Rances Barthelemy: In search of support from home
It has always been a mystery to me as to why Cuban boxers do not receive the type of fanatical support – or, truthfully, even lukewarm appreciation – that Mexican and Puerto Rican boxers enjoy. Miami should be an unassailable boxing fortress for Cuban expatriates or boxers of Cuban descent, since it is obviously enthusiastically patriotic in so many other aspects. South Beach could be a strategic headquarters of sorts, from which to plan assaults on boxing mainstays like Las Vegas and Madison Square Garden. To date, quality champions like Guillermo Rigondeaux and Joel Casamayor have not been able to gain ethnic traction and sustenance from the Cuban-American community. There may be hope for the future in the form of undefeated former junior lightweight champion Rances Barthelemy (who relinquished his IBF world junior lightweight title as he couldn’t make weight safely any longer), a lanky Cuban who will remind some of Diego Corrales given his tenacity and offense-first style.
Sadly, “Kid Blast” Barthelemy is not even a headliner in Miami, where 982,758 people of Cuban descent were tabulated in the 2010 census. Instead, Colombian Breidis Prescott and Ghana’s Fredrick Lawson will square off in the main event of ESPN2’s special Thursday night telecast (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT). However, Barthelemy remains excited about the opportunity to display his skills to countrymen in the arena or watching on television at home. Not making a fuss about having to share top billing, Barthelemy told El Nuevo Miami Herald how happy he was to hear the news from his promoter, “I returned to the gym with renewed strength. Fighting in front of my people is something that motivates me. It will give me a great boost.” Some reports maintain Barthelemy even gave up a spot on a proposed Showtime card in April to make this appearance.
The 28-year-old grew up in a boxing family; his older brother, Yan, won an Olympic gold medal for Cuba and younger brother Leduan is an undefeated prospect. A hyperactive child, Rances focused that energy into boxing through the famed Cuban boxing system, maturing into a national champion. Engaged in over 200 amateur bouts (he puts his record at 193-39) and was a favorite to make the medal rounds at the Beijing Olympics but was suspended from all competitions when Yan defected, essentially ending his international career. This forced Barthelemy’s hand and when he saw an opportunity to defect via a speedboat, he bolted for freedom and joined his brother in America. Like many Cubans, he stayed in Miami initially but later moved to Las Vegas for pro guidance under trainers like Orlando Cuellar, Miguel Diaz and John David Jackson.
Barthelemy made the decision early on to escape the distraction-rich environment of Miami and picked Las Vegas as his new residence for the quality sparring and familiar, boxing-rich environment. Unlike other Cuban defectors, he has not disappointed in the gym, understanding its role in a professional’s career, “The person who works the hardest in the gym always gets the victory on fight night. I have dedicated myself to this and live a Spartan and athlete’s lifestyle.” This has obviously worked to date, winning the IBF junior lightweight title and rarely looking out of his depth despite facing various styles and a high level of competition in his 21 victories.
There are constant reminders of Cuba for Barthelemy and the life he left behind. Most of the time, a good-natured Barthelemy flashes a smile and tell humorous culture shock stories, like the time he used the sweet-smelling Listerine he found in a bathroom medicine cabinet as cologne. Then there is the darker side of not being able to return to Cuba for regular visits. When Barthelemy left his sister, she was eight years old but now she is starting high school. Barthelemy told Channel 3 News in Las Vegas, “I haven’t been able to see her grow, to touch her, to hug her and to tell her how much I love her. There were times when I would cry at night because I needed the love of my mother and of my brothers and sisters.” Barthelemy appreciates everything America has given him and how the country has enabled him. “I don’t have words to explain how grateful I am to be living here because I can help my family.”
A snappy puncher, stopping 12 of 21 foes, Barthelemy gained the “Kid Blast” nickname before his championship rise facing the likes of Marcos Maidana, Mercito Gesta, and Sharif Bogere in intense sparring sessions. Barthelemy’s latest training camp was focused on increasing his power even more by shifting balance to make use of an elongated 5’11” frame. When asked to describe himself, Barthelemy said, “I am a good athlete and bring outstanding condition, endurance, speed and power with me into each contest. I can box well from the outside and bang inside as the fight may dictate.” Importantly, Barthelemy presses any advantages he sees and is relentless, trying to force opponents to engage him. That should lead to a wider fan base than fellow Cuban master Guillermo Rigondeaux currently enjoys.
Barthelemy is a converted southpaw who sports an excellent jab that he admittedly under-uses at times in an attempt to lure opponents into hooks or lead right hands. As with any evolving boxer, Barthelemy has his share of flaws, such as falling off balance after over-committing to a power punch. Given his amateur pedigree, Barthelemy punches wide at times and will follow an opponent instead of using his long stride to cut off exit routes. On defense, Barthelemy holds his hands high, showing opponents decent head movement and upper body agility to avoid punches. His chin has not been tested much to date given his rapid reflexes, which could be slowing fractionally due to the added poundage a rise in weight brings.
In the 2014 “Friday Night Fights” season opener, Barthelemy apparently won his first world title when he knocked down Dominican Argenis Mendez twice in the second round. However, the knockout punch came a split second after the bell and following Mendez’s management’s protests, the result was changed to a no-contest. An IBF-mandated rematch was held six months later; this time, a hesitant Mendez (weary of Barthelemy’s power) was outboxed over 12 rounds, losing by four points on every scorecard despite Barthelemy losing two points for low blows in the ninth and 10th rounds. Barthelemy only made one defense of the title, scoring a shut-out decision against mandatory challenger Fernando Saucedo of Argentina, ethically choosing to relinquish his title in February when it became clear to Barthelemy he could no longer make the 130-pound limit.
Tonight, marks the beginning of a new chapter in Barthelemy’s career, shooting for a showdown with anyone willing to face him at lightweight. Given the current lack of talent at 135 pounds, with Terence Crawford and Omar Figueroa vacating titles, the road to a championship seems navigable for a talent like Barthelemy, who wants more than just another title, as he told Anson Wainwright of The Ring magazine, “I have more goals, to be just like Floyd [Mayweather Jr.], Tommy Hearns, like all those guys who moved up in weights and conquered other belts.” WBC champion Jorge Linares is the most complete of the beltholders, while WBA titlist and fellow Cuban Richar Abril is the trickiest of the bunch. A Miami showdown with countryman Abril seems an ideal and logical proposition…if only a Cuban fan base could be motivated to support it.