35 long years ago today, a 20-year-old Mike Tyson met Cuban tough guy Jose Ribalta at The Trump Plaza. All this time later, former heavyweight king Tyson still says Ribalta was the toughest man he ever faced. Indeed, Tyson and Ribalta gave us a great fight on this day in 1986; a heavyweight battle that, if it was served up to us today, we would all be calling the fight a modern-day classic.
Tyson was unstoppable back in the mid-1980s, as we fans who remember seeing him fight live (either in person or on TV) still recall with clarity. Incredibly fast, starving hungry and as hard to hit as he was hard-hitting, the young Tyson, known as “Kid Dynamite,” had pretty much wiped out everything in his path. James Tillis gave Tyson a good fight, lasting the ten-round distance, while Mitch Green also saw it to the final bell, aided as “Blood” was by his ability to run.
But the seasoned Ribalta, from Cuba but having defected some years ago, took an almost insane amount of punishment from the rampaging, won’t take no for an answer Tyson. As usual, Tyson came out fast, looking to tear the head from the shoulders of his tall, jabbing opponent. Tyson also ripped some savage punches to the body (“Tyson’s body punching is a thing of beauty,” said HBO co-commentator Sugar Ray Leonard) and it was incredible to see how much Ribalta could take.
In round two, a classic Tyson combo of right to the body- right uppercut to the head sent Ribalta down. “El Nino” got up and then, stunningly, he traded shots with Tyson. The fight raged on, and on. Ribalta, coming on strong in the middle and later rounds, as his team said would be the case, managed to win the odd round, he hit Tyson far more than anyone else had at the time, and Ribalta continued to hold up to Tyson’s best shots.
Ribalta was relieved of his mouthpiece in round eight, when a sickening Tyson bomb smashed it clean out of his mouth. Soon after, Ribalta was decked by a blistering Tyson left hook, only to rise again and try and fight back. Tyson’s own stamina was holding up well and his work rate never really dipped, yet Tyson did look a little frustrated at times, eyeing referee Rudy Battle whenever Ribalta tied him up (or occasionally hit him low).
The end came just when it looked as though Ribalta might last the distance. A wicked left hook to the head and down Ribalta went in the tenth and final round, this for the third time in total. Up yet again and, when asked if he wanted to continue, warrior Ribalta didn’t hesitate, “Yeah, hell yeah!” he said. Tyson rushed in and his follow-up barrage was enough for Battle to decide to dive in and end the battle. Larry Merchant for one felt the stoppage was premature, stating how “Ribalta had taken punches like that before and had come back.”
It was over and Tyson had come through his toughest test yet. Only Alfonso Ratliff stood in the way of Tyson and reigning WBC heavyweight champ Trevor Berbick.