IN March of this year it will mark a decade since Rances Barthelemy successfully defected from Cuba, following repeatedly desperate attempts to escape the oppression in his native land.
There were almost 40 failed efforts to gain his freedom, with those foiled endeavours often resulting in periods of jail time, where conditions were damnable with no clean water and little food to eat.
But eventually, Barthelemy’s fight for a better life prevailed. Next up on February 10 is a shot at boxing history, as he aims to become his country’s first ever three-weight world champion in a rematch against Kiryl Relikh, a feat which would further validate his perilous journey from the Caribbean island.
“Being a three-weight world champion is something I never imagined. Something others never expected from me,” Barthelemy told Boxing News.
“I didn’t have the most decorated amateur career like my brother Yan did, so a lot of people doubted me when I made it to the professional ranks. They doubted whether I would ever become a world champion, so making history for Cuba would be fulfilling and prove everyone wrong.
“It would also prove those that always believed in me right and show those that come after me that if you work hard and stay committed, everything is possible.
“It would show everyone that anyone can achieve great things with hard work, discipline, commitment and sacrifice. It would make all the defection attempts, the imprisonments, hungry nights, all the times away from my family and loved ones worth it.”
At the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, the 31-year-old’s second meeting with Belarusian challenger Relikh will be the co-feature to three-division world champion Mikey Garcia battling to win a title in a fourth weight class, when he clashes with undefeated IBF titlist Sergey Lipinets.
Barthelemy rallied to a unanimous decision victory in the pair’s initial encounter back in May last year, in what was the former 130lbs and 135lbs world champion’s debut at light-welterweight. A second successive triumph would ensure his desired landmark achievement is met.
“I think the second time it’ll be completely different,” he continued. “We know each other very well now and from our team’s perspective we know what adjustments we need to make and what errors we committed in the first fight.
“He’s a great fighter and definitely world class level, you guys saw that in May. But we definitely feel confident going into this second fight.”
Ricky Hatton trained fighter Relikh still believes he edged their first clash at the MGM National Harbor, claiming the judges’ scorecards did not reflect the true nature of the dramatic action that unfolded on American soil.
The 28-year-old had struggled to deal with Barthelemy’s movement and skill set early in proceedings but a barrage of shots on the ropes seemingly almost had him out in the fifth round, with referee Kenny Chevalier instead calling a knockdown.
Barthelemy dug deep to show his resolve and returned the favour in the eighth, sending Relikh to the canvas with a trademark vicious body shot. He ultimately earned scores of 116-110, 115-111 and 117-109, which led to some disagreement from the crowd that night.
“Yes I’ve heard that some people saw him winning, others saw me winning,” admitted the victor of the initial match-up. “It was a close fight definitely but after re-watching the fight multiple times I still think I edged it.
“That’s the beauty of the rematch though, I can go in there and this time leave no doubt. This time it’s for everything and this is why we are working 10 times as hard.”
Cuba has a rich history of producing top class fighters at both amateur and professional level, with Jose Napoles, Kid Gavilan, Kid Chocolate and, more recently, Guillermo Rigondeaux being only a few from the nation of sugar-white beaches to have risen to pugilistic prominence over the years.
But none of those high-profile stars ever managed the sporting accomplishment which Barthelemy is on the verge of in February.
“I would have never imagined that I would ever be in a position like this, especially with all the great talent that Cuba produces,” Barthelemy modestly outlined.
Recalling previous career targets, he added: “I think I have mentioned it to you before in the past, my goal when I was trying to defect was to fight professionally and one day become a world champion. Those dreams were always doubted by a lot of people in a Cuba and in the Cuban boxing community here.
“So now that I have a chance to win my third world title in a third weight class is surreal and something I never dreamt. And people continue to doubt me so I will continue proving people wrong.”
Behind every fighter’s success is the man in their corner and Barthelemy is lucky enough to be working with one of the sport’s most esteemed coaches within a talented roster in Las Vegas.
Guantanamo native Ismael Salas has trained 19 world champions in his prestigious career since rising to prominence overlooking Cuba’s acclaimed amateur set-up.
Barthelemy has become one of the most notable names to currently contest under the experienced trainer, alongside lightweight ace Jorge Linares and Britain’s former heavyweight champion David Haye.
“I have so much appreciation for Salas. I’m glad I found him when I did and hope he is able to guide me through the rest of my career,” stated Barthelemy.
“I was close to moving to London to train with him but with the injury to David Haye things worked out where I could stay at home in Vegas and still train with him.
“He is the most underrated trainer in the world and our stable is the most underrated as well. But with more triumphs we will continue proving to the world our quality. It is definitely motivation to train alongside other world class fighters.”
It’s Salas that will be hoping to help mastermind Barthelemy’s historic victory over Relikh on February 10, as the undefeated Cuban seeks the most meaningful success of his admirable career to date, one that seemed impossible during those dark times in his homeland a decade ago.