Music blares, but the man in the ring is dancing to a beat of his own, the rhythmic thwack of fist to mitt the percussion that soundtracks his movements.
Rances Barthelemy (23-0, 13 KOs) is getting after it on a recent Tuesday afternoon, his hands as lively and emphatic as the punchy horns blasting from the stereo.
Over a Latin music backdrop, Barthelemy fires a rib-chipping right hook followed by a quick, blink-and-you-missed-it left uppercut. He then slices around the man whose midsection he just savaged.
“Tambien!” bellows the recipient of said blows, trainer Ismael Salas, whose sturdy-as-a-fire-hydrant physique is doubly impressive considering that he’s old enough to qualify for the senior citizen discount at Denny’s.
Together, they shadow each other’s movements, Salas jutting out his lower lip in anticipation of Barthelemy’s punches and then arching his eyebrows when he lands, telegraphing the action with his face.
When they pause for a breather, Barthelemy and Salas shuffle their feet and swish their hips to the tunes that brighten the room. Salas wears shoes with two-inch-thick soles in an attempt to measure up to Barthelemy, who at 5 feet 11 inches is a skyscraper for the 135-pound division.
But that’s not the only thing that distinguishes the Cuban boxer from his peers and countrymen alike.
As a day in the gym in Barthelemy’s adopted hometown of Las Vegas illustrates, he’s an electric, kinetic presence, his aggressive style seldom associated with fighters of his heritage.
“People think that the Cuban boxers are really boring,” Barthelemy acknowledges in Spanish, an interpreter translating his words to English as his gold teeth gleam in the daylight. “I’m Cuban, but I’m different.”
Having already won a title at 130 pounds, Barthelemy will seek to become a two-division world champion when he faces Russia’s 135-pound contender Denis Shafikov (36-1-1, 19 KOs) on Friday night in Las Vegas (Spike TV, 9 p.m. ET/9 p.m. PT).
By now, Cuban fighters have an equally well established and well decorated rep: They tend to be chess players in the ring, strategic and reactive, which is a nice way of saying that some of them can put you to sleep faster than a brick-sized dosage of Ambien.
Because Cuban fighters aren’t allowed to turn pro in their native country, they master the amateur style, which is predicated on making contact and eluding return fire without much emphasis on power shots or hurting your opponent, as is the case in the pros.
Basically, if it lands, it’s good for a point, and so success is the amateurs is posited on sticking and moving as opposed to attempting to score knockout blows.
This approach has led to plenty of Olympic gold medals for Cuban boxers, who’ve won more than any other country besides the United States, but when Cuban fighters defect and turn pro, their defensive style doesn’t always equate to must-see TV—though their have been plenty of exceptions, most recently 135-pound fireball Yuriokis Gamboa.
But when Barthelemy followed suit and left his homeland in order to pursue a professional career, he says he wanted to be fun to watch, if not fun to face.
Hence, he’s a bit more offensive-minded than the traditional Cuban fighter, the bull instead of the matador.
“When I came to the States, I realized that I had to be aggressive, because in Cuba we’re just looking for points,” Bathelemy says, occasionally glancing over his shoulder at a couple of young fighters sparring in the ring behind him. “In the States, you’ve got to hurt people, you’ve got to be aggressive because this is part of the game. I took the fundamentals from Cuba, and I have been improving with my coach.”
Said coach has plenty of experience with fighters of Barthelemy’s ilk.
A fellow Cuban, Salas once coached the country’s national team and has trained with 17 world champions over the course of his career. Since Salas began working with Barthelemy earlier this year, he says he’s been in lockstep with his fighter’s goal of differentiating himself fromn boxers hailing from his part of the world.
“I don’t like to train him like a normal, conventional Cuban fighter, because as you know, the Cuban fighters have been in the Olympic style,” Salas explains. “So they’re moving a lot. They usually look very nice. But we get paid for a show. So I feel lucky when he came into my hands because it’s my dream to have a Cuban fighter who fights this way.”
On the day in question, their training session is intense.
After Salas and Barthelemy complete their ring work, the latter moves to the heavy bag, darting around it, his feet light, his hands decidedly less so.
Salas watches him from afar, as his fighter’s fists fly like a flock of startled birds.
“I’m just pushing him to do it in his own way,” Salas says. “I don’t want him to fight like any of my old fighters—Gamboa, [Guillermo] Rigondeaux or somebody else. I want him to be Rances Barthelemy.”
For full coverage of Barthelemy vs Shafikov, visit our fight page.