By Bill Tibbs: Anyone who as ever walked up those three steps into a boxing ring knows how tough that short but character-canvassing journey can be. And once in the ring, things only get more difficult.
So boxers and fans alike share a mutual respect for any fighter on any level, who is willing to enter the squared circle. Some fighters have done things throughout their careers to garner even more respect for their tenacity, drive and courage once in the ring. A no-quit attitude and the ability to stay in the trenches when all logic and - most people would say - “time to exit” brings about a level of awe and admiration few athletes get to enjoy.
Fight fans are treated to this kind of courage regularly from the fighters who choose to engage in a sport that, by its very nature, requires a special athlete. Now and then, a situation arises that shows, once again, just how special fighters are in the sports world. This June, when some fighters were inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame, one name reminded me of those special moments in time. A deserving and talented former heavyweight contender, Jose Ribalta was inducted and when his name came up, it took me back to a hot, summer day on the Jersey shore in 1986.
That day, August 17, at the Trump Plaza in New Jersey, Ribalta squared off against a one-man wrecking crew in unbeaten, young heavyweight Mike Tyson. Mike was 25-0 and had stopped 23 of his foes inside the distance, 16 of them in the first round. To say he was a feared puncher would be a huge understatement. Most fighters squaring off against “Iron” Mike were looking for any way to get out of the ring. Not Jose though, he was doing everything he could to stay in it, revealing later in interviews that he was confident he would beat Tyson. Down twice in the fight already, Jose was dropped hard again in the 10th round. Rising, he looked at referee Rudy Battle, who asked him, “Do you want to continue?” Ribalta, with a somewhat insulted look on his face replied, “Yeah. Hell yeah.” And with that, the fight continued until he was stopped shortly afterward, again under Ribalta’s protest. They say brave men die hard and on that evening, no one was harder than Ribalta.
Those words, “Yeah. Hell yeah,” have stuck with me for many years. Every time I think of Jose or that fight, that is what I remember. That day, Jose was an athlete with every reason not to continue under the toughest of circumstances but was pleading with the referee to let him carry on. He did everything he could to stay in the fight.
Analyst Larry Merchant remarked from his ringside perch moments after he heard Ribalta’s reply to the referee, “The ref just asked Ribalta if he wanted to continue and Ribalta replied, “Yeah. Hell yeah.’” Pausing, Merchant added, “Now that’s a fighter.” Merchant shook his head with a smile on his face as he had witnessed what every fight fan knows about special fighters. They do things most people won’t and that night, Jose Ribalta exactly proved who he was: a fighter through and through. That night, even in losing, he was special.
Ribalta went on to fight an outstanding list of contenders in his near-18-year, 56-fight career. He faced a virtual who’s who of heavyweights in James Smith, Marvis Frazier, Mike Tyson, Leon Spinks, Bruce Seldon, Pierre Coetzer, Frank Bruno, Michael Dokes, Larry Holmes, Tony Tubbs, Axel Schulz, Larry Donald, Vitali Klitschko, Chris Byrd and Donovan Ruddick.
The Cuban-born, Miami resident is long retired and enjoying the fight game from the safer side of the ropes. And now he can add the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame to an already impressive résumé. As he told the Miami Herald earlier this year in regard to his Hall of Fame recognition, “I was definitely excited when I heard the news. It shows that I am being complimented for the fights I had and the hard work I put in my career.”
You certainly are, Jose. Ribalta never won a world title but he was a champion. And did he earn the respect of his opponents and fight fans?
Yeah. Hell yeah!
Questions and comments can be sent to Bill Tibbs at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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July 1, 2014