At 75 mph, on a rainy night with the car's wipers not working all that well and the driver's brain not that well either, a telephone pole can seem to arrive very quickly. There is no time to swerve and zero chance of racking the cocktail glass of rum and coke. Really, at that kind of speed, there is nothing for the driver to do but relax in his bucket seat and enjoy the explosion of glass and the shearing of metal around him.
Angel Manfredy was not so drunk or damaged, certainly not so dumb, as to think he didn't deserve this, but he recognized, in what remained of his gory head, that he had this coming. He might have come to this conclusion during any of his previous 11 auto accidents. But wisdom is hard-earned, especially for 19-year-old kids, and sometimes you do have to hit them over the head with a telephone pole. If they're lucky, they eventually come to.
When Manfredy came back to life in his hospital room, having had what he says was a revelation in which he got to meet God and beg for another chance, it was with the powerful understanding that he had been gradually losing the battle for his soul. He had been losing inch by inch in the devil's tug-of-war, pulled so gradually to the other side that he hadn't noticed the hell he was in until it was almost too late.
That was five years ago, and Manfredy, who actually wears this moral tension on his skin—he has an image of himself as the devil tattooed on his right arm and a warrior angel on his left—decided soon afterward that the thing to do, especially for a man named Angel, was to confront the devil head-on. He has become a formidable opponent, both for the devil and most junior lightweights. Before his accident he was another rowdy Chicago-area club fighter, a little more colorful than most, parading the rings of Indiana, around Gary and Hammond, in a rubber devil's mask. Since then he has turned into a church-going headliner, pursuing fevered dreams of manhood and championships while startling more highly regarded and better groomed boxers along the way. The shtick remains (fine-tuned each bout, though the rubber mask is still the principal prop), but it now plays in Miami, where on Dec. 19 Manfredy (25-2-1 with 20 KOs) will challenge 1996 Olympic bronze medalist Floyd Mayweather Jr. for his WBC super featherweight crown.
Though Manfredy, 24, has held something called the WBU super featherweight title for more than three years, it was his battle with then IBF junior lightweight champ Arturo Gatti last Jan. 17 that raised him from novelty act to player. Gatti, who had become a huge attraction for his leather slinging and late comebacks, was a clear favorite in the nontitle bout. Yet Manfredy, virtually unknown at the time, outboxed him and scored an eighth-round TKO.
For a kid who grew up with no self-esteem, believing himself to be stupid, Manfredy has developed an awful lot of confidence. To promoter Cedric Kushner's surprise, and at times chagrin, Manfredy insists on the toughest fights available, taking Mayweather instead of an easier and equally lucrative rematch with Gatti. "Before this is over," Manfredy tells you, in one of his typical monologues, "I'll be the biggest name in boxing. I'll be another Ali, something very strong, something very good. I'll bring boxing back."
The nearly fatal car crash had a lot to do with determining his ambition. To that point he was always the opponent, brought in by a promoter to showcase some up-and-coming talent. To give you an idea how badly Manfredy was handled, in his very first fight he was thrown in with a 10-round prospect. Manfredy lost that bout, but even as cannon fodder he began winning, becoming the little opponent who could. Still, he hadn't much of a future that anybody could tell, beating up guys in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa.
Then his accident. "When I finally came to—having been judged is the way I looked at it—I remember my first words: 'Will I be able to fight again?' " he says. "I didn't mention my daughter. But: Will I fight? That's how focused I was. In that little time, a change had happened. After that, when people saw me on the street, they started talking: 'Angel's crazy. What did that car accident do to him?' It changed me."
It changed him in ways most people could easily see. To begin with, there was the scar where that cocktail glass he was holding jammed jaggedly into his forehead. A hundred stitches for that. It also changed him in less visible ways. "I was scarred on the inside, too," he says. "I hurt my family, I hurt my father and my mother. That will never heal."
For years, fighting was the only thing he could do to please his father, Juan, a native of Puerto Rico who has worked in a steel mill in East Chicago, Ind., for more than 30 years. The old man took a strange pleasure in his banty son's reports of street action. "Did you win?" Juan would always ask the boy. As his fierceness was neighborhood legend—his brothers used to charge kids 25 cents to come over and fight Angel—the answer was generally yes. It wasn't long before Juan steered Angel into the Police Athletic League gym and put him in the boxing custody of retired police officer John Taylor.