“I NEVER let a situation define who I am as a person,” Manny Robles says when he is asked how his life has changed since his fighter, Andy Ruiz Jr, became the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight champion of the world after he shocked Anthony Joshua five months ago in New York. “I continue to be who I am. I stay grounded and true to what I believe in. I was back at work from the Monday morning after Andy became world champion. I’m very passionate about training fighters on a daily basis.”
I first interviewed Robles a week after Ruiz stopped Joshua. Early on a Saturday morning in his gym on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Robles was in the midst of preparing himself for another day of training – and he took justified pride in telling me that he had been back at work less than 48 hours after Ruiz followed his strategy so convincingly at Madison Square Garden.
‘I also feel the promoter Eddie Hearn is not doing us any favours. Everything that is being done obviously helps Joshua’Manny Robles
Yet Robles also admitted then that one of his most difficult challenges would be to ensure that Ruiz did not get too distracted by his sudden fame and wealth. The trainer explained that Ruiz, as the surprising new world champion, had spent part of his first week after beating Joshua on the glossy TV chat show circuit. “Andy’s dad called and said: ‘Hey, we’re going on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. Would you join us?’ I said: ‘No, I’m working.’ I flew in from New York on Sunday night and I was back in the gym on Monday. Andy’s the world champion, so we have to make sure he stays disciplined and grounded. My job is to keep him in line and remind him what got him here. I know Andy will listen. We’ve been through too much to give it all up.”
Robles sounded determined that June morning in L.A. and now, with the rematch looming, he seems just as clear when I ask him if he has managed to fulfil this tricky objective. “We have. Andy is still grounded. Of course there were lots of outside pressures but we just keep it real. If something isn’t going right we talk about it. If I don’t like something I let him know. Honesty and being transparent is all important.”
Ruiz has had a busy year. He beat Alexander Dimitrenko on April 20 and soon after that bout he was offered the unexpected chance to fight for the world title on June 1 after Jarrell Miller, Joshua’s original opponent, failed a drugs test. “Andy was in the gym for six straight months before he beat Joshua,” Robles explains. “He then took a couple months off after becoming champion. He deserved the break but we’ve been in the gym for three months getting ready for the rematch. Nine out of eleven months this year he’s been in the gym. Three fights in one year for a heavyweight, at this level, is tough.”
Robles believes that, rather than being diverted or exhausted, Ruiz is driven by a desire to hold onto the titles and the new life he has won for himself. “I feel that way,” Robles says amid a long afternoon of training Ruiz and his son, Manny Jnr, who made a brave bid to win the WBA world featherweight in late November. “Andy’s got a big responsibility towards an entire country. Here in America, the Latino community, and obviously in Mexico itself, people are looking up to him. He is the first Mexican heavyweight champion of the world and so he has a huge responsibility. We talk about this all the time. He’s carrying a whole load on his back because people are counting on him. It’s gone beyond one entire nation. It’s gone worldwide. Andy’s picked up lots of fans around the world, so he’s got a responsibility to all of them.”
As the chubby and often mocked fighter who turned heavyweight boxing upside down, Ruiz’s story struck a chord with many people. “Most of us have more in common with Andy,” Robles says. “Looking at Andy we’re looking at ourselves and seeing that anything is possible. We have children being bullied for being overweight or for the colour of their skin. It’s horrible. But Andy’s story is a lesson in hope. He had to endure being harassed because he doesn’t have a Joshua-type body. He’s been teased for his looks. He’s been doubted his whole life.”
‘We feel strong. We feel ready. We believe in each other’Manny Robles
Ruiz has now had to become accustomed to the strange sensation of being celebrated. Surely his changed circumstances have affected him? “No. He’s handled it quite well. He hasn’t changed a whole lot. Andy’s still surrounded by the same people – his dad, myself, his team. We keep it tight-knit. We don’t have many people in the gym. As a coach I’m ready to be a bad guy sometimes and kick people out.”
How has training differed from the first fight? “It’s definitely a lot better this time. We have great sparring with Gerald Washington, Michael Hunter and others. It’s been much, much better because we’ve had more time to prepare.”
Ruiz has spent some of this additional time getting into more trim shape – and his subsequent weight loss has been criticized by former fighters like Mike Tyson. But Robles stresses that “the important thing for him is to feel good, to feel strong. It’s about making sure he is at a weight where he can perform at his best. That could be at 255 [pounds] or 265. We will make sure he is at the right weight for him to fight best.”
Joshua might also come in lighter than he did in New York but Robles rightly believes that the psychological dimension of this fight will be a more significant factor. Can Joshua deal with the demons that inevitably follow the loss of an unbeaten record while being knocked out by an opponent regarded as a ‘no-hoper’ by the wider public – if not by more informed insiders? “My question is how do you recover from that kind of big defeat?” Robles says. “He might be in better shape but, mentally, how do you recover from such a loss? That’s my question.”
I agree it presents a challenge for Joshua and Robles says, “It’s difficult, exactly. But we’re not underestimating Joshua. That’s why we have trained so hard because I know he’s going to come in ready to bounce back and we have to do the same. It’s a mental test. I’m curious to see how he recovers from not just being stopped but being knocked down four times. I want to see how he recovers from that mentally.
“Every fight is different. So I’m not saying we’re going to have the same outcome. It might happen in a different fashion and you’re going to have to wait and see how we win the fight. I just don’t think Andy’s style suits Joshua. But Joshua is aware of what Andy can do now. But we also know Joshua much better. It’s going to be fun to see how they both match up this time around. We’re working on a couple of new things and making an adjustment to our game plan and Joshua is doing the same thing. It’s going to be really interesting.”
Robles is less enthused by the choice of Saudi Arabia as the location. Apart from the country’s appalling human rights record, and its lack of any boxing hinterland, Saudi also presents a dramatic change of environment. “Definitely. There’s the time change, the country, the climate. Everything. Even the boxing commissions. We’re going to a place where we don’t really know what we’re getting ourselves into. I also feel the promoter [Eddie Hearn] is not doing us any favours. Everything that is being done obviously helps Joshua and I’m sure they will do anything they can to make sure he gets his belts back.”
It sounds as if Robles believes Ruiz will have to force another stoppage to make sure he retains his titles. “Absolutely. You know that. I know that. The entire world knows that. We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure we win convincingly. We’re very well-aware of that. It was the same the first time, obviously. But now we’re strangers in a strange land.”
Is it true that Robles advised against fighting in Saudi? “Yes. But I’m only the coach, I’m not the promoter or manager. There’s only so much I can say and do. I don’t make the calls as to where the fight gets held. This is what they gave us and we have to deal with it and make sure we come home with Andy still the champion.”
When Robles and I spoke last month he was in the midst of also preparing his son for his world title challenge against the relentless Chinese champion Can Xu. Robles is such a relaxed and engaging man but I could sense the intensity as we talked. “We’re going through a lot right now. The battle never ends. Oh man, it’s tough for my family because we all feel the pressure of my son trying to win his first world title. And there is the pressure of Andy getting ready for such a huge fight against Joshua. It’s the biggest fight in boxing. But it’s also a great situation to be in. It’s what we’ve worked for all these years.”
On November 23, Manny Robles III lost a unanimous decision. Xu never wavered and he came at the young challenger in ceaseless waves. Robles Jr, a fine counter-puncher, showed a lot of courage and grit and he will get another chance to fight for a world title – but the night belonged to the champion.
Last week, Robles messaged me from Saudi to say: “I told my son before the fight how much I love him and how proud I’m of him no matter the outcome. Unfortunately he didn’t walk away with the win but in life we either win or we learn. Losing is for those that give up.”
I also remember how Robles had reacted when I asked him about the tragic death of Patrick Day after the young boxer lost his life following a fight in Chicago in October. “I actually got a chance to work with Patrick, not in that fight but the one before [when Day lost to Carlos Adames in June]. I worked his corner that night and he was such a fine young man. You could tell he was a great kid. I got to know him a little and so his death came as a shock to me. My condolences go out to his family. It was very painful for the entire boxing community, myself and, most of all, his entire family. I feel so bad for them.”
Robles has come through tough times before. He describes his father, Manuel, who was a renowned Mexican trainer in California, as “my mentor, my teacher, my best friend. I lost my dad on March 3 2007 and the whole world came down on me. I also lost my job as I was working as an assistant trainer with my dad. I lost my house. I hit rock bottom but Sandra, my wife of 25 years, hung in with me.
“She’s actually from the same city as me in Mexico. Guadalajara. Sandra became a US citizen first and she filed papers for me. That’s how I became a United States resident. The moment I became a resident I went to school. I was 34. Imagine being in this country from the age of six to 34 without a passport. Imagine not being able to get a job with decent pay. It was my dream to become a citizen and take care of my family. After I went to school for four years, I got my degree in carpentry. Life is perseverance.”
In 2009, Robles became involved in amateur boxing while training his son and, slowly, he built a new life for his family. “It’s been extremely tough,” Robles says. “But everything happens for a reason. Maybe if I hadn’t had these experiences I wouldn’t be able to train fighters like Andy so well. I still have ongoing battles of course. Life isn’t perfect.”
The emotion coursing through Robles is apparent as he says how much he has thought of his dad in recent weeks. “Absolutely. My dad put me where I am today. He was my everything. I’m trying to be the same thing for my son – and him getting an opportunity to fight for a world title is very special. We’ve lived through some very special moments right now with my son and I wish my dad was here. But, wherever he is, he’s making sure we’re all good.”
Robles says that the bond he has with Ruiz echoes the connection his father had with his own boxers. “You’ve got to have a strong bond with your fighters because they become family. You spend more time with your fighters than you do at home. They become part of your life, part of your family. I have always cared for my boxers. But when I hit rock bottom, after my dad’s death, I was out of boxing for a while. I had to find a new way as a carpenter.
“I’m still in the carpenter’s union today. I still pay my dues. I had to go through all that trouble, and education, to become a carpenter so it’s a trade I’m very proud of. But this is my true calling, being a boxing coach, and I’m happy. Not everybody can do what they love but I am lucky enough to be in this position. I’m building something special with Andy and we’re going to fight hard to protect it against Anthony Joshua. It might seem as if the odds are against Andy and I again but we feel strong. We feel ready. We believe in each other.”