For all the rumors that circulated about Al Certo, legendary boxing manager and a tailor of champions, his life was even more colorful.
Certo passed away on Dec. 26 at 90 years old, following complications from recent surgery on a broken femur.
Although a New Jersey boxing legend, who also was a professional fighter, trainer and manager, Certo also lived a relatively quiet and productive life as a tailor in Secaucus for more than 50 years.
At the time of his death, he was a resident of Kroll Heights, one of three senior citizens buildings in Secaucus.
“He was a good friend of mine,” said Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli. “I know his son and daughter. They’ve worked for the town. They are a close knit family.”
Like a number of elderly Secaucus residents, Certo was born in Hoboken. He was delivered by a midwife named Dolly Sinatra, the mother of singer Frank Sinatra. He was one of 13 children and grew up on Monroe Street, about a block away from the Sinatra family.
On the same street were comedian Pat Cooper, and singer Jimmy Roselli, who would later perform at some boxing events Certo put on, including two in Secaucus in 2002. Certo’s father was a bandleader.
A love for the sport
Certo apparently loved boxing at an early age and hung around the Hoboken Gym on Washington Street or Bufano’s Gym in Jersey City.
As an amateur boxer, Certo went undefeated to earn a New Jersey Golden Gloves title. He turned professional in 1953, going 9-1 before a freak accident not related to boxing severed a nerve in his index finger, forcing him out of the ring as a fighter.
He opened a tailor shop, but he was in demand as a trainer and went on to manage some of the biggest names in boxing for a time.
His tailor shop on Paterson Plank Road in Secaucus was visited by a host of famous people such as Sinatra, singer Bobby Vinton, and heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. The list of visitors ran the gamut from big time athletes to local politicians and businessmen, and organized crime figures.
Although still fully invested in the boxing industry, Certo reportedly produced as many as 60 top-of-the line suits a week.
But it was said he would stop in the middle of suit-making to go help out a fighter, and was noted for helping poor kids from Jersey City.
At the same time, he got to meet some of the classic movie stars from several generations, including Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro and many others.
A rep he couldn’t shake
For years, Certo could not dispel the claim that he was associated with organized crime. His friendship with John DiGilio, a Genovese crime family soldier, did not help.
Certo testified before the US. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on April Fool’s Day, 1993, which was then headed by U.S. Sen. John McCain. According to an account in The New York Times, during the hearings Certo made an obscene gesture at a hit man who had admitted to taking part in 19 killings and who accused Certo of having dealings with the Mafia through his boxing connections.
“If anybody ever tried to come to us, or muscle me, or tried to take anything from me, the first thing I would do is run to the law,” Certo told McCain at the hearing. “Nobody ever asked me, even during the other investigations they had, nobody ever asked, `Is anybody bothering you guys? Is there anything we could do?’”
People just threw a lot of Italian names around.
“You guys look at me, with the dark glasses, I look mysterious, and I talk through the side of my mouth — well, he must be a bad guy; he must be organized crime.” – Al Certo
Adding to the perception of Certo being a gangster was the 1974 street fight in which he killed a man. Reportedly, the victim had been spreading salacious rumors about Certo’s family. Certo confronted him, threw one punch, and the man hit his head on the ground and died ten days later.
Media reports claimed he made a fortune from being a gangster while he was working 80 hours a week making suits. While gangsters did come into his shop, he said he never asked them what they did for a living, he just made their suits.
There were moments of intense tragedy for Certo, including among fighters he worked with, some who perished in the ring. But no tragedy appeared to hit him as hard as the death of his daughter from AIDS in 1990 at 35. She was a long time drug user, and Certo’s first born.
In one news account, he is quoted as saying, “I often ask why it couldn’t have been me.”
A friend to youth
Author and musician Jon D’Amore, a Union City native, knew Certo for more than 50 years and considered him a close friend.
“I met Al Certo in March, 1968 when I was 14 years old,” D’Amore said. “He owned The Plaza Arena, a boxing ring on Front Street in Secaucus. When he wasn’t putting on boxing matches and exhibitions for adults, he’d have great local bands play there for the kids.”
Certo gave D’Amore’s band, The Mixed Expressions, from Weehawken, their first paying job.
“It was on that first night that we performed at The Arena that solidified my desire to be a professional musician, which I did successfully for many, many years and for which I always thanks my friend Al,” D’Amore said. “Over the decades, we became dear friends and I’ll never forget what he did for me.”
D’Amore went on to write several books, including one called “The Boss Always Sits in the Back,” a memoir about his own dealings with organized crime in the 1970s, which Certo reportedly found very entertaining.
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