WWII veteran 'keeps on punching'

Forget the time Maurice Sposato scored a draw in the ring against legendary boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

The toughest bout this small but scrappy pugilist ever had “was fighting for my country,” he said.

Today, on the 67th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks, Sposato, 91, joins a dwindling number of World War II veterans in remembering a conflict that not only shaped the direction of societies, but long afterward had profound influence on millions of lives.

Sposato enlisted in the Marines because of the higher calling to serve in the U.S. military, he said. He was wounded in the Battle of Tarawa, losing two toes and having his hips filled with shrapnel.

The injuries effectively ended a promising career in boxing, one that had seen him barnstorming the country for 10 years as an amateur and professional fighter and notching a 59-9 record. He earned the nickname “Kid Sharkey.”

But despite having to quit the sport, Sposato knew only to “keep on punching” – his salutatory catchphrase to friends and strangers. He stayed near the ring for six decades, training and counseling famed boxers such as Archie Moore, Doug DeWitt, Buster Mathis, Jose Torres and Larry Holmes.

Sposato also tutored countless youngsters in need of a second chance in Golden Gloves boxing.

After living in his White Plains, N.Y., birthplace for 91 years, he moved to Nashua this spring to live under the full-time care of his daughter, Judy Sposato.

He has slowed a bit, needing a walker and wheelchair and recovering from several bladder surgeries. But in a recent visit, he demonstrated the spunk and wit that often mark boxing’s most colorful characters.

“I’m not complaining. I’m 91 years old . . . after all I’ve been through,” he said.

Without question, World War II defined Sposato.

As with many veterans, he said nearly nothing about his battlefield experiences for most of his life, Judy Sposato said. But seeing and reading news accounts of the Iraq War disheartened her father, and he started recounting his experiences to illustrate that war is unnecessary, she said.

Maurice Sposato joined more than 35,000 U.S. troops in the invasion of the Pacific atoll Tarawa, a four-day incursion considered one of the bloodiest in Marines history.

Because of a low tide, the 2nd Division Marines had to disembark their assault boats far from shore. The waist-deep water soaked many Marines’ weapons, and many troops were shot down by about 4,000 waiting Japanese soldiers.

“I was a machine gunner,” Sposato said. But his 30-caliber gun was wet and couldn’t fire.

“I killed two guys with my bare hands. I had to do it.”

Sposato was awarded two Purple Hearts and many other military commendations for his service.

Nearly 3,000 Marines died at Tarawa. All but 17 of the 4,000 Japanese defenders died.

The experience shook Sposato, enough that it disturbs him to see politicians sending “young boys” to war in Iraq, he said. Instead of rich politicians initiating war, the public should first vote to approve any military action, he said.

Sposato used his hands to fight before the war, but it was in the relatively safer confines of a boxing ring. He was hooked as an adolescent, and eventually toured the country as a “bootleg boxer” – fighting in unsanctioned contests.

He earned the nickname that would identify him for life because he talked often about boxer Jack Sharkey, while his trainer liked another fighter named Tom Sharkey. The 14-year-old became Kid Sharkey.

In 1939, he fought an up-and-coming Sugar Ray Robinson, who is widely hailed as the greatest fighter pound for pound. The Poughkeepsie, N.Y., match ended in a draw.

“He was a fast boxer, but I used to train with him,” Sposato said. “Every time he threw a move, I knew what was coming.”

Sposato said he could box with his left or right hand. His head was his “fifth punch.”

Several times he led a reporter through the moves he used and taught others – at one point, jumping out of his chair and giving a hands-on tutorial.

His advice: Fully concentrate on the opponent to anticipate his moves, constantly shuffle your feet and shift your body to avoid the big blow and keep the other guy off balance, and throw several hooks, to be followed by an “over” punch.

These points and many others served Kid Sharkey well as a trainer and coach once he returned from the war. He helped pros and amateurs. He steered the young kids turned into his care by police to the Golden Gloves program.

Sposato used his New York University psychology degree to full advantage as a private detective for 26 years, his daughter said, but also in countless gyms.

Among the many awards he received for his ring contributions, Sposato earned the American Association for the Improvement of Boxing Rocky Marciano Award. For his 90th birthday, his family and dozens of boxing figures threw a surprise party that, for the first time, surprised him.

Although the violence of war scarred him, the violence of boxing seemingly gave Sposato a life of purpose.

“People who know him as a kind, mild-mannered person always ask, ‘How did you end up in a sport like that?’ ” Judy Sposato said.

Instead of answering his daughter’s question, Maurice Sposato turned to a reporter to offer more insight: “Keep him low all the time. A slugger doesn’t last.”

As he later bid the reporter and a photographer goodbye, Sposato had one more nugget: “Keep on punching.”