Al Certisimo was a professional lightweight boxer from Hoboken, New Jersey, who compiled a 9-1 (4 KOs) professional record between 1953 and 1954. All of his fights took place either at the fabled St. Nicholas Arena in New York or its New Jersey counterpart, the Laurel Garden in Newark.
Although Certisimo was a crowd pleaser who brought no shortage of fans to his fights, he retired from the ring after accidentally cutting a nerve in his right index finger. He opened a tailor shop and later became more famous than he ever was as a fighter. As Al Certo, he became a well-respected, well traveled, and perpetually in-demand trainer and/or manager of such fistic notables as Buddy McGirt, Mustafa Hamsho and Andrew Golota.
“What a life!” laughs the eternally youthful 77-year-old Certo, whose latest fighter, New York heavyweight Vinny Maddalone, scored a fourth-round TKO over Dennis McKinney on the undercard of Antonio Tarver-Glen Johnson II in Memphis on June 18. “I’ve been involved in boxing, whether it was promoting, managing or training, since the ‘40s. I’ve seen it all.”
Extremely articulate in a “deese” and “dem” kind of way, Certo is one of the sport’s last truly colorful characters. While best known for his long association with McGirt, who can ever forget his expletive-laden tirade against Andrew Golota when the troubled Pole called it quits against Mike Tyson?
“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 the bleeping stool.’”
As we know all too well, the pep talk didn’t work and the disgraced Golota was pelted with debris as he made his way back to his dressing room. A disgusted Certo, whose tailoring business had been thriving for years, went back to making suits.
“That was one of the biggest disappointments of my career,” he lamented. “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 one of his fighters, lightweight Gino Perez, was seriously injured during a bout with Juan Ramon Cruz at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in September 1983. Six days later, he died from his injuries.
“I jumped on the ring apron to stop the fight, but it was too late,” he said as his eyes filled with 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, 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 are, Certo speaks more fondly of the years he spent with McGirt, whom he describes 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 Runyonesque 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. (She was also charged with performing illegal abortions.)
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, and at one time was producing 40 to 60 top-of-the-line 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 mobbed-up. 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. One thing he couldn’t escape, however, was his conscience. To this day, he tears up when discussing the case, much like he tears up when discussing the death of his daughter, a longtime drug user, from AIDS 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 Lee, his wife of 57 years, have another daughter, Kim, as well as two grandchildren, who are 21 and 16.
“I honestly don’t know anyone who has a bigger heart, or has done more favors for people than Al,” said Richard O’Neill, the former vice-president of the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and one of Certo’s closest friends. “To the casual observer, he would sound crude, harsh and rough. It’s virtually impossible for him to put a sentence together without at least two curse words, most of which begin with the letter F. In actuality, he’s one of the most sincere and warmest-hearted people I’ve ever met. Considering the fact that he’s in boxing, that speaks volumes. He doesn’t know how to say no to anybody. The best thing about him is he treats everyone the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s Rocky Marciano or a derelict on the street.”
Speaking of Marciano, Certo was extremely close with 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,” he 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 recalls 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 recalls when the classic film “On the Waterfront” was being filmed in Hoboken in 1954. 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 ‘80s television show “Miami Vice.” (All except Belushi had at least one professional fight). “But Brando didn’t talk much. 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 seventies.
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, says Certo, his life has been a helluva ride. He survived open heart surgery several years ago, and looks and feels decades younger than he is. He attributes much of his youthfulness to being involved in what he loves most: boxing.
“I used to think the sport would give me a heart attack, maybe even kill me,” he laughs. “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.”