A long piece of masking tape lines the floor, smudged in places from errant feet producing errant fists. You don’t want to step on the thing, and Rances Barthelemy never does, his shoes crisscrossing the partition without ever touching it. Back and forth his feet go, and where they land, his punches follow, fired in the direction his toes are pointed. This is the symmetry of knocking dudes stiff.
It’s a bit past noon on a recent midweek day at the Las Vegas gym where Rances Barthelemy (23-0, 13 KOs) is training for Friday's 135-pound title bout against Russian hard-ass Denis Shafikov (36-1-1, 19 KOs) at the Palms Casino Resort, and he’s beginning his workout by practicing his footwork.
Trainer Ismael Salas looks on, explaining the purpose of the aforementioned drill with his beefy left arm extended.
“We need to put all of our body weight behind our punch, ending here,” Salas says, pointing to his fist. “We need to create the coordination, the muscle memory, to bring all the joints and ligaments working together.”
Salas began training Barthelemy earlier this year, focusing most intently on one thing: “Combinations,” Salas explains. “That’s what I need to perfect from him, because sometimes [in the past] he only threw one punch at a time.”
Salas’ tutelage of Barthelemy has already bore fruit—a whole bushel in fact, all over Antonio DeMarco’s face.
Barthelemy savaged the former 135-pound champ so badly in June that the latter announced his retirement following the drubbing. (DeMarco would reconsider and return to the ring, dropping a hard-fought decision to Omar Figueroa Jr. last Saturday).
Against DeMarco, Barthelemy seemed to take Salas’ words to heart, mauling his opponent with both hands and landing power shots at will. He didn't just step on the gas; he never took his foot off of it.
A former champion at 130 pounds, the 5-foot-11 Barthelemy has long used his reach advantage and awkward, stop-start style to fluster opponents, making it challenging for them to time his punches and thus negate his superior hand speed.
“He’s a very unconventional fighter,” Salas says. “He doesn’t have the proper style—for me, it’s a good thing.”
Salas, then, isn't trying to reshape the kind of approach that has already made Barthelemy a world champion so much as refine it.
“He has such a good eye for fighters,” Barthelemy says of Salas through a translator. “He’s not changing anything; he’s just improving my skills.”
Those skills will be put to the test against Shafikov, a human battering ram who's as durable as a lump of graphene and adept at handing out lumps of his own.
He’s six inches shorter than Barthelemy, and will likely look to hammer his way inside, using his opponent's height against him with a body attack to Barthelemy's long frame.
“He’s very tough, but he’s a one-way fighter; he doesn’t have many tools,” Salas says of Shafikov. “His main tool is strength and pushing forward. For me, if you have something hard, the best way to beat the hard thing is to be very flexible.”
This is one of the reasons Barthelemy has been honing his footwork this camp, to be better able to elude Shafikov’s charge while at the same positioning himself to launch hard counter shots.
“We’re expecting that he will start chasing me in the fight, he will try to press me, but I’m ready, because I know his offensive style,” says Barthelemy, who on Thursday weighed in for the fight at 134.2 pounds while Shafikov also was 134.2. “I’m very comfortable, because I have good form in both feet.”
This said, Barthelemy doesn’t plan on cutting a rug in the ring.
He’s been sparring 12 rounds with three different fighters, all heavier than himself, and is prepared for a dogfight, Salas notes.
“For real, we are ready for a war,” he says.
Barthelemy echoes that sentiment. He’s a personable guy, with a big grin that he flashes frequently. When talk turns to Shafikov, however, his good spirits become clouded by bad intentions.
“Once he feels the first punch to the face,” he says, “he’s going to think twice about chasing me.”
For full coverage of Barthelemy vs Shafikov, visit our fight page.