Rances Barthelemy is not one to give up easily. After all, he attempted to defect from Cuba more than 30 times before he was successful, leaving behind his country and making it to Miami.
He had been a standout amateur boxer in Cuba — he is the younger brother of 2004 Olympic gold medalist Yan Barthelemy, who also defected — and eventually turned pro in 2009.
In 2014, Rances Barthelemy won a unanimous decision against Argenis Mendez to claim a junior lightweight world title and defended it once before vacating to move up to the lightweight division, where he outpointed rugged Russian Denis Shafikov to win a vacant world title in December 2015. Barthelemy also defended that belt once, taking a split decision from former titlist Mickey Bey last June.
Barthelemy has not fought since, but he is moving up to junior welterweight and will return to face Kiryl Relikh in a world title elimination fight on Saturday (Showtime, 6 p.m. ET) at the MGM National Harbor in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Oxon Hill, Maryland.
Barthelemy, known as “Kid Blast,” eventually left Miami and relocated to Las Vegas, where he could get outstanding sparring and focus more on his career than he could in the midst of a large Cuban community that made it easy to spend more time enjoying the night life than working hard in the gym.
“It would mean the world to me, after all that it took to defect from Cuba — the near-death experiences, the imprisonments, leaving my loved ones behind. It would all have been worth it.”
Rances Barthelemy on the chance to win a title in a third division
Although there is even more night life in Las Vegas than Miami, Barthelemy doesn’t have the Cuban parties to go to. He said that has made a big difference to him.
“To be honest, there is nothing better for a Cuban than to be living in Miami, because the weather is just right and what we are used to. But at the same time it presents a lot of distractions, too,” Barthelemy said. “So moving to the boxing hub of the United States is better for me so I don’t get wrapped up in anything extra other than boxing. Plus, there are so many sparring partners here, and I can go up to Mount Charleston and get my runs in up there.”
Once in Las Vegas, Barthelemy committed to training alongside younger brother Leduan Barthelemy, an aspiring 13-0 junior lightweight, and welterweight contender Yordenis Ugas, another Cuban defector Barthelemy has known for years.
“Training alongside of my brother and Yordenis under the tutelage of [trainer] Ismael Salas is the best thing that could happen in my career,” Barthelemy said. “They keep me focused and motivated to get better every day. Yordenis and I have been helping each other during our camps. He’s an Olympic athlete, so having him to train with is really beneficial. We have a new strength and conditioning coach as well who has us in the best shape possible. I know [Saturday] you guys will see the best Rances Barthelemy yet.”
At stake in the fight between the 30-year-old Barthelemy (25-0, 16 KOs) and former title challenger Relikh (21-1, 19 KOs), 27, of Belarus, is a mandatory shot at Julius Indongo (22-0, 11 KOs), who outpointed Ricky Burns to unify two 140-pound belts on April 14. Relikh, who will be fighting in the United States for the first time, suffered his only defeat in his latest fight — a unanimous decision challenging Burns for his belt in October.
Barthelemy is anxious to earn a shot at a junior welterweight title, which would put him in position to become the first Cuban fighter to win a world title in three weight divisions.
“It would mean the world to me, after all that it took to defect from Cuba — the near-death experiences, the imprisonments, leaving my loved ones behind,” Barthelemy said. “It would all have been worth it. I want to inspire the youth that come after me as well, let them know to never give up on their dreams no matter the conditions you live in or what the naysayers may say. Me winning a third world title and making history for a Cuban would prove that.”
Barthelemy-Relikh will take place on a four-fight split-site card. Showtime will open its telecast with Gervonta “Tank” Davis (17-0, 16 KOs) making his first junior lightweight title defense against England’s Liam Walsh (21-0, 14 KOs) at the Copper Box Arena in London.
Then the action will shift to the MGM National Harbor with Barthelemy-Relikh, followed by Andre Dirrell (25-2, 16 KOs) against Jose Uzcategui (26-1, 22 KOs) for a vacant interim super middleweight belt and the main of featherweight world titleholder Gary Russell Jr. (27-1, 16 KOs), who’ll be fighting in front of a hometown crowd for the first time as a pro, defending against interim titlist and mandatory challenger Oscar Escandon (25-2, 17 KOs).
Barthelemy said that although he has been out of the ring for 11 months, he does not expect to exhibit any rust when the bell rings.
“To be honest, there is nothing better for a Cuban than to be living in Miami, because the weather is just right and what we are used to. But at the same time it presents a lot of distractions, too. So moving to the boxing hub of the United States is better for me so I don’t get wrapped up in anything extra other than boxing.”
“There will be no ring rust as we have been in the gym nonstop since my last fight against Mickey Bey,” Barthelemy said. “We took a few weeks off to visit Cuba for the first time since my defection. Aside from that, I made sure to stay active and I’ve been training hard to be prepared when my name got called. The 11-month layoff happened for reasons out of my control. My management team has been trying to get the best opponents and unfortunately it took longer than we expected, but we are here now and I’m as prepared as I have ever been.
“I am definitely at my peak physically, and I’m looking to match that on paper this year. I’m looking forward to getting back in the ring. I don’t like to rate myself; I leave that to the people and the media. They’ve taken notice and that’s why I am where I am today, but I am expecting big things to happen this year.”
Now that Cuba is more open than it was when Barthelemy fled, he had the opportunity to visit during his layoff and he said it was a joyous experience to be home again.
“It was very emotional and a long eight years since I had been back,” Barthelemy said. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to go back or not. But I visited the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., and they told me I’d finally be able to go back to visit my loved ones.
“It was nothing but nerves until I got over there. It was an emotional time and everyone welcomed me back with open arms in my hometown of Havana. It’s something I will never forget, especially for the way I was received.”
Now, just imagine how he would be received if he beats Relikh, goes on to win that third world title to make Cuban boxing history and returns for another visit.