February 2006


Rinsing Off the Mouthpiece
By GorDoom

Poem of the Month
By Tom Smario

The 2005 CBZ Year-End Awards
By J.D. Vena

Women to Watch For in 2006
By Adam Pollack


INTERVIEWS:

Lou DiBella: No Joe Palooka
By Dave Iamaele

Lamon Brewster, Unplugged
By Juan C. Ayllon

Touching Gloves with...
Clyde Gray

By Dan Hanley


PROFILES:

Iron Mike Tyson: Myth or Monster?
By Jim Trunzo

Jess Sandoval: The Coach Says,
"Bundle Up"

By Katherine Dunn

The Legend of the Cuban Baron,
Ramon Castillo

By Enrique Encinsoa

Paul Thorn
By Pete Ehrman

Battling Nelson: Always Battered,
Seldom Beaten

By Tracy Callis

Kid Chocolate, the Cuban Bon Bon
By Monte Cox


BOOK REVIEWS AND EXCERPTS:

Shadow Boxers
Photographs by Jim Lommasson

The Iceman Diaries
by John Scully

The Boxing Bookshelf
by Dave Iamele


The Legend of
the Cuban Baron,
Ramon Castillo


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 - 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 globe-trotting adventures.

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 personal style.

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 - 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 - 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 fighting Nazis.

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 proud.

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 editors@cyberboxingzone.com.

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