The trainer tells of his struggle as a Mexican in the US, his respect for Anthony Joshua – and keeping his boxer in line for the world heavyweight title rematch
“All the joy and all the pain came out,” Manny Robles says as he remembers how he cried after his fighter, Andy Ruiz Jr beat Anthony Joshua in one of the greatest shocks in the history of heavyweight boxing. “Everything comes out when you’re jumping for joy and screaming that we shocked the world.”
Ruiz, dismissed as a roly-poly no-hoper, got off the canvas in the third round and immediately dropped Joshua twice with shuddering punches. Using his fast hands, intelligence and heart, Ruiz listened to everything his trainer told him. He knocked down Joshua twice more in the seventh round before the referee stopped the contest and confirmed the Mexican-American as the new IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight champion of the world.
A week after this astonishing upset, early on a Saturday morning at his gym on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Robles talks beautifully about the adversity he and Ruiz overcame. Robles is a modest man and so, before he details how his own life fell apart 12 years ago, he highlights the impact Ruiz has had on so many people who had never even heard of him before he stunned the unbeaten Joshua.
“I knew we had made history,” Robles says. “Andy had become the first Mexican heavyweight champion of the world. But now I think everybody, of all ethnicities and backgrounds, from all over the world, won. We identify more with Andy – although Joshua’s a great guy and an unbelievable athlete.
“Most of us have more in common with Andy. 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, because Andy’s always been overweight.”
Was he bullied as a kid? “Absolutely but Andy fought back. He always had great self-esteem. He’s a positive individual in spite of the way he may look. Andy knows it’s what’s on the inside that matters.”
Ruiz turned to Robles after losing his unbeaten record against Joseph Parker in December 2016 – but last summer he felt depressed.
“A year ago Andy was down on his luck and unable to provide for his family. He was ready to throw in the towel. He was at a dark stage but I sat down with him and said: ‘Hey kid, don’t give up. A year from now everything is going to be different. I had a dream you fought Joshua for the world title. I know exactly what punch you’ll knock him out with.’”
Was this just a little yarn to boost his sagging fighter? “I did have the dream,” Robles insists, “because Andy’s special. Even when he wasn’t showing up in the gym, I would call him: ‘Where you at kid? We’ll pick you up.’ There was a point when he didn’t have a place to stay in LA. My friend had an extra room in his apartment so I asked him to help. Not only did he give Andy a roof over his head but he also became his chef. Everything changed when Andy came back to the gym in January. He came in with a big promoter [Al Haymon] who got him a fight with Alexander Dimitrenko in April. We had a 10-week camp.”
Our job is to keep it positive, talk about the game plan. But as Mike Tyson said, everybody’s got a plan until they get hit in the face
Ruiz was given the unexpected opportunity to fight Joshua when the champion’s original opponent, Jarrell Miller, failed a drug test. Despite his flabby appearance, Ruiz was battle-hardened after beating Dimitrenko who is, in Ruiz’s phrase, “a huge guy” at 6ft 7in.
Robles is canny and he knew Joshua has a tendency to drop his left hand after throwing a jab. So he always felt Joshua was open to be being knocked out by an overhand right. encouraged Ruiz to fight on the inside, using the angles against a much bigger man and working on the body punches that would drain Joshua. They also prepared the overhand right that would shatter Joshua’s mystique.
Ruiz, as a consequence, was strikingly relaxed before his first world title fight.
“It’s simple,” Robles says. “Boxers feed off their coaches. If you stay relaxed and positive they’re the same. If you’re nervous they sense it. Our job, as coaches, is to keep it positive, talk about the gameplan and stay as calm as possible. But yeah, as Mike Tyson said, everybody’s got a plan until they get hit in the face.”
How did Robles react when Joshua dropped Ruiz? “It’s not the first time I’ve had a boxer go down. It won’t be the last. I stay relaxed. Next thing Andy drops Joshua twice [with two big right hands]. But you don’t make a big deal of it. You get your boxer to stay calm and stick to the gameplan. Of course I was excited on the inside but I knew Joshua was still dangerous. Sure enough, we had to make some changes that benefited Andy.”
When the end came, with Joshua glazed and beaten, Robles was not the only member of his family to shed tears. “I have 25-year-old twins, and one of them, my son, Manny Robles the third, is 18-0 as a pro. They were there with my wife and youngest daughter, because I was so positive. I wanted my family to witness the victory.
“My wife found it difficult to watch. My kids told me she kept her head down and prayed for Andy. When the fight was over the kids said: ‘Mom, we won.’ She couldn’t believe it. She broke down crying. My kids broke out crying. I’d never seen my son cry before. He cried like a baby. Incredible.”
Robles cried when talking to reporters after the fight and now, in his hushed gym, he explains the reasons: “My story is of a young immigrant boy that came to the United States. My parents were trying to find a better life for us. I was six years old and can you imagine the difficulties? Coming to this strange country, not speaking the language, going to school with kids that only spoke English. As an immigrant I wasn’t able to gain a proper education. I couldn’t have a good job because I didn’t have any documents or a social security number. I was illegal.”
His father, Manuel, was a well‑known boxing trainer. “Everything I know comes from my dad. He was my mentor, my teacher, my best friend. I lost my dad on 3 March 2007 and the whole world came down on me. I also lost my job as I was involved in boxing 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. “I was working as a carpenter in the day and going to the gym at night. My fighters started winning regional, state and national tournaments. I started getting recognition. But even when I was a coach on the US national team I wasn’t a citizen. I was a permanent resident. At the world championships in 2011 this other US coach noticed my Mexican passport. He said: ‘You’re not supposed to be here.’ That hurt me so much but, wow, the kids embraced me.”
At those same world championships, Robles met Joshua. “I respect Anthony Joshua, man. He’s such a humble, good person. He wins the silver medal but I thought he deserved gold. After the fight we’re on the bus together. It’s astonishing how mellow this kid is with his silver medal. Who knows how he felt inside? I congratulated him and we took a picture. He was such a gentleman. He’s the same now as in 2011.”
Joshua has been criticised for accepting defeat against Ruiz too easily. He has also been told to ditch his trainer Robert McCracken. “His coach has taken a lot of heat,” Robles says. “That’s horrible. But Joshua is very loyal.”
Four of Robles’s best boxers – Óscar Valdez, Jessie Magdaleno, Dominic Breazeale and Michael Conlan – left him. The first two were world champions, Breazeale fought twice for the world heavyweight title and Conlan is one of boxing’s brightest prospects. Stressing that he remains friends with Valdez and Conlan, Robles does not harbour grudges. Each boxer had a specific reason for leaving – with Conlan, for example, needing to train closer to home in Belfast. But the loss hurts.
“The Óscar Valdez situation is different,” Robles says. “Óscar didn’t want to leave. His manager [Frank Espinoza] and his dad had other ideas for him. He left along with every fighter managed by Espinoza. He took them off me for political reasons outside of boxing – not for my coaching.”
Robles initially asks to keep this between ourselves but, eventually, he says: “You know what? I’m tired of people thinking Óscar left because I wasn’t doing a good job. You can ask Óscar yourself.”
When Ruiz became the world champion against all the odds, Robles says: “It made me think of the ups and downs, losing my folks and my job, my home, my fighters, losing everything but hope.”
Now that he and Ruiz are on the rise does he believe the rematch with Joshua will result in a similar outcome? “Joshua will come in with a new gameplan but so will we. I’ll be looking at Joshua to see how we can improve.
“I respect Joshua because he hasn’t used any excuses. He’s a warrior and every time fighters step into the ring they put their lives on the line. That’s why it’s unfortunate people who have never boxed booed Joshua.”
The heavyweight division is full of intrigue and Robles says: “Skills pay the bills, man, and Tyson Fury’s got the skills. But Deontay Wilder’s got the power. With that kind of power anything can happen.”
Can his rotund champion beat all three of his famous rivals? “Absolutely. Andy Ruiz can compete with anyone. He’s proved that.”
On Monday, Robles and Ruiz flew to Mexico to meet the president – Andrés Manuel López Obrador. “It’s remarkable. Everything feels awesome.”
Robles laughs when I say it would feel less awesome if they were meeting Donald Trump.
“We’re happier going to the Mexican White House. It hasn’t been an easy time with Trump. He and his policies are not helpful for most of us. In the US we have people from all over the world. This is a country of immigrants. But Trump was busy [last] week with you guys in the UK. I wish you could keep him.”
Ruiz has appeared on the glossy TV circuit but Robles remains low‑key.
“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.”
The trick will be for Robles to ensure Ruiz echoes that attitude.
“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.”