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The Legend of
the Cuban Baron,
By Enrique Encinosa
Our story begins in Santiago de Cuba.
Santiago is located in the southeastern tip of Cuba, where a green valley of mountains and
flowing creeks meet a deep bay of tropical waters. For almost five centuries, since 1514,
the city has survived plunder by pirate attacks, wars against the French and the British,
hurricanes and revolutions.
By 1907, Santiago de Cuba was a bustling seaport center, a city of cobbled streets,
colonial stone, and stucco homes protected by iron-grilled gates and horse-drawn carts.
Only nine years earlier, Santiago had been the center stage of a world conflict, as United
States Navy iron ships had pounded Admiral Cervera's fleet into oblivion, bringing defeat
to the Iberians and wiping out the last remains of the once powerful Spanish empire.
On Wednesday, April 5, 1907, a premature baby was born in Santiago de Cuba, baptized with
the melodic name of Ramon Cathcart Grenot, being the sixth child of a Jamaican couple who
had settled in Cuba sometime after the Spanish-American War.
Thomas Cathcart was a mechanic who worked hard to provide for his family but lived in an
age before antibiotics and laser surgeries, dying of a ruptured appendix when Ramon was
only 5. Ramon's mother, Clemencia Grenot, returned to Jamaica with five of her children,
inexplicably leaving Ramon behind to be cared by an aunt.
Ramon grew up in Santiago in blue-collar poverty. He worked from early childhood, selling
mangoes to travelers at the Santiago train station. He was a self-sufficient boy who
earned his keep from an early age and managed to study all the way trough the seventh
grade, a considerable feat for a boy growing up in an impoverished environment during a
time when making a wage to earn a meal was more important than an education.
During Ramon's years growing up, boxing was developing into a major sport in Cuba.
American sailors from Guantanamo Naval Base fought one another, and some among them, such
as lightweight Sam Robideau, were good pros who contributed greatly to create interest in
boxing among the local islanders. In Havana, John Budinich -- a Chilean light heavyweight
-- opened a gym in 1910, and by 1915 professional promotions featured local pugilists as
well as an array of top-notch imported talent, including Sam McVey, Battling Nelson, Ted
Kid Lewis, John Lester Johnson, and Young Ahearn.
The 1915 Johnson-Willard heavyweight title fight consecrated Cuba as an international
fight center in the pugilistic world. Young boys in every town and village in Cuba dreamed
of fame between the ropes and big purses for important fights. Ramon was one of those boys
inspired by press reports of ring heroes. While living in Las Tunas, he hung a sugarcane
bag full of rags from a tree and practiced his first boxing moves. He probably read and
followed the careers of the Cuban boxing pioneers lightweight Lalo Dominguez, welter
Enrique Ponce de Leon, and light-heavyweight Louis Smith. To a poor boy from Santiago
reading Ð- in 1921 -- that Smith and Kid Cardenas were making $500 each for a main-event
fight, the purse would have seemed a small fortune, an amount worth dreaming about.
Ramon began boxing while still underage, borrowing a birth certificate of an older friend
named Ramon Castillo. Not much is known of his amateur career. He probably started in
Cuba, fighting in cock-fighting arenas or dance halls converted into fight smokers where
amateurs were paid off with a few quarters, enough for a couple of square meals at cheap
eating houses. An old newspaper clipping states that Castillo won an AAU championship in
the U.S., but nothing is known about this trip abroad, perhaps his first of many
By 1924 young Ramon Castillo was a good friend of Kid Charol, a sensational Cuban national
middleweight champion who had a brilliant career (fighting a draw with Dave Shade) and a
tragic ending, from tuberculosis in Buenos Aires. Charol worked with Castillo in the gym,
helping him perfect the left hook and suggesting that he turn pro, which Ramon did in
1924, scoring a first-round knockout over a willing club fighter named Dativo Fuentes.
Thus, Ramon Castillo started a career that would extend for over two decades and take him
to several nations and continents.
Castillo was a very intelligent young man. Although his education only ranged as far as
the seventh grade, by his teen years he was well read, being fluent in Spanish and
English, and with a working knowledge of Hebrew, which he'd learned from a neighbor. Ramon
was a handsome youth, with an engaging smile, a Swiss-chocolate complexion and an elegant
Nature had gifted him with a hard, lean body and hollow bones, for although he was a
featherweight, Ramon was an inch short of 6 feet, giving him a marked height advantage
over anyone in his division. Weight, however, seemed to matter little to him, for
throughout his career he often fought lightweights, welterweights and the occasional
middleweight. Castillo was tall, fast, could hit with power, and had an iron chin.
Ramon Castillo was part of a small crop of very tough Cuban road warriors that were active
in the 1920s and early '30s. The group included heavyweight Goyito Rico, middleweights
Peter Sung and Eliseo Quintana, and welterweights Serafin Centeno and Baby La Paz. The
traveling fighters were active throughout South and Central America as well as the small
islands of the Caribbean, fighting in numerous venues against other tough locals with bold
names, such as Trinidad's Diablo Rojo and Jamaica's popular Kid Silver.
Ramon Castillo would become the most traveled of the group. After a few bouts in Cuba,
including a draw in a rematch with Dativo Fuentes, Castillo Ð- now billed as Champion of
Oriente Province -- went on the road, leaving Cuba for almost a decade, seeking his
fortune and living a very interesting life.
First stop was the U.S., living in New York and later in Chicago, scoring a string of wins
that included knockout over Harry Kid Brown and KO Brennan Ð- good fighters -- and draws
with some prominent leather slingers, including Baby Joe Gans, southpaw Harry Wallach, and
a tough young lightweight named Benny Nabors. The young Cuban was soon billed as the
Colored Lightweight Champion of the World. A newspaper clipping of the time indicates that
Castillo did not lose a single newspaper decision in his American tour.
Afterward, Ramon Castillo headed for Europe, where he became a boxing star in France,
Spain, and Hungary. Castillo, dubbed the Cuban Baron, was more than just a good pug making
money fighting the best in Europe.
Parallel to his fighting career, Ramon became a journalist and author of pocket novels,
writing newspaper articles and dime novels under his name, Ramon C. Grenot. His style in
Spanish was fluid, showing excellent command of journalistic structure. He became a
well-known figure among the European intellectuals of his time, becoming fluent in French
and picking up a working knowledge of other languages. A university in Spain granted him
an honorary degree, the city of Budapest proclaimed him an "adopted son," and a playwright
in Holland wrote a play based on the adventures of the Cuban featherweight. The play
Waar De Rumba Lokt featured actor Robert Sobels in the role of Ramon Castillo.
As an entertainer, Ramon was a first-rate tap dancer. A French article of the time
commented that Castillo was good enough to be considered a partner for Josephine Baker. He
did share stages with the legendary Nicholas Brothers of Cotton Club fame and formed his
own nightclub act, providing another source of income for his expensive lifestyle. For
Castillo was a man who dressed sharp and was often photographed at social functions
dressed in formal wear or an elegant suit; for a time, he even had his own chauffeur, yet
he was not an irresponsible cad, for he provided a pension to the mother that had
abandoned him in his infancy.
Ramon Castillo's life encompassed the artist world of Paris in the '20s, where the Cuban
became a good friend of the legendary tango star Carlos Gardel. It has been said there are
two kinds of tango singers: Gardel and everyone else. The famous singer and Castillo were
good friends, talking music and boxing at the famous Mont Matre Club. It was there where,
according to Chocolate biographers, Castillo introduced the famous singer to fellow Cuban
Kid Chocolate, the world champion on tour of Europe. Gardel, Chocolate, and Castillo
partied together, enjoying the champagne and showgirls of the Parisian clubs.
Artistic ventures aside, Ramon Castillo was above all a very good fighter, scoring a
knockout over German lightweight champion Fritz Reppel and a wins on points over Spanish
welterweight titleholder Ricardo Alis. In a bout with a Spanish middleweight brawler named
Pedro Antonio, Castillo was dropped in the second round by a hard right cross. Surviving
the round, Castillo proceeded to give the bigger man a boxing lesson, winning easily on
points. The Cuban Baron fought like he danced, smooth and slick, long arms jabbing and
crossing, hook flowing from the straight left, footwork gliding without effort. Ramon
Castillo was a craftsman at his game. A possible clash with Tony Canzoneri fell through
when Castillo lost on a foul to French featherweight champion Gustave Humery.
As political changes came to Europe with the rise of fascism and Spain spiraled towards a
civil war, Cuban newspapers speculated that their globe-trotting featherweight had been
killed in a crossfire in the early fighting. Ramon had been near enough to the roaring
guns to understand the brutality being unleashed in the Spanish conflict; he packed his
expensive leather luggage and headed back to Cuba. Ramon continued to dance, write, and
fight, scoring a win over a future Spanish welterweight champion -- then based in Havana
-- Jose Garcia Alvarez. By 1938 he was an English professor at a private school, Academia
Superacion, in Havana and still dabbling in his intellectual pursuits.
The Second World War interrupted Castillo's ring career and nightclub performances. He
joined the merchant marine and later the U.S. Coast Guard, spending most of the war
crossing U-boat-infested waters, carrying weapons and supplies to Allied Forces
After his tour of duty, the Cuban Baron returned to the stage and ring, but his career was
winding down with age and loss of reflexes. He drew with world-rated Black Pico and
retired after a defeat by Roy Miller in 1948, ending a career that had encompassed over
150 pro fights and dozens of exhibitions.
The wandering former fighter settled in New York, where he became a bosun in the Merchant
Marine, a job that fed his wanderlust. He married for the second time (little is known
about the first marriage) in 1957. Three children would be born out of the second
marriage, and all would graduate from college, an accomplishment that made the fighter
The old warrior was pushing 70 when he was pensioned by the National Maritime Union. He
died at the age of 88, in the Bronx, New York.
Somewhere in time he's still with us, in yellowed clippings that praise his ring
performances, in lines of record books, in history footnotes of Carlos Gardel and Kid
Chocolate, and most of all in the memories of his friends and family, who knew him as an
artist, a writer, an entertainer, and a ring warrior who fought with professional pride
and a touch of class.
Always a touch of class.
Contact Enrique Encinosa at