News February 2014

Ribalta talks heavyweight career “I would have KO'd Tyson easier than Douglas in rematch"


By Michael J Jones

Jose Ribalta

It is August 17th, 1986 at the Trump Plaza Hotel and heavyweight sensation “Iron” Mike Tyson is looking for win number twenty six. The exciting Tyson has just turned twenty-years-old and appears a sure-fire certainty to become the next heavyweight champion of the world.

The wrecking-ball fists of the Brooklyn ace are at their most lethal. Twenty men have even failed to complete three full rounds against the Kevin Rooney trained Mike. At a stocky 5’11” and 220lbs there seems few contenders who can possibly match Tyson’s combination of speed and ferocity.

In the opposite corner for the scheduled ten-rounder is Cuban contender Jose “El Nino” Ribalta. Many don’t think the 6’5” Ribalta will even last two rounds. Marvis Frazier, who held a majority decision over “El Nino”, had been brutally destroyed in Tyson’s last fight in just 30 seconds.

“When Tyson fought Marvis Frazier he annihilated him quickly” Jose tells Livefight over the phone from his home in Miami. “Everyone was saying he’d do the same to me; two or three rounds at best. I remember my mother asking me how was I going to do against Mike and I said ‘I’m going to knock him out’. She kissed me and said ‘I know you will’.”

Entering the fight at 22-3-1 (16) the big Cuban was certainly no slouch and had decent power of his own. If the fight was a difficult proposition to begin with though, the underdog also had to content with illness just weeks before the contest.

“I don’t like to mention (the illness) as I don’t like to be seen to be making excuses” explains the 50-year-old about his most famous fight. “I had a stomach virus which left me a little weak. My manager asked if maybe we should cancel and I said ‘no I’ll fight that faggot right now!’ I was still very confident for that fight.”

“My fight before I was around 222lbs but for the Tyson fight I was down to 211lbs and that was the lightest I had ever been apart from at the very start of my career.”

Ribalta scaled 211˝lbs for the Tyson clash while Mike scaled a trim 213. To add weight to Ribalta’s claims just a few fights later he would scale a full 238lbs.

Amazingly, the tough Cuban met Tyson head on and fought in close as hard as he could. He would fall in the second from a heavy left uppercut but bravely battled back to give Tyson something to think about. By the later rounds Tyson was ahead but was still in a fight against a game opponent.

Ribalta would taste the canvas again in the eighth but rode out the storm once more and, amazingly, fought back hard again to the delight of the crowd. In the tenth though a big Tyson hook dumped the fading Cuban once more but he rose to utter those famous words.

Asked by the ref if he wanted to continue, Ribalta replied “yeah hell yeah” before wading into action again. The fight was halted moments later with Tyson teeing off as Ribalta became trapped on the ropes though Jose has always maintained he could have negated the final 83 seconds of the round and heard the final bell.

Was he touched recently when Mike Tyson said in his biography that the fight he had with “El Nino” was one of the toughest of his career?

“I was very proud he said that” smiles Jose before admitting he has yet to read his former rival’s book. “I’m pleased he spoke highly of me and said our fight was one of his toughest. I always said I wanted to be a true warrior and fight anybody, anywhere, any time.”

Jose Ribalta left Cuba to move to the USA with his family while still in his teens. He compiled a solid 55-8 amateur career before turning pro at 18 in 1982. Within just two years he was facing high-ranking heavyweight contenders and would continue to do so for the remaining fifteen years of his career.

El Nino

Following his heroic stand against “Iron” Mike, Ribalta would win nine contests straight as he looked to make his name in the division. One of his victims during that time was former world champion Leon Spinks who was thrashed in just one round.

“The Spinks fight I said to myself he didn’t look all that strong so I just went out and put pressure on him. I realised quickly I was a lot stronger than him.”

The big-punching Cuban ended matters at 2:10 of the opener at a time when Spinks was still a respectable fighter.

Despite hitting the form of his career, the big fights failed to materialise. It would be the 90’s before Ribalta was fighting world-rated contenders again.

“After the Tyson fight I felt nobody wanted to fight me” says Jose sadly about the period in which he was unbeaten for nearly four years.

Unlucky for the Cuban warrior, his fortunes could have altered forever if for one small thing…

“I was meant to fight a rematch with Mike (Tyson) but he faced Buster Douglas instead in Tokyo.”

In July 1989 Tyson would knock out Carl Williams in Atlantic City. On the undercard Ribalta would out-score Jeff Sims while Douglas would clearly beat future champion Oliver McCall. Tyson’s handlers gave the fight to Douglas purely because Ribalta had briefly been knocked down against Sims otherwise it would have been “El Nino” facing the champion on that fateful February night in Tokyo…

“When Sims knocked me down it took me out of position for the Tyson rematch even though I dominated the rest of the fight” comments Jose some 25 years later.

Could he have shocked the world just as 42-1 underdog Douglas would?

“I wouldn’t just have won, I’d have done a lot better and beaten Mike a lot earlier. Years later before the second fight he had with Frank Bruno I went to spar Tyson and felt I did real good so I knew then I would have definitely beaten him had that fight happened.”

Instead of a lucrative world title fight against a below-par Tyson, Ribalta would end up facing former champion Tim Witherspoon some months later. Although one judge would score a draw, the other two voted in favour of Witherspoon as Ribalta suffered his first defeat since the Tyson fight.

“I couldn’t believe what Witherspoon did before our fight” says Jose still sounding a little shocked all these years later. “He says to me ‘Ok Jose I’m going to watch you train now’, then he was asking how good shape I am in and I said ‘no Tim I’m not doing that’. I couldn’t believe it but then I found out about how he’d been knocked out by ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith so then it made more sense.”

Ribalta would lose many for the remainder of his career though came very close to pulling out the occasional upset. Aside from the Witherspoon fight, he also came close to upsetting both Michael Dokes and South African contender Pierre Coetzer but would see the decisions go against him.

“A guy in Dokes’ corner was an associate of mine and he said to me before the fight ‘Jose, Dokes has been told by Don King all he has to do is go the ten rounds and he will get the decision’, then I fight him, thought I’d won but it went against me. I also thought I’d beaten James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith and Coetzer but I got robbed both times.”

Through the mid-to-late 90’s Ribalta’s heavyweight career would fizzle out as he suffered inside distance defeats to the likes of Vitali Klitschko, Chris Byrd and, in his final fight, Razor Ruddock.

“That Klitschko guy I fought with a fever” states the American-Cuban. “I said I was sick and they told me I had to fight as it was a sell out show.”

“I wasn’t ever meant to fight Ruddock. I got told at last minute I was fighting him on seventeen hours notice. I thought I was fighting a nobody but my manager set me up.”

“I was the same all through my career I feared nobody and fought the best.”

He retired in 1999 with a record of 38-17-1 (27) after a seventeen-year career of fighting the best heavyweights of his era including twelve former or future world champions. The big Cuban, who trains local kids at his home in Miami as well as working in security, has often talked of a ring return but has thankfully so far kept his gloves hung up.

Last year the former contender penned his auto-biography “Courage in the Ring” in which he details his life and heavyweight career.

“Everyone who has read my book has said it would make a great movie” says Jose who has also recently found out he is to be inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame.

“In it I detail all the stories around my major fights about what happened before and after the Tyson fight, the Bruno fight in London and all the others against Witherspoon, Smith...there’s also a part about when I sparred Muhammad Ali in front of Angelo Dundee in 1984.”

“It’s a great book, a good read and everyone should go and buy it to learn more about the last thirty years of great heavyweight champions.”

Jose’s book is currently available via Kindle at Amazon if you click here

At less than £5 it is a must-read for all fight fans.

Highlights of Ribalta’s stand against a prime Tyson

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