Al Certo: “What a life!”

By Robert Mladinich on December 28, 2018
Al Certo: “What a life!”
“I’ve had a lot of good times—and a lot of bad times,” he said. “That was one of the worst.”

Certo was extremely articulate in a ‘dese and dem’ kind of way, and was truly one of boxing’s last remaining colorful characters…

The veritable Al Certo, a boxing legend who had been around the sport in many capacities since the 1940s, passed away in his native New Jersey on Dec. 26 at the age of 90. The cause of death was complications following recent surgery for a broken femur.

Fighting as a professional lightweight from 1953 to 1954, Certo, who was born Al Certisimo, amassed a record of 9-1 (4 KOs). Despite being a crowd pleaser, he retired from the ring after accidentally cutting a nerve in his right index finger.

He opened a Secaucus, New Jersey, tailor shop and became more famous than he ever was as a boxer as a haberdasher and trainer of such fistic notables as Buddy McGirt, Mustafa Hamsho, and Andrew Golota.

“What a life!” proclaimed Certo in 2005, after his heavyweight, Vinny Maddalone, scored a TKO over Dennis McKinney on the undercard of Antonio Tarver-Glen Johnson II in Memphis.

“I’ve been in boxing, whether it was promoting, managing, or training since the 1940s. I’ve seen it all.”

Certo was extremely articulate in a ‘dese and dem’ kind of way, and was truly one of boxing’s last remaining colorful characters.

Though best known for his association with McGirt, who will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, in June 2019, who can forget Certo’s expletive-laden tirade against Golota when the troubled Pole called it quits against Mike Tyson a Detroit suburb in 2000. 

“That was a bleeping nightmare,” said Certo. “The sad part is that he was such a talented kid. He got himself the opportunity of a lifetime—and bleeped it up. When he came to the corner and said ‘Stop the fight.’ I said, ‘Go back out there and fight, you bleep. You’re not gonna quit on me and all these people that paid to see you.’ I’ll hit you with this bleeping stool.”

It was one of the few times a Certo pep talk didn’t work, and the disgraced Golota was pelted with debris as he headed back to his dressing room. A disgusted Certo went back to making tailored suits full-time.

“That was one of the biggest disappointments of my career,” said Certo. “I’ve had a lot of good times—and a lot of bad times. That was one of the worst. Afterwards, I even had to sue Golota to get paid. The whole experience was so bleeping ugly.”

One incident that left an even more indelible impression on Certo was when his lightweight, Isidro “Gino” Perez, was seriously injured during a bout with Juan Ramon Cruz at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in September 1983. Perez lingered in a coma for six days before succumbing to his injuries.

“I jumped on the ring apron to stop the fight, but it was too late,” said Certo as he fought back tears. “He was a good kid, with such a nice family. In boxing you always know this can happen. But seeing his mother and sisters, all the pain they were in, was unbearable.”

Ironically, two years earlier, in Atlantic City in February 1981, Perez was involved in another fatal bout. In that encounter, his opponent, Fred Bowman, died after being stopped by Perez in the sixth round.

As tragic as those particular memories were, Certo spoke most fondly of the years he spent with McGirt, whom he described as the most tireless and diligent boxer he ever worked with.

“He was a great talent, and the easiest fighter to train,” said Certo. “I would show him something new and within minutes it would look like he’d been doing it his whole life. He had the sharpest eyes and quickest reflexes of any fighter I’ve ever seen. He could punch from any angle and knock you out.”

Certo also took over the training and managerial reins of 1980s middleweight madman Mustafa Hamsho after the death of Hamsho’s manager, Paddy Flood, who was one of Certo’s closest friends.

“Mustafa was a really strong kid, with a head like a brick” he said. “If [Marvin] Hagler wasn’t around, he would have been a two- or three-time champion.”

One of 13 children, Certo grew up on 519 Monroe Street in Hoboken, a block away from the household of Frank Sinatra, who lived at No. 419. He was even brought into this world by Sinatra’s mother Dolly, who was midwife to many of the Italian women in the neighborhood.

Also living on the same street was singer Jimmy Roselli and comedian Pat Cooper. Certo’s father, who went by the name of Al Cosley, was a well-known bandleader who often played at political meetings hosted by Sinatra’s mother. In his pre-stardom days, Frank would come and sing at these events, often at the prompting of Cosley.

In the early stages of Certo’s pro career, he asked for a little promotional boost from Sinatra’s father, a former boxer who, in order to be appointed to the local fire department, used the alias Marty O’Brien. In those days, immense anti-Italian sentiment worked against athletes as well as those seeking civil service positions.

In essence, Certo was told to jump in a lake. “He acted like I was looking for a handout,” explained Certo. “Obviously it didn’t work out. So much for neighborhood ties.”

Once Certo retired from the ring as a prizefighter, he thrust himself into his business, Certo’s Custom Tailors, and at one time was producing 40 to 60 high-quality suits a week. His wide array of customers ranged from superstar athletes to local politicians and businessmen, ordinary Joes, and organized crime figures.

Because of his ethnic background, as well as his involvement in boxing and his underworld clientele, Certo could never shake the label that he was involved with the mob. The fact that he ran the Secaucus Police Athletic League for 12 years, and was also involved in numerous charitable endeavors didn’t help de-stigmatize him one bit.

His gangster persona was exacerbated when he killed a man in a 1974 street fight. For five years he had been feuding with the victim, who was spreading salacious rumors about a member of Certo’s family.

“I threw one punch, a left hook, and he went down,” said Certo. “He fell, hit his head, and died 10 days later. Suddenly, I was Public Enemy No. 1. The press said I was making $60 million a year as a gangster. If I was, why was I sweating my balls off in my tailor shop for 80 hours a week just to make ends meet? The Feds saw a lot of gangsters come to my shop. I never asked what they did for a living. I just made them suits, but it was guilt by association.”

As his trial began, celebrities such as former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey wrote glowing letters to the judge requesting leniency. Three days into the trial, Certo was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter and escape jail time.

Years later, Certo was called to testify at a Senate hearing looking into corruption in boxing. Mafia turncoat Sammy “Bull” Gravano testified that Certo was a mob associate.

When Certo followed Gravano onto the stand, he made a crude gesture at the admitted killer of 19 people, and challenged the Senate to give him and Gravano a polygraph test right then and there.

“You guys look at me with my dark glasses and I talk outta the side of my mouth and say I must be in organized crime,” said Certo.

Certo acquitted himself well on the stand, and left at least some lawmakers befuddled and embarrassed by his earnestness.

The fact is that Certo was a lot more earnest and sensitive than most people could imagine. Decades after Gino Perez’s death, he still teared up when discussing the case, much like he did when talking about the passing of his daughter, a longtime drug user, in 1990.

“Sandra was my firstborn,” said Certo. “She was only 35 when she died. I often ask why it couldn’t have been me.”
Certo and his wife Lee had another daughter, Kim, as well as several grandchildren.

Certo was extremely close with Rocky Marciano, the only heavyweight champion to retire from the game with an undefeated record. He remembers asking the smallish champion how he was able to outmuscle and outlast much bigger men.

“I knew I was handicapped because I had short arms and was only 185 pounds,” Certo was told by Marciano. “So I had to do something to make me equal, or above, my opponents. I knew conditioning was the key. I’d go to the mountains for five months. I’d even tell my wife, don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

He also laughingly recalled Marciano describing a trip to Africa, where the former champion’s plane was forced to land in the middle of the jungle. “He told me the pilot warned him not to walk around because there were lions nearby,” said Certo.

“Rocky says, ‘Lion’s, they only got teeth.’” The guy was bleeping fearless, absolutely fearless. He had iron balls. I never met anyone like him.”

Certo also recalled when the classic film “On the Waterfront” was being filmed in Hoboken in the early 1950s. The movie’s lead actor, Marlon Brando, would regularly visit the Hoboken Recreation Center to work out on his own. He described Brando as a “ballsy kid who wanted to box,” but says that he was not allowed to do so because of the production company’s insurance regulations.

“He had the most potential of any actor I’ve ever seen,” said Certo who has worked with, among others, Mickey Rourke, John Belushi, Robert Conrad, and John Diehl, who was a regular on the hit 1980s television show “Miami Vice.” (All except Belushi had at least one professional fight.)

“But Brando didn’t talk much,” Certo recalled. “He was kind of arrogant. He always looked like something was on his mind.”

One of Certo’s favorite all-time characters was former middleweight champion Rocky Graziano. Like most Americans with even a rudimentary knowledge of boxing, Certo revered him. One time, when Graziano had a television appearance scheduled on the “Mike Douglas Show,” he asked Certo to slap together one of those gaudy, multi-colored suits that all would-be hipsters were wearing in the early 1970s.

Certo feverishly worked to get one finished, and did so in record time. When Douglas asked Graziano where he got the nifty suit, Graziano replied “Delancey Street,” referring to New York City’s bargain central.

Certo, who was hoping that a plug by Graziano would bring him nationwide exposure, was appalled, but concedes, “You couldn’t get mad at Rocky. He was the most lovable guy you could ever meet.”

All in all, Certo often said, his life had been a helluva ride. He had survived open heart surgery, always felt decades younger than his actual age, and attributed much of his youthfulness to being involved in boxing, which he called his greatest passion.

“I used to think the sport would give me a heart attack, maybe even kill me,” he said several years ago. “Now I think it’s what’s keeping me alive. It’s like what some people say about women. You can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them.”

Services will be held from 2 pm to 7 pm on Saturday, Dec. 29 at the Mack Funeral Home, 1245 Paterson Plank Road, Secaucus, New Jersey.

The New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame will be doing a eulogy and count ceremony at 5 pm. Hall of Fame President Henry Hascup urges all viewers to arrive before 5 pm to be part of that final sendoff to a truly outstanding man who will be missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.

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  1. peter 02:35pm, 01/10/2019

    I wonder what goes through Golota’s, alleged, mind when he looks at that photo which accompanies this article.

  2. peter 02:28pm, 01/10/2019

    Loved this article. Absolutely first rate. Damon Runyon or John Steinbeck could not have penned a finer article extolling the colorful, multi-faceted, life of Al Certo than Mr. Mladinich has done here.

  3. Springs Toledo 01:26pm, 01/04/2019

    Fantastic article in every way. “What a life!” said Certo. What a send-off by Mladinich. Good to see Jimmy “Making the Wise Guys Weep” Roselli make an appearance.

  4. Gary Simons 10:03pm, 01/01/2019

    Al Certo was awesome, in fact I gotta chance to chauffeur he and his crew around in Corpus Christi Texas in the early 2000s, best time of my boxing career life.

    Al was a true legend…..

  5. NYIrish 12:30pm, 12/31/2018

    Thank you for the article.

  6. don from prov 09:47am, 12/30/2018

    Great morning for excellent boxing articles.
    Good stuff.

    And God rest Mr. Certo’s soul.

  7. Erect On Demand 10:19am, 12/29/2018

    @MMTFC-Yep! That was Timothy Carey in that bar scene and he played an abusive asshole with a hangover to a tee….he probably did have a hangover any damn way….maybe not….but he was still great!

  8. Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers 08:19am, 12/29/2018

    Erect On Demand… Charlie was a chain smoker as well. I read they had to often stop some of those fight scenes because Charlie would be sucking wind. “Hard Times” was a GREAT MOVIE, though. “One Eyed Jacks” was my favorite Western of all time. I love the scene where Brando punches out the guy at the bar for being cruel to the senorita. IMO,  I think the actor who probably could have actually been a real fighter, if he would have taken it seriously when he was younger,  would have been Carl Weathers. Of course, Carl was a real life athlete unlike the others. All the rest, I say no way Jose. I think Jake LaMotta was blowing smoke up everyone’s arse about how good Robert De Niro was in the ring to promote the movie.

  9. Erect On Demand 07:54am, 12/29/2018

    Charles Bronson had experience as a fighter, or so they say, but the hooks he was throwing in “Hard Times” were arm punches and just plain funky!

  10. Erect On Demand 07:45am, 12/29/2018

    Great articles get me to thinking! Jimmy Roselli and Roy Orbison had the range in spades but neither could hold a candle to Sinatra or Elvis!

  11. Erect On Demand 07:21am, 12/29/2018

    Brando’s body work on Lee J Cobb In “on The Waterfront” really wasn’t that impressive, maybe because he was clearly pulling his punches but he got it right in “One Eyed Jacks”!

  12. Erect On Demand 07:13am, 12/29/2018

    Certo was right on, Brando could actually throw a nasty left hook to the liver as shown by the way he took out both Slim Pickens and the Timothy Carey, who by the way really was the greatest Hollywood actor of all time, in “One Eyed Jacks”!

  13. Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers 03:30pm, 12/28/2018

    “Lions, they only got teeth?” Are you kidding me? Rocky must not have been much of a nature buff. A lion would disembowel his 185lb azz with its claws alone. I swear in another 10 years, the Marciano legend will have him knocking out two male grizzlies and bitch slapping an adult silverback gorilla without breaking a sweat. And how does one kill someone in a street fight, and take a “plea deal” of manslaughter and not do time in the pokey??  Inquiring minds want to know. That sort of crime routinely guarantees at least a couple of years state time and in some cases even longer.

  14. Pete 02:05pm, 12/28/2018

    Superb, Bob.

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