Jose Ribalta was an unknown heavyweight who a prime Mike Tyson found most difficult to KO as he absorbed more than 200 punches from ‘Iron Mike’ in fight
The man a peak Mike Tyson found toughest to knock out – who ‘Iron Mike’ said made him sick with pain after a war of attrition – was a relative unknown who left boxing with 17 career defeats.
Jose Ribalta fought the 20-year-old Tyson in 1986, three months before he became the youngest world heavyweight champion in history by decimating Trevor Berbick in five minutes. Cuba-born Ribalta was expected to be easy work but ended up giving a young Tyson his hardest night, getting up from three knockdowns to battle back and last to the final round.
“I hit Jose Ribalta with everything, and he took everything and kept coming back for more,” marvelled Tyson to Ring magazine years later, when he claimed Ribalta had the best chin of any boxer he’d fought. Tyson also called ‘El Nino’ the physically strongest heavyweight he’d shared a ring with, adding: “Ribalta stood toe-to-toe with me. He was very strong in the clinches.”
Going into the fight, future journeyman Ribalta had a 22-3-1 record. But his losses included a KO defeat in his 11th pro fight and later a points setback to Marvis Frazier. The same Marvis Frazier, son of Smokin Joe, who Tyson had ripped apart in 30 seconds a month earlier.
Tyson entered the ring against Ribalta looking – if possible – even more ferocious than usual. Bare-chested, drenched in sweat and snarling. Ribalta actually matched Tyson’s intense pre-fight stare eyeball to eyeball, but HBO analyst Larry Merchant summed up the general feeling when he greeted the opening bell by telling TV viewers: “Don’t anybody go to the toilet or the refrigerator; Mike Tyson has short working hours…”.
A wise warning. In the 1980s, Tyson handed out early KOs like most people handed out business cards. His last four opponents had lasted a combined total of five rounds and while two men had taken Tyson the distance when he was a teenager – James ‘Quick’ Tillis and Mitch ‘Blood’ Green – they had done it by spoiling and avoiding conflict (Tillis) and outright running (Green).
“Ribalta was a game fighter who, unlike Green and Tillis, actually engaged me,” praised Tyson in his autobiography, Undisputed Truth. “I felt nauseous from all Ribalta’s body blows, even hours after the fight… I never felt that much general pain again.”
The 6ft 5in Ribalta, who looked impressively muscular as he towered over Tyson, certainly didn’t conform to the usual opponent pattern in round two. Tyson’s hellacious uppercut almost lifted Ribalta off his feet but he got back up at the count of ‘four’ and survived the furious follow-up to hear the bell.
Already we were in uncharted territory: Tyson foes tended to succumb early or, through trickery and toughness, escape the early carnage. Nobody was hurt this badly early on but got up to make a fight of it. Yet Ribalta did, even earning a glare of disbelief from Tyson at the close of round three.
By the middle rounds, Ribalta’s gameplan of weathering the early storm and coming on strong was almost paying off. While eating plenty of leather himself, he was also banging Tyson to the body when the sawn-off Brooklynite unleashed his own shots, and catching Tyson with uppercuts.
By round eight, the pro-Tyson crowd were so impressed by Ribalta’s increasing success that they began chanting, “Jose! Jose! Jose!” However it only seemed to fire-up his rival, as Tyson finally broke through, sending Ribalta’s gumshield flying into the Trump Plaza audience in Atlantic City, before battering him to the ropes for a second knockdown.
But Ribalta got up again and looked likely to survive the 10-round distance before, in the last round, a monstrous left hook sat him down with minutes to go. Referee Rudy Battle asked Ribalta if he wanted to fight on and his stone-cold reply was an emphatic: “Yeah, hell yeah!” Tyson lept on him with more hooks however and the referee jumped in to end things, despite an anguished Ribalta’s protests that he could have made it to the final bell.
The final punch stats showed that Tyson, then nearing his prime, had landed 220 blows – over a hundred of them power shots. Yet Ribalta kept coming back and returning fire to the point where the 10th-round stoppage was the latest KO Tyson would ever register in his career. For that reason, it was also among the legendary heavyweight’s favourites knockouts – even if the violent contest did torpedo his post-fight plans.
“Besides gaining a lot of respect from the crowd and the commentators on his determination, Ribalta also managed to ruin my night,” reflected Tyson years later. “After the fight, I had a date with a beautiful young coed… This young lady accompanied me to my room and she began to touch me but I recoiled in pain. ‘Hey! Please don’t touch me. It’s nothing personal but I have to go now. I just need some peace,’ I told her.
“She was very understanding… she had been at the fight and had seen all the punishment I had absorbed. I had never been through anything like that before.”
Tyson also lauded Ribalta’s “will not to get knocked out”. The gallant loser put his success down to having ‘no fear’ of the red-hot prospect pre-fight. “I was one of the first guys to fight Mike Tyson head on, we went at it for 10 hard rounds,” Ribalta said later. “Everyone else was just trying to survive.”
Unfortunately for Ribalta, predictions from impressed pundits that he’d shown he could be a top heavyweight contender proved wide of the mark. He won nine fights in succession, against mostly mediocre opposition, after losing to Tyson – and at one stage was campaigning Don King for a rematch. But between 1990 and 1992, Ribalta lost five fights in a row – including a second-round KO at the fists of Frank Bruno in London – before retiring in 1999 with a 38-17-1 record.
For Tyson, the result was a mixed bag. He viewed the fight as a valuable learning experience, claiming that having to dig deep to win was an important part of his journey to becoming undisputed champion. Tyson had also shown for the first time he could carry his power late and stop a stubborn opponent.
However Ribalta, a tall heavyweight with an unimposing record but a good jab and solid fundamentals, had shown how to make those weapons work against Tyson. It was a starkly similar gameplan to the one James ‘Buster’ Douglas would use when shocking the world by beating Tyson four years later, even if a distracted ‘Iron Mike’ was as much to blame for his own downfall as his life outside the ring spun out of control.
But in 1986, Tyson was still boxing’s fastest rising star – and no fighter made him work harder for a spectacular KO finish than unheralded, unknown Jose Ribalta.