Parallel lines: Angel Manfredy and Ivan Robinson

John Evans
12/08/2018 6:00am

Angel Manfredy and Ivan Robinson's careers travelled similar paths - including standout wins over Arturo Gatti in 1998. John Evans tracked them down...

As 1993 drew to a close, Philadelphia’s Ivan Robinson could look back at a solid first full year as a professional fighter. Busy, active, and unbeaten, Robinson’s decision to chase professional glory rather than accepting a scholarship at Penn State looked to have been a sound one.

700 miles west in northern Indiana, 19-year-old Angel Manfredy had also turned professional that year but, as he lay in a hospital bed following yet another car accident, it was now his turn to make a choice. And his options were far more limited.

Winston Churchill famously said that: ‘History is written by the victors,’ but Arturo Gatti’s incredible back catalogue of wars ensured that he remained the author of his own legend despite his career settling into a 'win some, lose some' pattern. Mickey Ward might be granted a couple of chapters in what Larry Merchant perfectly described as ‘The Perils of Arturo’, but two men who went to war with Gatti when he was at his swashbuckling best have been assigned mere cameo roles.

Robinson and Manfredy are contrasting characters who walked wildly different paths. Those paths would eventually cross, but not before both men had fought their way into contention and successfully ran through ‘Thunder’ Gatti.

“I had to overcome a lot,” Manfredy told Boxing Monthy. “I became an amateur when I was nine years old. I didn’t like amateur boxing though, I always wanted to be a professional so I turned over at 18. It was natural ability and I put a lot of hard work in in the gym. I used to study Julio Cesar Chavez. He was my favourite fighter and I’d watch him lots.”

Manfredy’s life has been forged by visions and was almost tragically bookended by major boxing dates. Born on the day of the Rumble in the Jungle, his life almost came to a desperate end just 25 years later, days after the ‘Fight of the Millennium’ between Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad.

In between, he lived a troubled existence. Gripped by drink and drugs, he veered dangerously off track on several occasions as an uneasy childhood delivered him into temptation. Manfredy's first vision came as he lay unconscious after crumpling his car following a night of drinking and driving.

“I had a vision that I’d become a world champion.” Manfredy says, skimming over an incident that played such a pivotal moment in his early life. As he recovered from the 200 stitches to his face, the close escape also convinced him that he had no choice but to devote himself to a higher purpose. He entered into an unsettling way off life, attempting to balance his new religious beliefs with his self destructive alter ego.

“My old trainer, John Taylor, said after one fight : ‘He don’t fight like no angel! He fights like a devil’ so my manager nicknamed me ‘El Diablo’ and bought me a mask. We started wearing it as we’d enter the ring and that’s how we got started. It was a different side of me to bring to the world. It was all a show.’

The fans may have thought it was all a show but for Manfredy, life was imitating art. Most fighters transform from angel to devil once they step inside the ring, for Manfredy it was the opposite. The ring seemed to be the only place he could find peace. He is now clean, but the repercussions of his previous life will be felt forever.

“I’m on disability now. I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and I have some mental health issues because of the drugs and all that. I have my wife, Yvette, and the kids around me. She’s been with me through it all. She’s seen it all. The down times and the up times. Through it all, she’s been there. She’s a strong woman.

“I could have done a lot better if I wasn’t doing drugs. I could have won three world titles. I won one but I would have done so much better. That’s what stopped me. You can’t play that game and try to fight.”

Despite his problems, in January 1998, Manfredy got to Gatti first. Safe in the knowledge that that he had been chosen to provide IBF super featherweight champion Gatti - a HBO golden boy after his thrilling comeback victories over Wilson Rodriguez and Gabriel Ruelas - with an exciting but winnable route into the lightweight division, Manfredy donned his mask and made his way to the ring.

“It didn’t matter. I knew I was going to win. I wanted the fight. I kept on calling them up for two or three years [asking for the Gatti fight]. I’d keep calling and calling. Finally they offered me the opportunity and I jumped on it. I didn’t care about the money, I didn’t care about nothing. I just wanted to beat him. I called him out on HBO a few times. I was 100% confident that I could beat him but it was a battle, it really was. We went toe to toe. I wanted to fight him at his game. You had to fight Gatti. To beat a fighter you have to fight a fighter.”

Manfredy ripped open Gatti’s left eye and dropped him. After eight back and forth rounds, the cut brought an end to the bout. Victory propelled him into a WBC title fight and a clash of alter egos with then ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd Mayweather [L TKO2]. Rather than wearing the devil mask to the ring, Manfredy chose to hold it aloft before tossing it into the crowd. Casting out the devil on national television may have appeared to be a symbolic gesture but, away from the cameras and fans, temptation still proved impossible to resist. After an unsuccessful challenge for Stevie Johnston’s WBC lightweight title in 1999, his chaotic life reached a horrifying crescendo.

“I was in my dressing room getting my hands wrapped for the [Mayweather] fight and all I could hear were the fans screaming: ‘Diablo! Diablo!’ I thought to myself: ‘I’m Angel Manfredy. I ain’t no devil’ and I got jealous. I carried my mask into the ring and I spoke to it as I walked. I told the devil I’d kill him and I thought to the crowd: ‘If you want the devil, here you can take him’ and I threw him out into the crowd.

“After the Stevie Johnston fight I had a party at my house for the Felix Trinidad - Oscar De La Hoya fight. People were drinking and partying but I wasn’t partying at all. I won $5,000 by betting on the fight and I started partying.

“I was gonna take my own life. I was going to commit suicide. I was up for three and a half days and I was on my knees. I was going to take my own life in my bedroom. Instead of taking my life I reached out to the Lord Jesus. I started wearing ‘Got Jesus’ on my trunks. I kept trying to tell people about Jesus but they didn’t want to hear that. They loved the devil,” Manfredy laughed sadly. “They loved the devil.”

Despite the reinvention, Manfredy was simply outgunned by Diego Corrales and outboxed by Paul Spadafora in losing title bids before retiring in 2004. He may have worn a devil mask for effect on the short stroll from the dressing room to the ring but he will carry him on his tattooed shoulders for life.

Robinson was even younger than Manfredy when his father first introduced him to boxing and five year old ‘Mighty Mouse’ would hit bags alongside hardened fighters in a Philadelphia gym. Logic dictates that he would instantly associate boxing with potential fame and fortune but as a teenager, fighting for money was never a consideration. Robinson loved being an amateur. He had a series of close battles with Oscar De La Hoya and stood on the brink of achieving a dream.

“Honestly, I didn’t know that I wanted to turn professional until I was about 16 or 17,” Robinson said. “I was out of school but still living with my mum and I had people like Lou Duva and Bob Arum telling me that I was a good fighter. I had a scholarship to go to Penn State and box on their collegiate team but I didn’t want that. I wanted to go to the Olympics.

“The 1992 Olympics came around and it was supposed to be De La Hoya at 132lbs and me at 125lbs but Julian Wheeler beat me for the spot. That crushed me.

“I decided I was gonna go pro and become a champion. Money wasn’t really an issue. My manager at the time took care of me very well and gave me the opportunity to concentrate on nothing but boxing and that’s what I did.”

Robinson worked his way through the ranks and lost a decision to then IBF lightweight title holder, Philip Holiday. The pair threw over 2500 punches and landed almost 1000 between them. The fight was a harbinger for his fight with Gatti. Robinson could box, but when forced to, he could fight like the best Philadelphia fighters.

Boxing works in mysterious ways. Whereas Gatti’s rise had been temporarily halted by the gash that ultimately cost him against Manfredy, a cut eye put paid to Robinson’s hopes of taking on one of the sports recent greats. Once the scars had healed, Gatti had his credible route back to the sport, Robinson finally had chance to take on a renowned opponent and, in August 1998, boxing fans got the fight of the year.

“It was crazy. I had just fought in Philly and got cut. I went back into the gym but we weren’t preparing for Arturo Gatti, we were preparing for Shane Mosely. I put special headgear on in the gym but it re-opened the cut. Me and Shane Mosely was out. My manager was upset because it would have been for the title and it was gonna be here at home in Philly but he still wanted me to have a big fight. My phone rang and he said he had one for me.”

“I never knew they’d bought me in to resurrect Gatti’s career. The night before the fight, I watched the fight he had with Gabriel Ruelas and found out that he’d broken Ruelas' ribs. Man, you wanna talk about somebody who was as nervous as hell? I was so nervous. The only person I knew who punched like that was George Foreman.

“Watch the fight and you’ll see that I run right out to the centre of the ring. After I finished warming up on the mitts and put my robe on, I got all my trainers in a huddle and told them: ‘I know everybody loves me but we’re not going out to box this kid. I’m going out to make a statement with this guy and I’m gonna bang with him.’ One of my trainers tried grabbing my robe to pull me back but nothing could stop me. I just wanted to get out there and slug with him. The only thing that was going to work for Gatti that night - and it almost happened - was that he’d knock me out. He nearly got me but my conditioning and superb boxing skills overwhelmed everything else. I knew I needed to win.”

Robinson got off the floor and survived a brutal final round to take a deserved split decision. As he sat in his dressing room that night with plaudits ringing in his ears, he would have been forgiven for thinking that his career was about to take off. A rematch was inevitable and less than four months later, Robinson ran a clinic on Gatti for seven rounds and endured a vicious late body attack to earn a unanimous decision. The rematch happened just a week before Manfredy lost to Mayweather.

Rather than the Gatti fights catapulting Robinson to fame, it was as if his spark was extinguished by the final bell of the second meeting. Lower profile opportunities came and went during the remainder of his career but a title fight never appeared. The man who had twice beaten boxing’s brightest star with a mixture of skill, speed and bravery was never given the chance to push on. Instead, he would meet Manfredy.

“I didn’t [think things would change],” Robinson remembered. “It was just a big win. I was married at the time so it was a big win for my family and my team. I was kind of signed with Main Events myself but evidently, it was like rolling dice. They crapped out once so they tried rolling seven again by getting us to fight again.

“God works in mysterious ways. I knew I’d beat Gatti but I never thought it’d become fight of the year. I never thought I’d get hit like I did and I never knew that it’d go to a second fight.

“I don’t know what it was. Maybe because I wasn’t getting paid what I felt was big money, I didn’t train like I should have. Us fighters do tend to get big heads and think that we can do things that we shouldn’t.

“For me to fight for as long as I did and never get another shot at a title? Well, I thought I deserved a shot at one of the other belts. There weren’t too many other fighters at my weight that I’d have had too much trouble with.

“Jesse James Leija will tell you himself, they brought him in for me to beat [on the Lennox Lewis - David Tua bill] but it was a bad night and I did things that I shouldn’t have in that camp but I had a great career. I’m not mad about anything. I’m happy, man. I think my career went fabulously.”

In April 1999, just 16 months after the Manfredy – Gatti – Robinson triangle started, ‘El Diablo’ and ‘Mighty’ Ivan were pitched in together for the fourth and final instalment in the sequence. What should have been the ideal platform for both fighters to catapult themselves forward again instead descended into backbiting over who did the better job on Gatti. From a boxing sense, the fight made perfect sense but while Manfredy retained his fire, Robinson seemed distracted, as if this wasn’t the reward he felt he deserved for surviving twenty rounds of hell with Gatti. Manfredy coasted to victory.

“We had the highest rating on HBO. The fight we had on Boxing After Dark got the highest rating that year,” Manfredy remembers. “Ivan was a good fighter but I knew he didn’t have what it took to beat me. I like the Gatti fight but I liked the Ivan Robinson fight too. I was really doing a number on Ivan.”

“At that time, Gatti was the hottest thing in the world. Rest in peace, Arturo, and I take my hat off to him,” said Robinson. “He didn’t care who he fought and he gave people opportunities. They didn’t have to give me that chance, they could have stayed away from me. I don’t think people believed in me too much though because there was no way in the world that I should have fought Angel Manfredy next. I had a bad night but Angel stayed on his grind.

“Me and Angel were like hound dogs when we fought each other. Now, we aren’t the best of friends but we get on. I can call him and talk to him.”

A version of this article was originally published in the July 2017 edition of Boxing Monthly magazine.