets, with thousands surrounding the hotel, and fireworks were going off, and the police couldn’t even get through the crowd. It was an incredible experience.”
The adulation of the hometown crowd apparently had an impact on Retta. After fighting last year as Sammy “King of the Ring” Retta, he’ll go through the ropes Saturday as Sammy “the Lion of Judah” Retta. The switch to such a spiritual nom de fisticuffs, he says, is meant as a tribute to his Ethiopian and Jewish roots. The Lion of Judah is a sacred symbol to Ethiopians of any faitha statue of the lion sits in downtown Addis Ababaand was the nickname of former Emperor Haile Selassie.
Retta didn’t get any motorcades when he got back to Washington. And although he never has trouble getting a good table at any of his favorite Adams Morgan eateries, and the Ethiopian embassy even calls him for pictures, he remains an unknown outside his community. Worst of all, even with his undefeated record, he’s not ranked by any of the myriad boxing sanctioning bodies. But if things go according to planand in boxing, things usually go according to planRetta’s Q rating should soon be picking up: Just three weeks ago, he signed with the top kingmaker in a sport where you can’t get anywhere without one.
That would be Don King. King knows promotion, and has quite a past in Africa: Ali-Foreman in Zaire in 1974 was a King production. Word of Retta’s Addis Ababa revival, more than the fighter’s ring record, probably inspired the push to sign him.
Ebert, who devotes much of his practice to helping Ethiopians and other African immigrants with visa problems, has no boxing experience. But he knows how the real world works. So no matter how strongly his legal intuition and just plain common sense might lead him to steer his young, impressionable client away from King, whose reputation is sullied even by boxing standards, Ebert hasn’t done so. So what if King is called the “Lyin’ King”? At this point in Retta’s boxing career, Ebert can’t reasonably tell him not to get in bed with the promoter with the tumbleweed coif.
“Sammy understands the situation,” Ebert says. “If you have nothing, if you are struggling, Don King can prey on you, but he can also probably make you a millionaire. Don King may become a multimillionaire in the process, but other people don’t even have that ability to make you a millionaire. Sammy went in knowing all that. Sammy has a wife and three kids. He needs money. He needs Don King. Without a guy like Don King, it’s hard to break into [boxing’s upper echelon]. He puts on cards where 10 out of the 12 fighters are Don King guys. People ask, ‘Why would anybody sign with Don King?’ Well, because Don King is the man. He’s the money.”
Retta, despite prompting, declines to disparage King. He’d rather talk about the upcoming fight.
“Now, things are going to get bigger and bigger for me,” he says. “This is my start.” Dave McKenna