Rances Barthelemy almost seems too good for his own good at times. Silky smooth in the ring with the ability to fight from either stance, the 5-foot-11 Cuban has faced little resistance in the ring in earning world titles at 130 and 135 pounds.
Up until his most recent fight against Mickey Bey last June, when Barthelemy earned a split decision to retain his 135-pound championship, he had won each of his professional fights by either knockout or unanimous decision.
Rances Barthelemy (25-0, 13 KOs) vacated his title not long after beating Bey as he set course to conquer another weight class. He’ll make his maiden voyage in the 140-pound division against former title challenger Kiryl Relikh (21-1, 19 KOs) on May 20 at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on the Gary Russell Jr. vs Oscar Escandon undercard (Showtime, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT).
Now living in Las Vegas, the Cuban émigré took a break from training to discuss (with help from a translator) making history, getting his shot at 140-pound kingpin Terence Crawford and why the time was right to move up in weight.
We know that you're chasing your third world title in as many weight divisions, something that’s never been done before by a Cuban boxer. What would that achievement mean to you, and do you aspire to fight for titles above 140 pounds one day?
Being the first Cuban to win three titles in as many weight classes would mean the world to me, particularly because of how difficult it was to journey to the United States to begin with. It took me close to about 37 times to get off the island and make it over to America [in 2007].
When I finally did arrive, I had a lot of doubters, and people didn’t even think I was going to win one world title, let alone the second one. So obtaining a third world title would be a dream come true.
That would not only place me on the map as the only Cuban to accomplish that, but it would be a mark in boxing history at large. I can’t say anything about a [higher weight class] right now because I’m focused on taking it step by step, one division at a time.
How do you rank the top fighters in the 140-pound division right now?
There are a lot of good fighters in the division, but Terence Crawford is No. 1. He deserves it and he’s earned it. As far as myself, I will leave it to the public and the media to do that.
How do you see Crawford’s fight against Felix Diaz on May 20 playing out, and how do you see yourself matching up against Crawford?
Crawford should have a really intriguing fight against Diaz. Although most people are pulling for Crawford, I think Diaz shouldn’t be underestimated because he’s a really skillful fighter.
Diaz is good enough to pull the upset, but Terence is clearly the favorite. I do think a fight between myself and Crawford would be a very strategic one and very technical. I like to adapt.
What are your thoughts on Julius Indongo and his victory over Ricky Burns in their 140-pound title unification in Scotland last month?
I don’t think he’s much of a challenge to me. I think I’d be able to decipher him. He’s a tough fighter who likes to apply pressure, but based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think it would be too difficult for me. I would really like to be a mandatory for him.
Why did you feel it was time to rise in weight, especially considering the wealth of talent at 135 right now?
At the time I moved up, there weren’t too many names in the division worth staying around for like there are now, outside of my training partner, Jorge Linares. Obviously, we were not going to make that fight because we have the same trainer.
I decided to move up because my body was having a harder time making that weight as I got older. I didn’t feel that I was executing as properly and that my power was going away because I was draining myself to make the weight, particularly in my last fight at 135 against Mickey Bey [last June]. The strain was too much on my body.
Since I’ve move up, I feel a lot stronger, I’m more confident in my abilities, and I feel my power has returned. I’m more focused mentally and physically. There are a lot of names at 140 I’d want to fight, like Adrien Broner, and there’s even Danny Garcia [at 147]. I’m ready to take on any big name.
“ Being the first Cuban to win three titles in as many weight classes would mean the world to me, particularly because ... it took me close to about 37 times to get off the island and make it over to America. ” Rances Barthelemy
How have you benefited from sparring and training with countryman Yordenis Ugas and your younger brother, Leduan Barthelemy?
I think this has been among the best training camps that I’ve had during my career, and it’s coming at a great time, not only having my brother but also Yordenis and our trainer, Ismael Salas, who is from the Cuban amateur boxing arena.
Our workouts with Ismael Salas have been incredible. He’s able to really stick to the core fundamentals that the Cubans are known for, and that’s to hit and to not get hit. We’re staying true to those fundamentals and at the same time adapting them to the professional level, and it brings out the best in us.
You went toe-to-toe with Denis Shafikov and battered him pretty good to gain your 135-pound world title in December 2015, but you weren’t able to stop him and haven’t had a knockout in your last three fights. Does that put any additional pressure on you to stop Kiryl Relikh?
As far as looking for a knockout, I’m definitely not feeling pressure to look for one. I’ve come to terms with my experience that if the knockout comes, it comes, but I know to be patient about it.
Usually, I just stick to my strategy. But with Shafikov, I decided to demonstrate that not all Cubans have the so-called boring style, and that I am also able to bring that entertainment.
I wanted to distinguish myself as an individual who can do that. I can give the public the action that it wants to see. I can always use my talents and abilities to create distance and to box whenever I want to. But in that particular fight, I wanted to take that opportunity to showcase my talents and to show that Rances Barthelemy can do it all in the ring.
Is there anything to be taken away from Relikh’s loss to Ricky Burns in October, especially considering he needed three attempts to make weight?
I try not to base my opinions on fighters’ past performances. I totally respect my opponents. I saw some of the highlights and that it was an exciting fight, and there are some who felt that it was close. Some said that it should have gone Relikh’s way.
Do you have respect for Relikh’s power given that he knocked out 12 straight opponents prior to losing a unanimous decision to Burns?
Relikh has a come-forward, aggressive style and likes to attack. I know he’s got a high knockout percentage and that’s probably what he’s coming for against me, but I think that plays right into my style.
It doesn’t matter what fighting style is in front of me, I’m always going to manage to adapt. I’ve got all of the fundamentals, whether it’s a right-hander or a left-hander, power-puncher or boxer.
If you could pick the brain of any fighter in history, who would it be and what would you ask?
There is so much that I would ask Muhammad Ali, so that’s sort of an overwhelming question. Obviously, I would have to learn English first, but I can’t really think of one specific question.
Who’s the one fighter in history you wish you could’ve fought?
I would have to say Floyd Mayweather, because he’s a living legend. I would fight a very tactical and strategic fight, and try to get him out of his comfort zone, make him come forward and not go looking for him. I would have to develop a game plan and stick to it, but I have the confidence that I would win.
Who are your five favorite fighters of all time, dead or alive?
Kid Chocolate, Teófilo Stevenson, Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather and Emilio Correa.
What is your favorite punch to throw?
I like to go to the body, so body shots would be my preference. I like the left to the body since I’m actually a natural lefty. I remember landing one against a Thai fighter, Surasak Makordae, and I knocked him out in the second round (in June 2013).
If Hollywood made a movie about your life, who would you want to portray you?
It would have to be Denzel Washington. I love the way he portrays the characters in all his movies.
Finish this sentence: If not for boxing, I would be …
I honestly can’t answer that question because everything I have in life to this day is because of boxing, and I don’t know if I would even be here if it weren’t for boxing. I can’t imagine life without it.
If you could change one thing and leave an impact on the world what would it be?
I would free Cuba. I would make it a free country.
“12 Rounds With …” is (usually) published Wednesdays at PremierBoxingChampions.com. Next week: two-time 168-pound title challenger and 2004 U.S. Olympic bronze medalist Andre Dirrell.