Sometimes life and fate conspire to hold you back. You can put in your time, run the miles, hit the office each day and do everything possible to give yourself every conceivable chance at success, but something unexpected gets in the way.
That’s life, and when it comes to the prize ring life has a funny way of getting in the way when least expected.
Jose Ribalta’s career spanned a terrific era of heavyweight boxing. He faced many of the biggest names of the 80’s and 90’s. A friendly man outside of the ring, he fought with a particular level of skill and hunger. Having watched “El Nino” over the years, and having seen him go at it punch for punch with a few men that history will look back upon as all-time greats, it was a particular honor discuss a career of hard knocks with a man who’s outlook is as bright as the sunshine in Miami.
MP: You were born in Cuba and moved to the United States when you were a child. Your father worked for former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.
Yes, my father did work for President Batista, he was Batista’s Treasurer. At first he was the head of the sugar cane fields, the supervisor for north Cuba. Later he went into office to work for Batista.
MP: How did you first become involved in boxing?
One of my older brothers had joined a boxing gym and one day I followed him, wondering where he was going every day. The next day I went even though on that particular day he didn’t go. I remembered where he went. His coach asked me if I was Jose Ribalta’s brother, and I said ‘yes’. We were all named ‘Jose Ribalta’ but we all had different middle names. All of a sudden, I saw guys hitting the heavy bag and sparring, that kind of stuff. The next thing you know I started going to the gym regularly. My brother later told me he didn’t want me boxing, but when I started doing well and winning he changed his mind. My mother also was against it and told me that she would only let me box if my father would allow it. My father was in Cuba at that time. At the time I hadn’t seen him in eleven years. I kept it up, hiding from my mother to make sure she didn’t catch me. One day my brother told me that I owed him one, so that’s how I started boxing.
MP: Tell us about your amateur career.
I was like 75-10, something like that. I was the junior Olympic champion in Miami at 15 and then I went the National Golden Gloves at 16 and lost in the 1st round to Andre Carlos who was an outstanding fighter for the U.S. boxing team. In the final year I went to the National’s again as a light heavyweight, I placed 2nd to a fighter named Johnny Williams in the eastern Olympic trials. He also beat me at the National Golden Gloves at the finals.
MP: You turned professional in January 1982 stopping JC Richardson in the 1st round. What do you remember of that bout?
I was really nervous. Everybody had told me how good he (Richardson) was, how he had beaten some guy and had at one time been incarcerated. I was nervous but I was not afraid, I would fight anybody. I felt that no one could beat me at that particular time.
MP: By April 1985 your record was 18-1-1. You then lost a very close split decision to ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith and shortly after that a majority ten-round decision to former amateur standout Marvis Frazier. What happened?
We really what happened in those bouts was, with ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith I really felt that I won that fight. That was the fight that put me in a position to fight Mike Tyson. ‘Bonecrusher’ was the hardest puncher I ever faced. He knocked me down in the 1st round. I said wow, this guy can really punch. Even then, I got up and out-boxed him. On the tape, you can see his trainer, maybe around the 5th round, telling him he needed a knock-out to win. That’s how far in front I was, out-boxing him. I lost a controversial decision to ‘Bonecrusher’ and that was the only fight where I cried afterwards; I felt that I had worked so hard for that win but all of a sudden those judges went ahead and took away something I had worked so hard for. I had tears in my eyes after that fight.
For the Marvis Frazier fight, I had a friend who previously told me not to fight Frazier at that particular hotel (Trump Casino Hotel, Atlantic City) because his father took most of his fighters to that hotel, and that they had a good connection with it. He advised me not to fight there against Frazier, but I really felt I was going to beat Marvis Frazier and stop him. I really felt I won the fight. I bloodied his nose during the fight. It was a close fight, but I still feel I won that fight. My friend told me after, “You see, if the fight was close, they were going to give it to him at that hotel”. And that’s what happened.
MP: After regrouping with four wins you were stopped in August 1986 by ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson who at that point was undefeated and taking the boxing world by storm. You troubled Tyson early before the match was halted in round 10. What do you recall of Tyson as an opponent and were you nervous going into that fight given his tremendous reputation at the time?
Of course I was nervous. Most fighters are always nervous going into a fight. I remember wondering why I was so nervous because I wasn’t afraid of him. I would have fought him right there and then, before the fight on the street. Before the fight I told my manager that this guy can’t beat me. He can’t knock me out. This was right after I watched him knock Marvis Frazier out.
MP: You found yourself back in the win column going 9-0, along the way blasting out former World heavyweight champion ‘Neon’ Leon Spinks in one round before losing another very close majority decision to former two-time heavyweight champion ‘Terrible’ Tim Witherspoon. It looked as though you might have pulled that one out. What happened?
When I fought Witherspoon I really thought I won. The judges originally scored the bout a draw, then like ten minutes later they changed the decision. Tim Witherspoon was a good fighter but I was always very effective with guys that were big and slow, like
‘Bonecrusher’ Smith and Witherspoon; big and kind of slow.
MP: Later you were thrown in deep against the likes of former heavyweight titlists Michael ‘Dynamite’ Dokes, Tony Tubbs and former World heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, each at that point beyond their championship reigns. Did your management consciously position you as an opponent during this period and do you feel you got a fair shake from the judges in your bouts with such well known big names?
After I fought Larry Holmes one of the judges came to me and said if I hadn’t been knocked down he would have given me the fight. That’s what he told me. Holmes later told my trainer that he had never hit anybody as hard as he hit me. He hit me with a good shot but I got back up and fought him with no problem.
The Michael Dokes situation was one that everybody that saw it in Miami booed the decision. Later somebody told me, I don’t remember his name, he worked with Don King, he told me that I was never going to win the fight. All Michael Dokes had to do was go the distance with me. Sometimes such things happen in boxing. He was the bigger name. I really thought I deserved the fight. I thought I won it.
MP: By 1994 you appeared to be beyond your very best despite winning a handful of bouts. Your last three bouts were particularly tough assignments in Vitali Klitschko, Chris Byrd and Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock. Was your desire gone by that point?
I don’t want to sound as though I’m making excuses, but what took place with ‘Razor’ Ruddock was that I was originally told I was boxing someone else. The next thing you know, after three or four weeks of training for a fight, I heard a rumor that there was a possibility that Ruddock may be my opponent. I was like what do you mean? I’m training for somebody else. The next thing you know, ‘Razor’ Ruddock shows up at the weigh-in. Little did I know, my manager at the time, he I believe, set me up for that fight, because I never knew I was facing Ruddock. Later I found out that Ruddock was also his fighter.
MP: What was it like facing Chris Byrd and Vitali Klitschko?
Chris Byrd was a very quick guy, very smart, awkward fighter. He out-maneuvered me, really. With Klitschko, I don’t want anybody thinking I’m making excuses, I had come down with a fever, I was even checked out by the doctor. But they told me Jose, you are in Austria, the show must go on! So I fought with a fever. The one thing about me and boxing, I feared nobody. So I went through with it. That’s basically what took place with Klitschko.
MP: You are a bridge to heavyweight history, having faced all-timers in Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson and Vitali Klitschko, among other titlists and contenders from the 80’s and 90’s. Who impressed you the most with their skills and power?
Larry Holmes had the hardest left jab. It was powerful like a Tyson right hand. His jab was so awesome. He had a way of flicking it hard. Mike Tyson was extremely quick and accurate.
MP: Who hit you the hardest? Mike Tyson, Vitali Klitschko or ‘Razor’ Ruddock?
‘Bonecrusher’ was the hardest puncher I ever faced. When he knocked me down in the 1st round of our fight, it was like a bomb exploded. Boom!
MP: Your career total is 39-17-1 with 28 KO’s. You fought the best of the 80’s and 90’s as well as a contemporary in Vitali Klitschko, the current WBC heavyweight champion. When was Jose Ribalta at his very best? Which bout stands out in your mind?
I think honestly, when I was in against Larry Holmes and against Mike Tyson I was at my best, and of course Leon Spinks as well. Larry Holmes’ boxing experience was huge. He was a very smart fighter. He suckered me in and caught me. I think Larry was a great fighter. Mike Tyson was very, very quick and a powerful puncher also. I don’t think he punched as hard as ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith was more heavy-handed than Mike Tyson
MP: Today you are actively working with fighters. Tell us about that.
Yes, right now I’m working with fighters. I’m really looking to train a heavyweight. If anybody wants me to train them, they can call. He would be taken care of very well.
MP: Is there anything you’d like to say to the boxing fans around the world who watched your career unfold and remember ‘El Nino’?
I really have respect for all of the opponents I fought, and that I really had no fear for anyone that I ever boxed. I have do have that respect for the great fighters I faced and all of the opponents I ever boxed against. Thank you.