NEW YORK — Al Certo, the New Jersey boxing legend who was a fighter, a manager, a trainer, and a matchmaker at various points through the decades, has died at age 90.
The news was first broken by Thomas Gerbasi on Wednesday, who reported that Certo had suffered complications from a recent surgery on a broken femur. Certo’s passing was confirmed to The Ring by his nephew Danny Milano, who is also one of the sport’s leading cutmen.
“I am where I am today for one person. It was my uncle, my second father, my idol, the one and only Al Certo,” said Milano.
Certo was born September 28, 1928 in Hoboken, NJ, and was delivered by a midwife named Dolly Sinatra, who was the mother of singer Frank Sinatra. Before boxing caught his attention at age 19, Certo had another form of footwork in mind, according to a 2013 profile in the Riverview Observer.
“I never wanted to be a fighter. I wanted to be a dancer,” said Certo, who grew up idolizing Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. “I was a good dancer with my sister Joanne. Once, we were at a dance in Hoboken and the whole dance floor got off and watched us dance. We were great.”
Certo was undefeated as an amateur, winning the 135-pound New Jersey Golden Gloves title, according to his bio in the NJ Boxing Hall of Fame, and turned pro in 1953 under his birth name Al Certisimo. Certo went 9-1 (4 knockouts) in just under a year as a junior welterweight, fighting at the long-gone venues Laurel Garden and St. Nicholas Arena until, the HOF writes, “Certo’s career was cut short when he cut his hand with a saw while helping his brother remodel a car wash.”
As a manager, his most successful fighter was James “Buddy” McGirt, a 2019 International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee whom he led to world titles in the junior welterweight and welterweight divisions. McGirt laughed to himself as he remembered Certo as a larger-than-life character in a sport known for characters, casually tossing around the term “cocksucker” like a fighter tosses out jabs, and surrounding himself with legendary fighters like Joey Giardello and Jersey Joe Walcott.
“He talked like a tough guy but he had a big heart. He was a great guy, you just had to get to know him,” said McGirt, who still remembers the phone call he received offering $200 to turn pro at Embassy Hall in North Bergen, NJ, in 1982.
McGirt settled for a draw with Certo’s fighter on a Tuesday, and Certo signed him up as co-manager by that Thursday.
Other fighters managed by Certo include middleweight contender Mustafa Hamsho, the Viruet brothers Edwin and Adolpho, plus Andrew Golota, whom he led into battle against Mike Tyson in 2000, when Golota quit following the third round of the pay-per-view headlining fight.
“When I was trying to put that mouthpiece in his mouth, I should have shoved it up his ass,” Certo told HBO’s Legendary Nights.
Al Certo was as big a personality as anyone in boxing. Here he is in Legendary Nights talking about Andrew Golota: “When I was trying to put that mouthpiece in his mouth, I should have shoved it up his ass.” pic.twitter.com/CyMHr0dgp9
— Ryan Songalia (@ryansongalia) December 27, 2018
There were also lesser known fighters, like Ramon Ranquello and his cousin Isidro “Gino” Perez, the latter who died six days after being knocked out by Juan Ramon Cruz in 1983 at the Felt Forum.
When Certo wasn’t hanging around boxing sweat shops like the Hoboken Gym on Washington Street or Bufano’s Gym in Jersey City, he was at his tailor shop Certo’s Custom Tailors in Secaucus. The shop has been there for over 50 years, and he made suits for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Muhammad Ali.
He was consulted by Robert DeNiro when he was making Raging Bull and visited by the cast of Goodfellas when they were shooting the movie, the Riverview Observer reported.
“When they made [Certo] they broke the mold. If the managers today had half the balls he had, the game would be different,” said McGirt.
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and can be reached at [email protected].
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