Two weeks after his 19th birthday, Angel Manfredy was out doing two of the things he liked to do best–drinking and driving. It mattered little to him that he had a girlfriend with a baby on the way. Ostensibly he was a prizefighter, but with a record of three wins, two losses, and one draw, he appeared to be heading nowhere fast.

On a road in northeastern Indiana, Manfredy swerved to avoid an oncoming car. Fishtailing in the rain, he slammed into a utility pole and bashed in the right side of his skull.

Trapped inside the wreckage, Manfredy had a vision.

“I deserved to die, no question,” he recalls. “But I met the man that night, and I begged him for my life, begged him for a second chance.”

He was cut from the car, and more than 200 stitches later found himself in a hospital bed, looking into the face of his father.

“When I saw my dad’s face, I knew I’d disgraced him and my family, and I vowed to make him proud of me.”

What he’s done since that day may be nothing short of miraculous–a tribute to the time-honored combination of faith, hard work, and talent. With a current record of 28 wins on 22 knockouts, 3 losses, and one draw, Angel “El Diabolo” Manfredy will climb into the ring this Saturday night to fight champion Stevie “Lil’ But Bad” Johnston for the World Boxing Council’s lightweight title. The five-foot nine-inch, 135-pound pugilist will earn a quarter of a million dollars for the bout, which headlines an HBO Boxing After Dark card in Mashantucket, Connecticut.

Now a devout member of a Pentecostal Christian church, Manfredy credits his faith for his success in the ring–and in life. “I’m willing to die every time I go into the ring,” he says. “I know I’m protected by the man upstairs.”

Manfredy’s wife, Yvette, took his dramatic shift with a grain of salt. “I love Angel, and I believe he saw what he said he did that night. But after all the troubles we’d had, it took me a while to believe he’d stick to it.”

The struggle to lead a righteous life is a daily one, says Manfredy, who describes himself as “scarred, inside and out.” His battle is reflected in the body art that covers parts of his scarred arms and shoulders. “My tattoos represent the split,” he explains. “The right side is my devil side, the dark side, all black, all representing the bad times, while the left side is my angel side, all bright colors, representing the light in my life.”

Manfredy sports a goatee and keeps his head shaved, accentuating the mark left by his accident. He’s fair skinned, but when he gets worked up his face turns bright red. After his accident, he became an increasingly familiar figure to boxing fans here in Chicago. They weren’t shy about voicing their opinions.

“Late ’94…early ’95, I remember these guys seeing me after a fight leaving the ring all red and sweaty, and screaming out, ‘Diabolo, Diabolo–the guy looks like the devil!'”

Reflecting on his own experience, Manfredy bought a Halloween mask: the devil’s head, complete with horns. Though still a club fighter, he began wearing the mask into the ring. He waits to reveal his face. “I’m a devil in disguise,” he says of his dramatic entrance, now a trademark. “When I take off the mask, I’m Angel.”

Calling attention to yourself while still an unknown is a gutsy move. Losing would have made him a target of ridicule, but for Manfredy losing was never an option.

Boxing historian Bert Sugar is a fan. “I love the kid because of the contradictions he presents. He’s got that tough look and fights like a demon, but he’s a sweet kid who respects the sport.”

Movie director Ron Shelton interviewed Manfredy while researching his latest film, Play It to the Bone, which is set to open this fall. “I found him a sweet, soft-spoken guy who was comfortable in his theatrical role yet a technically sound fighter, which is incredibly rare,” Shelton says. “He’s very evangelical, believing God and the devil are real, which is something my Baptist upbringing can relate to. Plus having stared death in the face and rebuilt himself also impressed the hell out of me.”

Manfredy grew up in East Chicago, where he was the youngest of four siblings. His steelworker father, Juan, and mother, Aida, raised their children in a strict, no-nonsense manner. It worked for the first three, but not with Angel, forever the black sheep. “I was the baby son who went wrong,” he says. “I was on my way to living on the streets, or probably not living much longer, period.”

Always one to start a fight, he began boxing as an amateur at nine, but he lacked dedication. “I could always punch, but I never paid boxing the attention it requires to succeed.” He made a truly inauspicious pro debut, getting knocked out in the second round. He fought to a draw in his second bout, before finally recording a win in his third, a first-round knockout over the aptly named Eric Crumble on September 3, 1993.

After his accident, with Yvette working in a pharmacy to pay the bills, Manfredy went to the Windy City Gym at Ogden and Kostner, where he hoped to train with Sam Colonna, who had mentored heavyweight Andrew Golota. But Colonna was reluctant. “I knew he and his dad from the amateurs, but he wasn’t serious about the game,” Colonna says. “They called him ‘Speedy’ back then, and you could tell he could punch and liked to fight, but that was it.” Yet the Manfredy who showed up seemed like a changed man. “The guy was talking about becoming a champion, which struck me kind of funny for a guy with his record. But he was dead serious and ready to turn his life around.” Colonna agreed to assist trainers Juan Ortiz and John Taylor, who’d worked with Manfredy since his amateur days.

Manfredy scored two quick knockouts, bringing his record to 5-2-1. Then he took his first big step up the pro boxing ladder, facing Jimmy Deoria (20-2) in Terre Haute. Manfredy dropped Deoria in the first round and pounded out a unanimous decision against the more experienced hometown favorite. He then avenged his debut loss, winning a decision against Charles McClellan. Three weeks later, he impressed the Chicago crowd with a second-round knockout of Jeff Whaley.

Manfredy opened 1995 with two knockouts in three days. The combination of his ferocious fighting style and his masked entrance was making him a cult hero locally, but he hadn’t yet registered on the national boxing radar. Six weeks later, he headed to Toronto to take on Canadian lightweight champion Vittorio Salvatore (15-1-1). “I understood why I had to go into more experienced guys’ hometowns to fight ’em,” Manfredy says, “but it just motivated me to train even harder and knock their guy out.” Inciting an already hostile crowd with his flamboyant entrance, Manfredy KO’d Salvatore in the fourth.

Colonna recalls the scene. “About an hour before the fight I was takin’ a leak and these guys were washing their hands, talking in Italian, not knowing I spoke the language too, saying how their guy was gonna kill this clown from Chicago. So I zipped up and told ’em they were in for a surprise, in Italian, of course. I looked for ’em after the fight, but that place cleared out pretty quick after Angel dropped their boy.”

The boxing world began to take notice. Manfredy had developed a potentially profitable package. He had a look, a shtick, and obvious skills. He fought hard every minute of every round.

But the business of boxing is built on connections. South African Cedric Kushner promoted rock concerts before entering boxing, and he’d carved out a successful niche. While he didn’t have the high-profile fighters of Bob Arum or Don King, he made money and kept his boxers busy. His influence was on the rise, especially overseas. Kushner helped Manfredy get a big break–a shot at a fringe title, the vacant World Boxing Union crown, against former International Boxing Federation Featherweight champion Calvin Grove (47-7). Grove was a crafty, battle-tested veteran. Though he was a bit past his prime, he represented another step up the ladder–except where money was concerned. Manfredy’s purse was a mere $2,500.

Still, that $2,500 was by far Manfredy’s largest purse to date, which illustrates how difficult it can be for even a successful club fighter to earn a living.

His record was now 12-2-1, but Manfredy was again the underdog. A pattern was emerging. “I heard everybody saying Grove would outbox and outthink me,” he says, “but to underestimate me is always a mistake, and I proved it again that night.”

The November 18, 1995, bout took place in Atlantic City, hours before an HBO card that featured world champions Pernell Whitaker and Felix Trinidad. HBO boxing honcho Lou DiBella was in town. Manfredy, ever the true believer, says, “It was meant for him to be there.” DiBella, ever the businessman, says, “It was pure chance and my relationship with Cedric that put me there.” Nobody disputes that DiBella’s presence that afternoon was the best thing that could’ve happened to Manfredy’s career.

DiBella says he likes two types of boxers: fighters with superstar skills and potential (such as Oscar de la Hoya, Roy Jones, and “Sugar” Shane Mosley) and tough action fighters who make for good television (such as Arturo Gatti). Kushner ran into DiBella at lunch and told him to see this kid in the afternoon’s main event. When DiBella first saw Manfredy make his mask-wearing, tattoo-revealing entrance, he was intrigued but wary. “The look and shtick was clearly all there, but your average club guy usually doesn’t have the skills and technique to back it up.” he says. Then Manfredy took Grove apart with an old-school body attack, stopping the champ in the seventh round. “After the fight, I told Angel I really liked what he did in there,” DiBella says, “and if he kept it up I’d look to use him on HBO.”

Manfredy now had a title, a well-connected promoter, and a new fan with the power to make his dreams come true. “When I sat and talked with him, he was cocky, but very respectful of where his career was at and what he needed to do,” says DiBella. “I started following him, figuring he could turn into an Arturo Gatti-like attraction.”

Soon after, Kushner took Manfredy to South Africa to defend his title against the national champion, Mtobeli Mhlope. “They had to drive me 15 minutes to get to the arena, but the car they put me in had exhaust fumes coming into the car, so my trainer told me to stick my head outside the window,” says Manfredy. “But the 15 minutes turned into an hour because they took a route that went through some fields where they were burning stuff, so even the air was smoky.” Upon arrival, he was rushed into the ring, where, finally, he was back in control. He silenced another raucous hometown crowd, knocking out Mhlope in the fifth.

Then it was off to Vienna, Austria, to defend his title against tough Wilfredo Ruiz, on December 7, 1996. “I got pneumonia a few days before the fight,” says Manfredy. “They told me I could pull out, or at least make it a nontitle fight, but I said no. If it was meant to be, so be it.” Manfredy’s single-minded focus and vicious body attack brought a KO in the fifth round.

True to his word, DiBella gave Manfredy an HBO date in February with the highly regarded Wilson Rodriguez. “The kid did what he had to, and absolutely earned the shot,” says DiBella. “But Rodriguez was a tough guy, so he was going to have to keep earning it.”

The fight took place in Atlantic City and represented Manfredy’s biggest payday yet, around $75,000. “We had two little kids and plenty of other expenses, so it was pretty much spent,” Yvette recalls, “but Angel deserved it, and we knew more would come if he kept winning.” Manfredy’s theatrics and crowd-pleasing style were a huge hit. He won a unanimous decision, earning excellent ratings and another appearance on HBO.

That August Manfredy faced former world champ Jorge Paez, but Paez too shrunk from his withering body attack–the bout was over in eight. Suddenly Manfredy was a popular attraction riding an 18-fight winning streak. “Whenever Angel fought, we got ratings, followed by cards and letters asking to see him again” says DiBella, who next matched him against his spiritual twin, Arturo Gatti.

Gatti was a popular brawler who led with his chin and his heart. With a 26-1 record and 22 KOs, he was far superior to anyone Manfredy had faced. The matchup figured to be an all-out war, and DiBella put it on live, anticipating a ratings bonanza and parting with $200,000 for Manfredy.

In an interview before the fight, an emotional Manfredy opened up. “This fight is for my dad,” he said. “I’d always wanted to make him proud of me, and he’s my inspiration. I’ve come a long way since the accident and I have a long way to go, but I’m dedicating this fight to him.”

The match lived up to the hype, featuring savage action from the opening bell, but Manfredy proved to be stronger and a more accurate puncher. Finally, in the eighth round, Gatti succumbed, cut, bruised, and swollen. Manfredy had again beaten the favorite. The bout was voted 1998 Fight of the Year by Ring magazine.

Manfredy expanded his support team. He’d surrounded himself with a tight group: Yvette, cut man Jim Strickland, and trainers Colonna and Taylor. They were now joined by lawyer Jeff Brown and Angel’s oldest brother, John, an architect who’s acted as an advisor. HBO promised a big payday if Manfredy challenged old warhorse Azumah Nelson, but the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement. Instead, Manfredy fought on the USA network, relying on his superior conditioning to defeat rugged John “the Eastern Beast” Brown.

Manfredy’s immediate family had grown, with the addition of Angel Jr., who was born in 1996 on his father’s 22nd birthday. (His other children, Celeste and Marina, are now six and four.) The family dynamic was difficult; Manfredy works out six or seven hours a day, six days a week, year-round. This intense regimen left little time or energy for his children, especially prior to a fight. With Yvette constantly at his side, the kids spent their time either with her mother or at the gym. They had difficulty understanding the profession. “The oldest, Celeste, is scared for her daddy, but everyone understands how much I love boxing and what it’s given all of us, so we just do our best.”

After the win over Brown, HBO offered Manfredy $750,000 to fight its newest rising star, Floyd Mayweather Jr. The son of a pro fighter, Mayweather had easily taken the WBC Junior Lightweight title from longtime king Genaro Hernandez. A bronze medalist at the 1996 Olympics, “Pretty Boy” Floyd has blazing hand and foot speed as well as ring savvy beyond his years.

The Mayweather match was yet another step up for Manfredy, both financially and professionally. At the urging of his brother John, Angel left Chicago to hold his training camp near the fight site in Miami. During training, Angel and Yvette, together since 1990, were married on Thanksgiving 1998.

The Mayweather fight bore no resemblance to any of Manfredy’s previous contests. The first round was fairly even, but in the second Mayweather stunned Manfredy, driving him to the ropes and unleashing a flurry of punches. Though Manfredy never went down, and appeared to successfully avoid most of those punches, the referee jumped in and stopped the fight. Shocked, Manfredy complained bitterly. But the decision was final.

Having come to the end of a five-year roll, Manfredy took some time to put the loss in perspective. Eventually, restored by his faith and family, he returned to training, then surprised everyone, requesting a local fight before taking on another name opponent. “I wanted to get back in the ring in Chicago, with all the hometown pressure, all the fans there to see me, so I could prove to myself that I was back on track.”

Local promoter Bobby Hitz was ready to oblige. “I love Angel because he’s a straight guy who loves his family, loves the fans, puts on a great show, and above all loves to fight,” Hitz says. “The guy personally requested I get him a live opponent, where most guys in his position would prefer a dead guy that drops at the sight of ’em.”

An overflow crowd of more than 1,500 packed the Ramada O’Hare in Rosemont, and Manfredy restored his confidence and rewarded his fans with a third-round KO over Ernesto Benitez. Hitz, an ex-heavyweight, says Manfredy has restored some of the city’s lost luster as a boxing center. “The guy has created a buzz around here that I haven’t seen in years. With the right opponent, the guy will sell 10,000 tickets if we have him at the Rosemont Horizon.”

An HBO fight with the resurgent Ivan Robinson had already been arranged. DiBella praises Manfredy for his willingness to accept a tough fight so soon after a devastating loss. “Lots of guys say they’ll fight anybody, but few actually do. Angel is one of the few.”

Robinson was coming off back-to-back victories over Arturo Gatti, but Manfredy was unimpressed. “I stopped Gatti and softened him up, then this guy struggles to beat him twice? I’m not worried at all,” said the supremely confident Manfredy prior to the match, which was held in Indio, California. Three brutal body shots took Robinson’s legs away in the first round, and Manfredy continued the assault until the final bell, winning all ten rounds on two of the judges’ scorecards.

After the Robinson fight, Manfredy went to the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. He often gives inspirational talks to groups of young people, reflecting on how he learned from his mistakes. He says that weekend he delivered his message to any kid within earshot. A student of the sweet science, Manfredy was honored just to be invited. “They asked me to bring my robe, and when I saw them put it in the glass case inside the building it gave me a rush of pride that I’ve never felt before.” He also gloried in meeting many of the aging Hall of Famers, who singled him out for praise because of his dedication to the lost art of body punching.

As soon as he signed on to this Saturday’s bout against Stevie Johnston, Manfredy was focused once again on working out with Yvette and Colonna. He says this time the chemistry is special. “From the day we started training for Stevie Johnston there’s been a feeling of being one, knowing what the other person is going to do or say before even they do.” With only one loss, Johnston promises to be a tough opponent, but not surprisingly Manfredy remains confident. “He’s an excellent fighter, but this one’s already in the books. Nobody trains like me, and I’ve taken what I do in the gym to a whole new level for this one. The title is mine come August 14.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.