Back then, to step into the ring against Mike Tyson, you not only had to know how to box, but you also had to be brave, because the power of his fists could cause much more than a defeat. One of those who accepted the challenge was José Ribalta, who at 58 years of age still remembers the details of that evening.
In 1986, Ribalta was a promising young boxer, so much so that he had come into the Tyson fight with a record of 22 wins (17 by KO), four losses and one draw. On his back was a controversial contest against Marvis Frazier, who despite throwing 73 punches, the judges had declared him the loser in a controversial split decision.
The 23-year-old Cuban relied heavily on the power of his fists, his experience and his preparation. For the fight against Iron Mike held at the Trump Plaza Hotel in Atlantic City, he trained several times with the champion at the time, Trevor Berbick, with whom he had been sparring since he was 17 years old: “I learned a lot from him. He always told me I was strong.
But his hard work was not enough, because his opponent’s fury was unstoppable: “Tyson was strong and fast. Yes, I felt his punches a lot. But because he was also fast. Ribalta kissed the canvas three times during the fight and even lost his mouth guard from a punch to the chin that he couldn’t stop. In the end, it was the referee who decided to end the action to protect the Cuban.
Once the fight was over, he was congratulated by his opponent: “Tyson told me, ‘you can hold your own Ribalta’. I got up fast when he knocked me down”.
Despite a loss that night, Ribalta gained experience and popularity. So much so that he won his next nine fights, something that allowed him to dream of a quick rematch. By that time, 1990, Tyson had already become heavyweight champion by beating Trevor Berbick. But something prevented Ribalta from repeating the confrontation.
Asked if he had any knowledge at the time of Tyson’s life outside the sport, Ribalta was specific: “I saw him doing things he wasn’t supposed to be doing. At this point he did not want to clarify whether his comment was linked to the use of drugs or alcohol, although he did take the opportunity to talk about one of the versions that went viral a few months ago by one of Iron Mike’s bodyguards.
The truth is that the Cuban, after finding out that he was not going to have a rematch with Tyson, his performance declined and after his nine consecutive victories he suffered five defeats that took him away from the big stage. After that, he struggled to get back to his best and in 1999 he retired after losing to Canadian Donovan Ruddock by technical knockout, leaving him with a record of 38 wins, 17 losses and one draw.
Before that, he had a reunion with Mike Tyson. It was in 1996, after the former champion was released from prison after serving a sentence for raping a model while he was a beauty pageant judge. At that time Ribalta sparred with his former opponent on a couple of occasions: “I hit him hard and it was the same”, he recalled.
Now, at 58 years old and seeing that the American enjoys exhibition bouts like the one he had with Roy Jones Jr. in 2020, the Cuban wants to put on the gloves again to have his rematch. “It’s not hard to come back, I never smoked, never drank beer or anything like that. If my body gets in condition, like now that I’m in the gym, I’ll be ready to fight.”
With a killer look on his face, confident that he can beat Iron Mike and without Don King in the middle of negotiations, Ribalta invites his former opponent back into the ring: “Tyson, you’re scared of me, why are you scared? Come on, let’s do it, let’s do the fight, don’t be afraid”.