When Rances Barthelemy smiles, you can’t help but catch the flash of his two front teeth capped in gold. The dental work came thanks to a chipped tooth in a fight, but his choice to go with gold was because it was on point with Cuban trends.
The gold, then, becomes shorthand for the indelible part Cuba plays in Barthelemy’s life. He left it behind, but can never divest himself of that identity. Well, short of a pair of pliers and a committed dentist, anyway.
The 90 miles between Cuba and the United States might be the most fraught stretch of ocean on this side of the world politically, socially and economically. But if tens of thousands of Cuban defectors have proven, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle—even for as difficult a crossing as it can be.
Rances Barthelemy knows this as well as anyone. He made more than 35 attempts to get off the island, finally succeeding in 2007.
First he tried to go straight to Miami, but was turned back in the waters near the Florida Keys. The next time out, he made it to Mexico before following his older brother and former Olympian, Yan, to the United States.
“I never imagined to be living the life I’m living now,” Barthelemy says. “It’s a dream come true. When you’re living in Cuba, you don’t even think it’s possible. To make that dream a reality, it’s something I reflect on now with my wife. My objective was always to come and play that dream out.
"I’m really happy that after so many times of struggling to get here, all the attempts I went through, that it’s finally coming true.”
Cuban boxers have fared well lately. Erislandy Lara, who originally tried to defect along with Guillermo Rigondeaux in 2007, following Yan Barthelemy’s defection, just wrapped up a dominating win over Delvin Rodriguez on June 12. Rigondeaux is widely considered one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the game.
“Boxing is going through a big movement right now,” Barthelemy says. “I feel me and Lara are at the tip of that movement. I want to reach out to other Cuban fighters and encourage them to jump on board if they can. Me and Lara are two warriors, and we’re really coming forth and representing Cuba.”
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