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Hell's Angel Having survived a dozen car crashes and destructive bouts with drugs and alcohol, Angel Manfredy is determined to be a world champ--and a symbol of good trumping evil

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 churchgoing
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.

Taylor, who has remained Manfredy's trainer even as Manfredy has
become a million-dollar fighter, remembers that the kid, good as
he was, could never quite reach the top. When marijuana and
drink became a part of Manfredy's life, boxing no longer seemed
as important as it might have.

Manfredy's humiliation in 1992 at having to admit his drug use
to his father, who confronted him after noticing Angel's
suspicious behavior, was profound. Angel was nearly paralyzed by
the disappointment he caused in the one man he wanted to
impress. Perhaps he would have come out of this without the
accident, but he wouldn't have come out of it as quickly as he

The accident, and his religious revelation, also caused him to
put the rest of his life and even his boxing into spiritual
terms. Nowadays he walks through what he calls "dream doors"
toward "spirit fights"--bouts that involve the winning and
losing of souls as well as titles. After the Gatti fight, which
he says he dreamed beforehand in every particular, he whispered
into the beaten boxer's ear, "I've just taken your soul."

"And you know what," he says, "Gatti hasn't been the same since.
Gatti is no longer Gatti."

For a fellow who was tagged dumb and stupid in school, Manfredy
is capable of directing complicated morality plays in the ring.
Though he calls himself El Diablo and still wears that cheap
mask, what he really means to tell is the story of the good
fight. He is, after all, a married man (he exchanged vows inside
a ring on Thanksgiving with his high school sweetheart, Yvette
Rivera, the mother of his children, Celeste, 5; Marina, 3; and
Angel II, 2) and is as settled as most. (He owns a
4,000-square-foot triplex in East Chicago.) He visits high
schools to tell his heroic tale and, training to the point where
he needs to be kicked out of the gym, uses his boxing as a kind
of mission as "the Lord's foot soldier."

For the Mayweather fight he promises additional advancement of
good, as the tattoos wage their war back and forth across his
chest. Look for it, he says. "You'll see, I'm just an angel in

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RALF-FINN HESTOFT/SABA SKIN GAME Though he's proud of the artwork on his body, Manfredy wants to be known for tattooing his foes. [Angel Manfredy]