Meet Rances Barthelemy, the Unbeaten Boxer Thriving After Finally Escaping Cuba

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterDecember 17, 2015

Rances Barthelemy reacts as he hears on on Friday, July 11, 2014, that he has defeated Argenis Mendez in a boxing match begun late Thursday night in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Rances Barthelemy, a rising Premier Boxing Champions star who faces Denis Shafikov on Friday on Spike TV, had spent two long days lurking on the Cuban coast, hiding in the crags and roaming the rocky beaches before the boat to America finally arrived. That was a Sunday in 2007, two days after the planned Thursday night rendezvous.

That's a long time to go without food and water, but for Barthelemy, the trip was just beginning. There was still the matter of swimming to the boat, a football field's worth of choppy, cold ocean between him and freedom.

"I launched myself into the ocean and began swimming, but I was too fatigued and my body was not responding," Barthelemy told Bleacher Report via an interpreter in an exclusive interview. "I was able to make it halfway to the boat before I began contemplating whether to go back to shore or not. I decided that I was either going to make it to that boat or die trying, and so I managed to get my backpack off to get some weight off me and kept going toward the boat."

The boat in sight, his body began to fail. Swallowing water, exhausted, done, he made his peace with the world and prepared for death's embrace.

"As I was drowning and near the last breath, I saw a light, and a person from inside the boat reached out to the ocean and pulled me in," he said. "I was unconscious and needed CPR to save me. They brought me back to life, and the boat headed toward the Florida Keys."

Barthelemy, after dozens of escape attempts, had made it. He was on his way to join older brother Yan, a former Olympic gold medalist whose 2006 defection had started Rances on his inevitable path.

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"We were raised in unbearable living conditions where most kids growing up lacked the basic necessities in life for survival," Yan, also speaking through an interpreter, remembered. "Both parents were supportive and really instilled education as an important part of our upbringing, but we lacked basic necessities.

"There were many days that we starved because we were given a certain quantity of food per household regardless of size. I learned to succeed despite all that and put all my heart into boxing and conditioning despite the lack of nutrition."

Athens, GREECE:  Yan Barthelemy Varela (R) of of Cuba is declared winner over Moo Won Hong (L) of South Korea in their light flyweight (48 kg) quarter-final of the Olympic Games 24 August 2004 at the Peristeri Boxing Hall in Athens.  AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMA
JOE KLAMAR/Getty Images

His own defection lacked the action-movie excitement of his brother's. Yan and fellow boxers Yuriorkis Gamboa and Odlanier Solis simply melted away in the night during a Venezuelan training camp, emerging four months later in Colombia, professional careers waiting for them all.

After Yan's departure for Germany and eventually America, life, already a desperate struggle for survival, changed for the worse for Rances back in Cuba.

"They banned me from boxing and took away what I loved most from me. That's when I knew, it was leave this prison called Cuba or die trying," Rances said. "Living in Cuba is like living in a prison cell, where the ocean is the fence or cell that keeps you from the outside world and imprisoned. It does not compare to America, where one can become somebody from nothing."

It was that experience that led Rances to the boat that night, that drove him to risk everything, his love for boxing propelling him toward freedom.

The day after his dramatic near-death experience, Barthelemy finally made it onto American soil. His arrival, however, was bittersweet. His boat had been surrounded by authorities, Coast Guard vessels and helicopters swarming.

He had made it at last, sure. But it was in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, his first American Thanksgiving spent with canned turkey in Miami's infamous Krome Detention Center.

Fifteen days later he was back in Cuba. But his heart, by that point, was in America. And Barthelemy is not a man accustomed to accepting defeat gracefully. A year later, in 2008, with Yan more firmly established in America and better able to help with logistics, Rances and his younger brother Leduan made a final, successful run for freedom.

Using rooftops to avoid detection, the two made their way to a waiting minivan and the long drive to the coast. Every movement was a dash, profiles low, prayers offered that they would go unseen and unnoticed. The last piece of their journey was by tractor, the unfriendly terrain not easily navigated by foot.

"We rode on the tractor for some time until we reached a swamp, and from there we had to finish our journey by foot again," Barthelemy said. "This had to be the scariest part of the journey because to get to the coast where the boat was waiting for us, we had to get through a swamp that was filled with crocodiles in the dark and cold weather."

All that was left then was the wait, the cold of winter not enough to dismay the swarms of mosquitoes, impossibly large, impossibly hungry, impossible to avoid.

"They were so unbearable that some people preferred to tread into the water up to their neck to avoid them," Barthelemy said. "My brother and I were layered with enough clothes to be able to stay ashore and weather the swarm of mosquitoes, but we couldn't avoid our hands and face from getting bit. We waited until 3 a.m. until the boat finally arrived. Once it arrived, the ocean was calm enough to tread through, so we walked up into the ocean up to our chest to get to the boat."

From there it was on to Cancun, to Monterrey and finally to Miami.

At long last, Barthelemy was able to live his dream as a professional boxer.

In his first months in America, he worked at a hotel on South Beach. The $1,500 he pocketed was the most money he'd ever seen, the abundances America could offer shocking to a man who had only known the most abject poverty.

"I still have a few scars on me from my childhood days, and they remind me daily of how difficult growing up in Cuba is," Barthelemy said. "Some of the scars I got from trying to steal food from private properties. I remember one time I jumped over a fence to grab some mangoes from a tree and was attacked by a dog who dragged me a few feet before I could escape.

"I look back at those memories and always keep in mind that at one time that was my reality. Food is a luxury for most growing up in Cuba, as it was for me, so now I take nothing for granted."

Now firmly settled in Las Vegas, Barthelemy is going about the business of establishing himself as a boxer worth remembering, of making sure his career is worthy of the struggle required to make it possible.

He won the IBF super featherweight world title by unanimous decision against Argenis Mendez in July 2014 but vacated the belt earlier this year to take his chances up a weight class at lightweight. His fight with Shafikov (36-1-1, 19 KOs), a 30-year-old Russian southpaw, will be for the vacant IBF lightweight championship. A victory would not only earn him a second world championship but would also catapult Barthelemy into the conversation for bouts with the top fighters in the world up to 140 pounds.

"His dedication and commitment to his training makes him special," Yan said. "He is always looking to improve and get better each day. He has the tenacity to accomplish many things.

"It is more than a sport. Boxing is a religion to the Cuban people. A Cuban is born with boxing flowing through their veins. It is a passion, like baseball. Everyone in Cuba knows about their boxing, they eat it and breathe it."

By the Numbers: Rances Barthelemy
Weight140 pounds
Reach73 inches
BornJune 25, 1986 (29 years old)
Record23-0 (13 KO)
Rounds Boxed111

Rances' goal is to win world championships in four or five weight classes. That's heady stuff, the kind of line items only found on the resume of a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

"I want to write my own story and leave my own legacy amongst the greatest from my country to ever do it," Barthelemy said. "I want to one day be considered one of the most accomplished Cuban boxers and be an example to those that follow on after me."

Unlikely? Perhaps. Boxers, even the best ones, spend their lives on a tightrope, only inches away from disaster every minute of their professional lives.

But after all he's been through, do you really want to doubt Rances Barthelemy?

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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