The old neighbourhood: Rances Barthelemy interview
Photos: Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Ahead of his showdown with Robert Easter Jr for the vacant WBA lightweight title, Cuban Rances Barthelemy speaks candidly to Craig Scott about why he left the Caribbean island and why he still returns...
Despite the resplendent coastline of Havana, the warmth of the harbour can only hope to disguise its political limitations. The extravagant Malecón lighthouse watches carefully as the waves crash against the esplanade's broad, protective seawall. Every so often, the austere Cuban perimeter misses something, with aspiring athletes waiting for their opportunity to escape what many deem a tourist's paradise, slipping through the net in search of better things.
In cities such as Havana, Camagüey or Guantanamo, boxing dominates the spare time of those children roaming the streets, fed up with the mundane inter-city games of stick-ball. It's their platform to excel, reaching podium positions across various amateur championships - yet never permitted to earn a living through prizefighting whilst drifting through Castro's Cuba, since professional sport's prohibition in 1962.
The nation which famously bred Kid Chocolate, the tragic Benny Paret and Sugar Ramos has more recently became renowned for its elite fighters escaping under the cover of darkness, often leaving their children or immediate family behind. Sometimes never to return.
Three fighting brothers from Arroyo Naranjo once escaped Cuba, and the middle Barthelemy child will this weekend attemp to regain his world title, when facing fellow former champion, Robert Easter Jr.
After a failed attempt to make history by becoming the first Cuban to win professional championships in three alternate divisions, Rances Barthelemy (27-1, 14KOs) returns to the lightweight division to challenge for the vacant WBA title.
His journey out of Cuba included treading crocodile-infested water, before meeting a small boat which helped him and younger brother, Leduan, escape. It wasn't their first attempt, with imprisonment and near starvation meeting them at their first dash for freedom.
"Cuba, regardless of its politics and economics, is a beautiful and natural island and I miss it everyday," Rances confessed to Boxing Monthly. "It is a natural paradise with a very proud, hard-working and talented population. Growing up things were a little different than they are now. I miss the beautiful beaches, I miss the culture, the music and the food. I miss the everyday conversations in the neighbourhood. I get nostalgic thinking about something as simple as running to catch the bus in the morning.
"The hardest part of the journey was evading the authorities. To get from the city to the coast without detection from the authorities is so difficult. They have eyes and spies everywhere and at that time it was so difficult to go unnoticed. This is why we failed in our attempts so many times.
"It is definitely that hardest thing I have ever encountered, it was mentally and physically draining every time. I’m just blessed that I am in the position that I am now, because so many of my fellow Cubans have lost their lives in their attempts to leave the island."
Eldest brother Yan, a former Olympic gold medalist, ended his career with a record of 13 wins and three defeats, never quite scaling boxing's upper echelons. He defected before his two younger siblings, and now plays a pivotal role in the training of Rances ahead of his bout with former IBF champion, the younger man, Easter Jr (21-1, 14KOs).
Formerly trained by infamous, fluid Cuban great, Ismael Salas, the mercurial trainer's relocation to London when working with British heavyweight David Haye caused a rift amongst their American-Cuban stable. The distance had become impractical, with Barthelemy telling me during a previous conversation that he had considered moving to the UK to maintain their relationship. That proposed move never came to fruition though, with Rances and Leduan instead linking up with fellow Cuban and former two-weight world champion, the ever-stylish Joel Casamayor.
"My brother Yan is the reason why I am where I am today. He was able to set the precedent to leave Cuba to pursue a boxing career, as well as put everything in place so that my brother Leduan and I could defect from Cuba as well. I cannot thank him enough for everything he has done for me, and continues doing for me, as he is now an instrumental part of my training camp. He is one of my trainers along with [Joel] Casamayor and there is no-one that knows me more inside and outside of the ring. I am privileged to have two Olympic gold medalists in my corner."
The rangy Easter Jr, a proud Toledo native, presents a different challenge for the Cuban camp and has previously only been beaten once by four-weight world champion, Mikey Garcia. He had been a part of Adrien Broner's 'About Billions' promotional company, defending his title on home soil in Ohio twice before fighting most recently in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. The 28-year- old is keen to regain his own portion of the world title, with both men possessing similar records and only a sole defeat apiece.
As Rances pondered their bout, he remained confident, despite currently assuming the role of underdog, quite sizeably with bookmakers. Many had argued that current IBF lightweight champion, Ghana's Richard Commey had handed Robert Easter Jr his first loss, despite the American prevailing by split decision. The slick Cuban, only thirty-two years old himself, was keen to nullify the physical advantages of his opponent, known for his long, slim stature, similar to current WBO 140lbs champion, Maurice Hooker. Unifications could follow, but 'Real Kid Blast' was focused on the task at hand.
He explained, "I think this is a very high level match-up. I consider us to be amongst the elite level in the world. We are both former lightweight world champions with similar height and reach. Both of us like to bang and fight, so I think the fans are in for a great night of boxing. This fight will definitely catapult the winner to the biggest fights in the division.
"He’s a fighter that has a height and reach advantage on most of his opponents. Most of the time, he prefers to fight and bang rather than use that advantage and I am similar in that sense. It’s definitely going to be a good fight but we have studied him very well and there's nothing that overly impresses us about him. We know what mistakes he repeatedly makes and feel we have all the tools to exploit them. He’s been in a few very close fights that could have gone the other way."
On 27 April Barthelemy is fighting for himself, his family and for those other oppressed, yet talented fighters currently locked in Cuba's financially unrewarding amateur system. The fighting style of the modern Cuban boxer is often criticised, particularly for being reactive, with fighters accused of selecting shots only when the chance presents itself. However, it is calm, intelligent and thoughtful.
Unlike most of the fighters who choose to turn their back on Cuba's ageing political regime in search of greener pastures, Barthelemy finds the time to return home. It's safe enough for him to visit his family, potentially signalling a softening stance on those who had previously defected. This weekend, regardless of the outcome of his fight with Easter Jr, he will have his family and his country behind him - he always does. A stark reminder of both why he left and why he returns to a nation which is bigger than boxing.
"I love returning to Cuba and going back to my humble roots, hanging out in the old neighbourhood that saw me grow up. I enjoy being around my parents, my family and friends from childhood. After eight long years being away, I am now able to go at least once or twice a year.
"A lot of people tell me, 'Man there’s people that leave Cuba and come back in shorter time less accomplished than you and forget all about where they come from!' I don’t come back with a changed mentality only because I became a world champion and I am successful in the U.S."