Cuban boxer defected unsuccessfully 38 times before realizing U.S. dream

LAS VEGAS – Rances Barthelemy couldn’t quite remember which of the 38 unsuccessful attempts at defection from Cuba it was, but one moment, specifically, he can't possibly forget.

He’s 28 now, and has been free for more than seven years. On Sunday, he’ll headline a Premier Boxing Champions card being televised by CBS from the MGM Grand Garden against former lightweight world champion Antonio DeMarco.

Rances Barthelemy reacts to a decision win over Argenis Mendez. (AP)
Rances Barthelemy reacts to a decision win over Argenis Mendez. (AP)

His memories of his repeated, desperate efforts to escape the oppression in his homeland have clearly not left him.

He was 20 or 21, and willing to do just about anything he could to gain his freedom. He’d tried and failed repeatedly to defect, frequently winding up in jail.

He’d spend a week or two in jail before being released, only to plot his next break from the island.

Conditions in the jail were abominable, he said, even worse than the conditions the average Cuban had to endure in their everyday lives.

“Life for someone in Cuba wasn’t very good,” Barthelemy told Yahoo Sports.

Barthelemy now lives in Las Vegas, and can laugh at the Cuban attempts to convince him that the United States was evil and that Americans were the devil.

Despite the Castro government’s attempts to brainwash him, he said, he knew better and that’s why he was so desperate to get out.

Sitting in a filthy jail with no clean water to drink and very small amounts of food to eat was meant to be a deterrent, to convince him to change his ways and give up his attempts to defect.

He was a boxer of some note at the time, and was valuable to the government for the possibility he could win an Olympic medal for the island nation. His older brother, Yan, had won gold in the light flyweight division in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Yan Barthelemy defeated Zou Shiming, who would go on to win two Olympic gold medals himself in 2008 and 2012.

Barthelemy said the government’s attempts to discourage him from defecting never had any impact upon him, but his experience in jail after one particular try made him more determined than ever to leave.

Nature called, and he sat on a dirty, decrepit toilet. But he felt something strange, and jumped up and looked in the toilet bowl.

A rat – a large rat – had attempted to bite him on the rear end.

As he spoke in Spanish on Wednesday to his friend and interpreter, Carlos DeLeon Jr., he held his hands about two feet apart in an attempt to describe the size of the rat. DeLeon’s eyes widened in terror.

“They put me in prisons all over the island,” Barthelemy said. “They were all very bad, all dirty, and they treated you horribly. There were rats in all of them, but in this one place, they were huge. They were everywhere, and they were huge.”

Rances Barthelemy, left, fights Argenis Mendez on Friday, July 11, 2014. (AP)
Rances Barthelemy, left, fights Argenis Mendez on Friday, July 11, 2014. (AP)

It only made him that much more determined to leave. When he finally succeeded, on his 39th attempt, taking a speedboat from Cuba to Miami, he was flooded with emotion.

He was leaving family behind, relatives he knew he may never see again. But he was not one to be caged in and he fought and fought and fought until finally he was free.

He was mistreated, he said, and denied the basic necessities of life. He said no matter what the government did, he was never going to give up trying to get free.

“I’m an athlete and you think they would treat me differently [because I could do something for them],” he said. “They didn’t.”

He said the amount of water he was allowed to drink during training session was rationed.

He’s explaining his troubles to DeLeon and it made DeLeon take pause.

“Very hard to listen to this,” DeLeon said.

Barthelemy shakes his head in agreement with DeLeon, and talks about how difficult it was to be at his best physically given the restrictions he faced from his government.

Life as a professional boxer is difficult, but it’s been a breeze for Barthelemy. He’s 22-0 with 13 knockouts and looking forward to bigger and better things. He’s meeting DeMarco in a 10-round non-title fight and praises his opponent for his toughness.

DeMarco had an extraordinarily difficult life himself, having to eat other peoples’ trash at one point in order to survive while homeless in Mexico.

So Barthelemy knows how desperate DeMarco will be, and he plans to match that desperation.

“I have literally had to fight for my life, and my freedom, for many, many years,” he said. “When you fight for something that means a lot, there is always extra there, more motivation. I will keep going and I’m not going to give up.”

If nothing else, those 38 unsuccessful attempts prove that.