Ciaran Gibbons catches up with Jose Ribalta, a tough and memorable heavyweight contender who fought Mike Tyson and would do so again
Jose Manuel Ribalta was born on the March 31 1963 on the island of Cuba, famous for its conveyor belt of world-class amateur boxers. His family fled to the USA in 1967 and finally settled in Miami, Florida, which had a growing Cuban community and was known as “Little Havana”.
In high school a young Jose was considered a good football player with his natural size and athleticism but, at age 13, he was thrown off his team after “an altercation with one of the coaches”. He then followed his two older brothers into the sport of amateur boxing, compiling a record of 65 wins and eight losses, winning two state Golden Gloves championships and becoming a national Golden Gloves runner-up.
In 1982 after growing tired of the politics of amateur boxing, 18-year-old Jose entered the shark-infested waters of heavyweight professional boxing, the majority of which was then controlled by the larger-than-life promoter Don King, who ruled his kingdom with an iron grip.
“Don King always had great influence in heavyweight fighting, but the problem was he was not my promoter,” Ribalta, now 57, tells me. “My promoter at the time was Luis DeCubas and whatever Don King said to do, that’s what he did.”
Jose felt that being outside the Don King circle contributed to him unfairly losing many close fights throughout his career including points decisions to James “Bonecrusher” Smith, Marvis Frazier and Tim Witherspoon.
“I fought 12 or 13 former world champions but I had bad decisions because my manager was not that popular,” Ribalta reflects. “Every time we had to go to the person’s hometown, or when the promoter was also his manager, any close decision would be given to them. Like when I fought Tim Witherspoon, I beat him but they gave it a draw. Then two or three minutes later they said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen the decision has been changed, the winner is Tim Witherspoon.’ I could not believe it. It was the same with ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith.”
But the fight that boxing fans will always associate with the name José Ribalta was his 1986 clash with a 20-year-old Mike Tyson. At the time Tyson was cutting through the heavyweight division like a force of nature on an unstoppable rampage to try and become the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of the sport.
“I was one of the first guys to fight Mike Tyson head on, we went at it for 10 hard rounds,” he recalled. “Everyone else was just trying to survive.”
The 23-year-old Jose Ribalta had “No fear of Mike Tyson”, even though he later found out that his trainer Dave Clark had doubts and told his management that he felt Ribalta was at least 12 months away from being ready for Tyson.
The fight was scheduled for 10 rounds and it was fought at a frantic pace with Tyson launching savage attacks to head and body from the first bell. In the second round Tyson scored a knockdown that has now become a viral hit on the internet. A right hook-right uppercut combination, violent even by boxing standards, dramatically snapped back Jose’s head and put him on the canvas. Unbelievably Jose got straight back to his feet and fought back, trying to employ the tactics he had been working on with his trainer.
“Every time I hit him I wanted to hurt him,” Jose explained. “Pivoting, right uppercut, pivot, left hook, pivot, everything consisted of pivoting.”
But it was Tyson, ranked the No. 1 contender by the WBA, who was controlling the action. Despite stubborn resistance he had Jose down again in the eighth. Following another knockdown in the 10th round, the referee Rudy Battle stopped the action after several powerful hooks slammed into Jose’s head. Ribalta immediately protested to the referee that he should have been allowed to fight on, even though he was well behind on the cards and had been down three times.
“After the fight I told my trainer, ‘Wow he did not seem hurt when I hit him,’ but my trainer Dave Clark said he saw during the fight that when I hit him he was in pain,” Ribalta said. “Years later Mike said he was in such pain after our fight he could not even go out on a date.”
Despite being put on the canvas three times, Jose does not consider Tyson the hardest puncher he has stepped in the ring with.
“Tyson was a hard puncher but the fighter I think punched hardest was James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith, but you can’t deny Tyson was a hard puncher also,” he clarified.
After they fought Jose tried to get a big-money rematch with Mike Tyson and thought he was going to get the call to face him in Japan in 1990 but according to Jose, Don King stepped in and instead picked Buster Douglas as he thought the Cuban was too dangerous an opponent.
“Don King did not want me to fight Mike Tyson so what Don King did was pick Buster Douglas, but he underestimated Douglas,” Jose claimed. “He did not want me to fight Tyson because he knew I would give him a hard fight.”
Following the loss to Tyson, Jose scored the biggest win of his career when he stopped former world champion Leon Spinks in the first round, putting him down three times. Over the ensuing years Ribalta gained a reputation as a tough, game fighter who was better than average, but would usually fall short when he stepped up in class, losing to the likes of Bruce Seldon, Pierre Coetzer, Frank Bruno, Michael Dokes and Larry Holmes.
In 1996 Ribalta crossed paths with Tyson again when he was employed as a sparring partner for Mike who was on the comeback trail after being released from prison, and in Jose’s opinion he more than held his own against the former world champion.
“We did four rounds’ sparring and I did really good with him, we were going at it,” he remembers. “Other sparring partners were saying, ‘Man, you did real good, you did real good.’ I was there a whole month and we only sparred the once… his trainers kept on saying, ‘Not him, not him.’”
From the mid-90s onwards, with his best fighting days behind him, Ribalta slipped into the role of a tough journeyman boxer with a familiar name. He often took fights at short notice against some of the best up-and-coming prospects if the money was right, losing to Axel Schulz, Larry Donald, Vitali Klitschko, Chris Byrd and Razor Ruddock, before retiring from professional boxing with a record of 38-17-1, aged 36.
These days working as a security guard in a local school, Jose prides himself on the fact that he has never drunk alcohol or taken drugs and still keeps himself in good shape. Its over 20 year since his last contest, but there still seems to be plenty of fight left in Jose Ribalta. He was disappointed not to be selected to face Mike Tyson when the latter recently announced he wanted to take part in an exhibition contest for charity. Roy Jones Jr was eventually selected and Jose was not very impressed.
“This exhibition situation, they said they chose Roy Jones,” Ribalta said. “I thought I was going to be selected because even after we boxed in 1986 you had millions of people wanting to see the rematch between me and Mike Tyson. Especially after paying so much money, people want to see people get hit… it was a good fight but there should have been more contact.”
As our interview drew to an end Jose told me with a chuckle he would be willing to fight a number of other ex-champions in exhibition contests, including Lennox Lewis or a rematch with Klitschko, but I hope he was joking when he had said earlier that he would like to fight former WBC champion Deontay Wilder in a real boxing match.
I don’t feel ageing boxers coming out of retirement to punch each other in the head, in so-called exhibition contests, is something that should be encouraged. Neither is it healthy for the sport of boxing in general. However it does show the mentality of many boxers like Jose Ribalta that distinguishes them from the rest of us. They may have been retired for decades, but deep down in their souls they are still fighters and all it takes is a spark to reignite the fire for gloved combat that in their younger days defined and shaped them as individuals.
A boxer may be retired but the warrior will always remain.
Ciaran Gibbons, based in Wales, UK, works as a reporter and commentator for long-running television magazine show KOTV Boxing, as well as working for a number of other media outlets.