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The Ability to Take a Punch

(Editor’s note: The story that follows appeared in the Marine Corps News on June 20, 2008. It is reprinted with permission.)

WASHINGTON—Tucked away in a Pennsylvania mountain range lives a man whose grey, slicked-back hair is not nearly as colorful as his boxing life.

Inset: John Kostas at the time of his NCAA tournament appearance

Inset: John Kostas at the time of his NCAA tournament appearance

Johnny Kostas has crossed paths with champion fighters—Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis to name the greatest. He has served his country during war. He is a former Marine drill instructor. And at 86, he is the world’s oldest active boxing coach.

As a young corporal in 1943, Kostas had just reported to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., when he heard a sound that changed his life forever. “I thought it was a machine gun,” said Kostas.

The sound rattled from a gym: a boxer practicing on a speed bag. “I had boxed a little bit my first year in college, all through boot camp and during my time as a drill instructor,” he said.

Kostas said when he walked in, he noticed a Marine who he had fought against during boot camp. “He told the coach that I was pretty good, so they asked me to join the Cherry Point boxing team,” he said.

Six decades and four sports hall-of-fame inductions later, the former Marine from Ambridge, Pa., is still involved in the sport as a coach, trainer, and member of his own boxing club.

Born in 1921 in Mobile, Ala., Kostas joined the Marines in 1943 after leaving during his sophomore year at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.“I was originally in the Navy reserves, but my older brother told me the Marines were the biggest and baddest boys around, so I joined,” he remarked.

His first year fighting on the team, he helped the Cherry Point Marines through a season without losing any interservice bouts. During his time as a fighter on the Cherry Point team, Kostas fought three professional fighters including Marty Servo, who went on to be the welterweight champion of the world.

Eight months after joining the team as a fighter, head coach Johnny Abood, who was nearing the end of his enlistment, passed the reins to Kostas. “I couldn’t believe that he would make me the head coach,” he said. “He knew I loved boxing and I was extremely passionate about it, but I couldn’t believe I was succeeding him. If it hadn’t been for Johnny, I wouldn’t know half as much as I know now.”

During his first year as head coach at Cherry Point, Kostas posted another near flawless record and sent multiple fighters to the national boxing tournament in Boston. But before Boston, Kostas wanted all his fighters to represent the Marine Corps instead of their hometowns. This idea affected the All-Marine boxing team, which garnered sky-high attention from the 18th commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. A.A. Vandergrift, who supported the program, telling the Marines to “go to Boston and bring home the championship.”

Kostas told the commandant he had nothing to worry about.

In Boston, the Marines won the team national championship and also had two other Marines bring home individual titles. Kostas’s success solidified an opportunity to spend a weekend with world heavyweight champion Joe Louis. “I talked to Joe before we left,” said Kostas. “He said, ‘I heard you’re going to Boston for the nationals. Do good there, and when you come back, I will have you as a guest at my home.’”

As the Cherry Point Marines were traveling back to North Carolina, their plane made a detour. Louis had arranged for Kostas to be dropped off in New Jersey to spend the weekend at his Lake Flats home.

That weekend, Louis referred to Kostas as the best boxing coach in the Marine Corps. “I felt honored to be in his presence,” he said. “When we came back they rolled out the red carpet for us, literally.”

After that 1946 boxing season, Kostas was discharged from the Marine Corps as a corporal and returned to Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He rejoined the boxing team and posted thirty-nine wins, three losses, and one draw. Never was he knocked out.

Kostas said his most memorable fight was during an NCAA tournament. “We had to drive four days to Wisconsin for the nationals,” Kostas chuckles. “When we got there, we found out that there were tickets for us to fly there.”

His tournament appearance made history for his alma mater. “I was the first and last person in IUP boxing history to reach the NCAA tournament,” the former welterweight fighter said.

Kostas lost. His fight in the national tournament came down to a judges’ decision. “I feel like I beat the hell out of that guy, but they gave him the fight,” he said. “I lost the first and last fight of my fighting career, so it’s kind of sentimental.”

After graduating in 1949, Kostas went on to coach football while still boxing about once a month. Throughout the next few decades, he stayed involved in boxing but was very focused on accomplishing other endeavors, such as running a children’s summer camp at his ranch and owning the Capitol Restaurant.

“Muhammad Ali and his team came to visit the ranch I owned,” he said. “He wanted to buy 100 acres to build a new training facility, but I only had 83 acres so the deal didn't go through.”

He went back to coach at IUP in 1981. Through the next five years he coached Golden Gloves heavyweight Leland Hardy, who went on to make the Los Angeles Olympic trials team and fight internationally.

In the fall of 2004, another former Marine, Rick Fanella, contacted the octogenarian Kostas about getting boxing lessons for his son. “I contacted him after I was referred to him by the athletic officials at IUP,” said Fanella, who eventually convinced Kostas to establish the IUP/Kostas Boxing Club.

Fanella would be Kostas’s assistant coach. The two built a boxing gym in Kostas’s basement, the walls adorned with pictures and news clippings of World War II-era boxers.

Fanella said Kostas is a dedicated, all-around, true-blue person: “When you see him interact with the boys, he shows so much compassion and dedication, even at 86 years old. There have been times when I have seen him get into the ring and hit somebody with a left hook to show them he knows what he is talking about.”

Kostas plans to hand the boxing club over to Fanella. “I taught Rick everything I know, just like Johnny Abood taught me,” said Kostas.

Through his sixty-five years in boxing, Kostas has preached one philosophy: “You can teach a fighter how to throw a punch and balance his body weight. But there are three things you can't teach a guy: guts, reflexes, and the ability to take a punch.” Throughout his career, Kostas has been inducted into the IUP Athletic Hall of Fame, Pennsylvania Golden Gloves Hall of Fame, Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame, and the Ambridge Boxing Hall of Fame.

He said Guinness Book of World Records plans to induct him as the oldest active boxing coach. “When they called, I asked them how old the current record holder was. When they told me he was 81, I said, ‘Man, that guy is still young.’”

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