The man who defeated Castro: St. Stanislaus boxing legend once knocked out future Cuban dictator

Dwayne Bremer, Staff Writer Courtesy of The Sea Coast Echo
Martin Reymond Koch was named Iberville Parish Farmer of the Year in 1969.

Forward:  I was contacted last week by Mr. Dwayne Bremer of The Sea Coast Echo about an interesting history between the son of a Bayou Goula native and the late Fidel Castro.  Martin Koch was named Iberville Farmer of the Year in 1969, and some of Mr. Koch’s family still resides in Iberville Parish.  We bring this story to you courtesy of Mr. Bremer and The Sea Coast Echo in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did - Andrew Green, Post South Editor.

Fidel Castro defeated a United States backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, brought the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and befuddled the the most powerful country in the world for more than 50 years, but there was one American who he could not defeat.

Long before Castro led a communist revolution and seized power in Cuba, the future dictator stepped into a boxing ring with a young American named Martin Reymond Koch, who, Koch's daughter Nanette Lamothe of Baton Rouge recalls her father saying--"taught him a few licks."

"Farming and fun"

Martin Reymond Koch was born on Feb. 20, 1928 in small hamlet of Guinia De Miranda, in the Oriente Province of Cuba.

His father Edward, from Bayou Goula, La., was a plantation manager for United Fruit, a corporate giant based in New Orleans which owned massive tracts of land on the eastern side of the island nation.  Martin’s mother, Marie Catherine Reymond Koch, also lived in Bayou Goula.

Growing up, Martin learned to speak both English and Spanish thanks to the home-schooling of his mother and Cuban nanny.

Protected by his Cuban bodyguard named Nino, Martin became fond of animals, such as horses and his pet monkey.

He spent many of his days frolicking through the avocado and mango groves, riding horses through the mountainous countryside, gazing in awe at the Tropical thunderstorms, and learning his father's trade--which years later helped him become the farmer of the year in Iberville Parish in 1969.

"He loved Cuba," Lamothe said. "Some of his fondest memories came from there. Even late in his life, he would talk about it."

As his extroverted personality began to manifest, young Martin made a lot of friends with other American children whose parents were working for United Fruit. He also mingled with many Cuban boys, including a young man named Fidel.

"A mischievous child"

Fidel Castro was born in 1926. His father, a former Spanish soldier had settled in Cuba, and by the time Fidel was born, Angel Castro had become quite successful and wealthy, in part by providing laborers for United Fruit and acquiring large amounts of land himself.

Angel and his children had many interactions with the Americans on the island, including the Kochs, but much like in the United States at the time, they lived separately.

"The Americans and the Cubans were divided," author Patrick Symmes said. "There was an American area and a Cuban area."

The Castro family had plenty of money, but being from a rural area, they were short on privilege.

The latter fact was one of the reasons Angel sent Fidel and his two brothers Ramon and Raul to elite boarding schools, all of which were run by the Jesuits. 

Young Fidel was first tutored at home and then sent to several prestigious boarding schools in Santiago and then Havanna.

One of those schools was Colegio de Delores in Santiago.

Symmes penned the book "The Boys from Delores", which provides a rare account of Fidel Castro's school days at Colegio de Delores.

In the book, Symmes describes the young Castro as "compassionate" and a "brooding adolescent who identified with the underdog." 

Symmes' research is echoed by some memories Lamothe learned from her father and other family members.

"My father said he always thought Fidel was a good leader, but he was a mischievous child. He called him a rabble rouser."

"A great era"

The cool breeze coming off the Mississippi Sound in Bay St. Louis blows on one the of oldest and most prestigious Catholic boarding high schools in the southern United States.

St. Stanislaus College, founded by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart in 1854, has seen its fair share of former students achieve academic and athletic glory.

Over the years, Rock-a-Chaw students and athletic teams have won state championships in every major sport, but in the first half of the 20th century, there was one sport which the school dominated like no other, boxing.

From 1935 to 1951, when the state removed boxing as a sanctioned sport, St. Stanislaus won seven state boxing titles. The seven titles was the most by any school in the state, but it was actually seven titles in 13 years because the school canceled the program for three years during WWII.

"Boxing was a big deal during that time because we were really good at it," Bay St. Louis native and former executive editor of the Sacramento Bee newspaper Gregory Favre recalls. "That was a great era. We had Doc Blanchard there playing football and we were winning boxing titles almost every year."

"The Cuban Cane Cutter"

In the late 1930s, an aspiring young pugilist from Cuba began attending school in America.

"We called him the Cuban Cane Cutter," Favre said. He was from Cuba and he would cut them down in the ring like sugarcane. I graduated a few years after he did, but he was well known to all of us. He was friendly and outgoing."

Martin Koch first attended New Orleans Academy, his daughter remembers, but at one point, he began attending St. Stanislaus.

According to a photo on file at the Hancock County historical society, Koch was at St. Stanislaus as early as 1939 when he was in sixth grade.

At the time, the school had a junior high, commonly referred to as "the back school," which sat on the campus, class of 1945 graduate Randolph Bourgeois remembers.

Although Koch grew up in Cuba, he quickly made friends at his new school.

One of them was Ramon Daunis, who would later become a Brother of the Sacred Heart and continues to serve the order to this day.

Daunis, who was a year younger, recalls that Koch was already a good boxer when they met.

"I started boxing in the fourth grade," Daunis said. "Martin was already on his way to the top. He was smart in the ring. He took his time and was patient. Then he hit them with a jab or two and it was all over with."

Like Castro, Martin appeared to have a "mischievous" childhood, too, but it was more youthful exuberance than maliciousness, friends said. 

"Martin was a practical joker," Daunis said. "He had a great sense of humor and he would often tease people, in a funny way. He would always help others if he could."

Martin played football at St. Stanislaus, but his main sport was boxing.

Learning from coaches such as John Scafidi, who would later become the mayor of Bay St. Louis, Martin honed his skills and became an unstoppable force.

St. Stanislaus did not compete in state-sanctioned boxing during Koch's sophomore year, but according to a news article published on myneworleans.com, Koch's brother-in-law Fernand Willoz, said the school hosted "invitational" tournaments where amateur boxers from all over the area would attend.

In Koch's senior year, the 1945-1946 school year, St. Stanislaus once again competed in state-sanctioned matches, and Koch was a big reason why the Rock-a-Chaws took home another state title.

One of Koch's bouts was covered by the Biloxi Daily Herald.

"Koch started slow, feeling out his opponent while trying to find the advantage," the paper said. "In the next round, Koch landed a jab, which resulted in the knockout."

According to Koch's obituary, he never lost a boxing match.

"A tough guy"

In 1996, Fidel Castro hosted a special event in Havana to honor Muhammad Ali and Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevinson.

CBS covered the event for an edition of "60 Minutes" and Esquire magazine wrote an in-depth piece titled "Boxing Fidel."

In the story, Castro recalled how he played ping pong and tennis as a youth.

As Ali approached, Castro said "I spent some hours in the ring, as well."

Like Koch, Fidel was an accomplished athlete, playing several sports and excelling in all of them.

One of the most persistent and debated rumors about Castro's life is that he once was scouted by major league baseball teams. 

Boxing was a sport in which Fidel participated both in and out of the ring.

In one account in his book, Symmes describes an occasion when Castro threw a baseball bat into a crowd after being jeered by spectators. When an older teammate chastised him for being a poor sport, Symmes said Castro chased the teen up a flight of stairs and a fist fight soon ensued.

"He was a tough guy and liked to fight," Symmes said. "He always believed he was superior."

"A few licks"

The nature of the relationship between Martin Koch and Fidel Castro has been lost to time, but they appeared to have a mutual respect for each other as pre-teens.

It is unknown if Martin Koch ever attended Colegio de Delores, but a pre-teen photograph of him is stamped from the "Foto Mexiciana" studio in Santiago. 

Friends and family say Koch and Castro would often see each other at local festivals, youth events, and church.

"I don't think they disliked each other," Lamothe said. "They were more like friendly rivals. I'm not sure if they were friends, but they spent some time together."

Once both began attending boarding schools, the two would only see each other during the summer, Lamothe said.

Ship manifest lists from the Port of New Orleans show Martin Koch traveling to and from Cuba every year from 1938 to 1947 to coincide with the school-year calendar.

It was most likely during one of those summers when the two friendly rivals decided to see who was the better boxer.

"It was not an official boxing match," Lamothe said. "It was more like a practice or sparring match. A contest or a challenge."

Daunis said the match did not take very long.

"Martin was a superior boxer at that time," Daunis said. "He knocked him out cold."

There is no written record of the match, but Lamothe and others say they believe it happened.

Martin had no reason to make up the story, Lamothe said. Martin told Daunis and others afterwards, but it would not have carried much significance because, at the time, Castro was just another Cuban teen. Years later, Fidel Castro became one of the most loathed people in the free world, but Koch never sought any attention for beating Fidel.

"He never bragged about it," Lamothe said. "My father was very outgoing and talkative, but not one to make up stories. Whenever the subject would come up, he would say a few things, but then change the subject. The main thing I remember him saying is that 'I taught him a few licks.'

Symmes said all of the factors connecting Castro and Koch in the story match what is currently known about Fidel and his early life.

"It's a very plausible story ," he said.

"Everything was so neat"

After graduating from St. Stanislaus, Martin Koch went to Spring Hill college. In the early '50s, he joined the military and served as a paratrooper. Eventually, he married and started a family, settling in Louisiana. He and his wife Eleanor, originally from Ireland, had been married for 58 years when he passed away in 2010. They had six children, all girls.

Martin parlayed his love of farming and the lessons learned growing up in Cuba to become a successful farmer and teacher.

Even in his older years, he still dreamed of Cuba.

"He just loved to be outdoors," Lamothe said.

Fidel Castro took a much different route in his life. In the early '50s, he helped start and lead a Communist revolution in Cuba. In 1959, he seized power and maintained it for five decades.

During his regime, Castro--among other things--expelled the Jesuits, outlawed professional boxing, and persecuted many of the people he grown up with.

"Everything was so neat," Symmes said of Castro's youth. "Then it all unraveled." 

"Mixed emotions"

Fidel Castro died last week at the age of 90. 

Lamothe said she is not sure how her father would have reacted if he had lived to see it.

"He did not support Communism by any means, but the Fidel he knew was when they were children. My father had such a fondness about his childhood."

Daunis, who remained friends with Koch for his entire life, said he noticed a range of emotions including sadness, disappointment, and anger.

"One time, he told me he wished he had killed him," Daunis said. "I knew it bothered him to see what Castro had become."