With another championship fight in sight, Rances Barthelemy remains mindful of the past.
After escaping Cuba 10 years ago, Barthelemy (25-0, 13 KOs) remembers rotting in a jail cell—in more ways than one—as he prepares for a world-title eliminator on May 20 against Kiryl Relikh (21-1, 19 KOs).
“I tried to defect 37 times before coming over to the United States,” Barthelemy told Round by Round Boxing. “I even landed in prison. I had near-death experiences.”
For his crime of aspiring for a better life, Barthelemy spent time in a Miami detention center before being sent back to Cuba, according to him, the biggest jailhouse there is. Already an amateur national champion, the Socialist state banned the talented boxer from competing any longer.
Barthelemy, 30, eventually returned to America for good in 2007, wading through crocodile-infested swamps to do so—anything it took.
Leduan, his younger brother and a pro-boxer himself, made the journey with him. Together, they make up a trio of siblings that also includes their eldest brother, Yan, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist.
The two younger Barthelemy brethren currently train together in Las Vegas, Nevada, under the tutelage of the renown Ismael Salas.
“It’s amazing working with Salas,” said Barthelemy, a two-time titleholder. “He teaches me something new every day.”
Barthelemy, nicknamed “Kid Blast” by a former manager, is now on track to become Cuba’s first ever three-divisional champion.
Relikh, making his way from Belarus, will be standing in his way on Saturday at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill Maryland, set to air on Showtime. The Cuban, though, has done his homework.
“He’s a warrior,” said Barthelemy of his next opponent. “He likes to fight, he’s looking to come forward all the time. He has a great punch too. My team and I are putting together a game plan for his style.”
Undefeated and nearly untouched over 25 fights, Barthelemy is ready for anything, turning back punchers and brawlers of all kinds since his professional debut in 2009. And much like Relikh in his previous bout with Ricky Burns, he has even been tested by incompetent—or perhaps corrupt—judges ringside.
Barthelemy was forced to settle for a suspicious split-decision nod in the final defense of his IBF lightweight crown last year. There were few who expected his challenger Mickey Bey, a Mayweather Promotions fighter, to earn even a single round. But notorious official Hilton Whittaker found a way to score the title tilt 117-110 in Bey’s favor.
A client of one Al Haymon, Barthelemy was eager to point out that the card took place under the Mayweather Promotions banner.
Whittaker is also the same judge who thought Paul Williams beat Barthelemy’s compatriot Erislandy Lara in 2011.
“It is clear that he has a personal agenda against Cuban fighters,” said Barthelemy. “I’m not sure it’s whether he struggles with analyzing the Cuban style, but based on how he marked the Lara fight and now Bey against me, my team and I are working so that he doesn’t judge any of my future fights.”
The future is one thing Barthelemy enjoys talking about. After lifting Super Featherweight gold (130 pounds) in 2014, he set out to become a three-weight titleholder. The lengthy box-fighter beat the rough-and-tumble Denis Shafikov a year later for a Lightweight strap and a win over Relikh this weekend makes him the mandatory challenger for IBF-recognized 140-pound champion Julius Indongo.
“Fighting Indongo is my next objective,” said Barthelemy. “I want to win this fight and go on to him next.”
Indongo is not the only Junior Welterweight titlist Barthelemy plans on trading fists with. Unified WBC and WBO champion Terence Crawford currently sits atop the division and has looked all but unbeatable. But that is not enough to dissuade Barthelemy, nothing ever has.
“Fighting Crawford is one of my goals,” said Barthelemy. “He is dominating 140 and I’ve had him on my radar for a while now. I can live up to the challenge.”
Barthelemy has a knack for setting lofty goals, and an even bigger habit of reaching them. He calls it his “inner strength”—a passion sparked by the geopolitical climate of Cuba. It is what drives him to do great things, no matter what anybody has to say about it.
“A lot of people didn’t think I would be at where I am today,” said Barthelemy. “A lot didn’t think I would even capture one world title, let alone two. But everything that was going on in Cuba and in the political realm, allowed me to cultivate that inner strength that I have now.”
Even having an accomplished older brother on his side did not make things any easier. In fact, it only stacked the cards that much higher against him.
“Growing up the younger brother of an Olympic champion, people would compare me to him,” said Barthelemy. “They said I was nothing compared to my brother, and that I wasn’t even going to make it to 10 fights.”
Yan was finished as a professional after 16 fights with a modest record of 13-3. Now, their youngest brother remains undefeated over 13 contests since entering the paid ranks in 2011.
Rances does his best to make sure Leduan is not subjected to the same kind of treatment he was.
“I motivate him,” said Rances of Leduan. “I try to set the example for him to never give up and always work at what you want.”
It is the same message Barthelemy wants to send to young children all over the world, especially in Cuba. He hopes becoming a three-divisional champion is the perfect way to do that. There have only been 46 triple champions in 114 years of prizefighting. None of which were from Cuba.
“It would mean the world to me to get a third title in a third division,” said Barthelemy. “Not only on a personal level but for the fans and the history of Cuban boxing. It is also for the youth as a big message of encouragement to never give up on their dreams.”
Barthelemy can become that much closer to realizing his dream this weekend. He will enter the ring in Maryland like he has ever other time, ready to raise his fists and fight for himself, his family and the future.
The future of his legacy and the youth who shall follow.
Header photo: Leo Wilson Jr./Premier Boxing Champions
In article: Sean Michael Ham/Premier Boxing Champions
In article: Stephanie Trapp/Mayweather-Promotions
Andre Berto enthusiast | Bylines at Bleacher Report and Today's Knockout | Follow me on Twitter for live boxing streams