Al Martino AKA Johnny Fontane from The Godfather: A True Boxing Fan

Al-martino-headerInterview conducted and copyrighted by “Bad” Brad Berkwitt (Boxing Book: Boxing Interviews Of A Lifetime 2002)

(July 20, 2013) When I was called to my house phone and was told Al Martino wanted to speak with me, I had no clue what it could be about. Well, I was delighted when he said, “Brad, Jerry Vale gave me your phone number after you did the interview with him on boxing. I am a big boxing fan and wondered if you would be interested in doing an interview with me?” I told Al it would be an honor, and this turned out to be a very special interview.

While conducting our interview, I discovered that in addition to music, Al had a totally different love, and that was his love of the sport of boxing. This love materialized from his following the sport over many years, some of those during “The Golden Era” of boxing.

Martino, being in show business for more than fifty years, has met and been involved with some great fighters, which has given him tremendous insight into the sport.

As a result of having numerous hits throughout his legendary career, such as Here In My Heart, Spanish Eyes, and Daddy’s Little Girl, to name just a few, Al was afforded the opportunity to travel the world and see many great fights. For the younger generation, you may remember Martino as singer Johnny Fontane, in this writer’s personal favorite movie of all-time, The Godfather.

BB: Tell me about the fighters you knew over the years and how you were involved with them?

I go back a long ways with boxing. I can remember when I was a young boy I used to listen to all of Joe Louis’ fights on the radio and especially remember the one with Max Schmeling.

Later when TV came out and was just in its infancy, I was glued to it, watching the fights as well. My family would look forward to all the boxing matches and boy did we watch them. I distinctly remember watching the Rocky Graziano Vs Tony Zale fight. Rocky was a close friend of mine for many years. Rocky and I used to see each other in New York and in fact, we did a couple of shows together.

Brad, let me tell you, to be friends with these fighters was to me, one of the most gratifying and exciting ventures in my life. I was friendly with Joe Louis and of course, Rocky Marciano. Rocky and I were very close and used to room in the same hotel together in Boston called the Logan Motel. Rocky and I used to get together in Boston and talk boxing over dinner on many a night at Mother Anna’s where I used to see the Kennedy’s as well. As you grow in this business you have the opportunity to meet so many of the wonderful fighters.

I have to tell you a story about Muhammad Ali who is a fan of mine. Muhammad almost bought my house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey back in about 1964 – 65. I had just built the house because as you may know, construction is my hobby which started when I was a young boy. My father, brother, and I, used to build houses. I built this wonderful house in Cherry Hill which was not a big home but was completely surrounded by a big seven foot high wall and iron gates.

Well, one day I looked out the window and there was Muhammad Ali sitting in a car right in front of my house. He had someone knock on my door. He said “We would like to buy your house”. Seconds later the big man walked in. He then said to me “I like your house a lot and I have been watching you build it. Is it for sale”? I told him that I would love to sell it to you, but it took me almost a year to build it with my own hands and sweat so I really can’t sell it.

Muhammad said, “If I offer you twice as much as you paid for it will you sell it?” I said “no I just can’t.” What finally happened is they pulled away and I only got one more call from them. I told them I was still thinking about it. Ali eventually moved to another area close by in New Jersey where he bought a house. The funny thing now is I should have sold it to him because when I did sell it, I didn’t get very much for it.

BB: Who, in your lifetime, do you feel is the greatest fighter of all-time?

Well, that’s like asking me what’s my favorite finger? When these guys become champions it’s because they are the best out there. If they are the best then they have to be your favorite, in my opinion. Fighters such as Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and Rocky Marciano. I just can’t say one is better than the other unless you put them all in the ring and the best man wins.

Thinking about these guys makes me think of another funny story I would like to tell you. When I first starting singing in New York City, I wanted a job at the Copacabana nightclub. I didn’t know how to go about getting it and back then, I had no one representing me.

I met this guy who really looked like a wiseguy. He told me that he could get me a job at the Copa. At that time, Jack Entratter owned the Copa and later on became famous with the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. This is around the late 40’s say 1948 or 49. He took me over to the Copa. Jack said, “Let him get up and sing a song”. I did and the wiseguy asked Jack, “what did you think about my singer?”

Jack replied, “I didn’t like him.” So the wiseguy said, “you don’t like him as a singer we will make him a fighter.” Of course I couldn’t fight and that never happened. That’s a true story.

BB: What is the nicest venue you have ever seen a fight at?

I would have to say Madison Square Garden. You know it hasn’t been that long since big fights went on at other places like they used to have at the Garden. You always can look back and say I saw those fights at Madison Square Garden.

BB: What era do you feel had the best fighters and why?

Well, first of all, I will answer the why. The why is television. Television was so important to boxing because it brought it forward the same way it has brought golf forward. If Tiger Woods played back in the days when Ben Hogan played, he would not have been as known. Now, the era would be the late 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s when I really went out of my way to see the fights.

BB: Who are you top three favorite fighters of all-time and why?

Well Ali is on top. He was the most exciting, charismatic, articulate, and funny. He could come up with some of the funniest lines. Next, Rocky Marciano. Rocky was just so tough. Finally, Sugar Ray Robinson who was a good friend of mine. He got into show business and we worked the room together at the Latin Quarter up in Boston. He really was a great fighter and had a good act.

BB: Are there any fighters today who remind you of the old days?

I would say Oscar De La Hoya a little bit. You see what it is television is so different today than when it came out of its infancy. When I watched Rocky Graziano fight Tony Zale, that was the first time I saw a live fight. It left an impression that you never forget. Now, TV is different today, because you don’t see many fights on it like in the old days.

Everything is Pay Per View. This really makes a difference. I wish they would show the old fights here like they do in Germany. Once a week, they show the old fights and it’s exciting to see them. They need to show them in the states and I am sure they can, because the networks own fight films.

BB: What is the greatest fight you have ever seen and why?

Well, the greatest fight I saw, and it’s not because of the fight, but because it involved two great champions, one ex-champion and one soon-to-be champion, was Rocky Marciano Vs Joe Louis. I was glued to the TV set. In my heart and believe it, I wanted Joe to win. I didn’t want Joe to lose, even though I liked Rocky and we were friends. In my mind I said “Hey Rocky pass this one up or let Joe win.” It broke my heart to see Joe lose.

If I was Rocky, I would not have taken the fight. Here, I will give you an idea. I made a record called Here in My Heart back in the early 50’s. I recorded the song, produced it, and paid for it myself. It went on the air in Philadelphia and started to become a big hit.

Well, RCA Records heard about it and called Mario Lanza. At that time, Mario was the biggest star in the world and they told him to cover my record. They told him I was going to have a big hit with it but if he did it, it would knock me right out of the box.

When I heard about that, I called Mario and told him this was my big opportunity to break into show business with a hit record. I asked him would he consider passing on covering Here in My Heart? You know what he said? He said, “Well why not? You’re from Philadelphia and I am too. I will tell RCA that I will not do it.” That was real CLASS! That’s what I wish happened in the Louis fight.

BB: Finally, in all your years as a boxing fan, what is the most brutal knockout you have ever seen?

I would say Rocky Marciano vs. Jersey Joe Walcott I. That was some punch Rocky landed and those close ups were something else. I remember pictures of Walcott’s face being distorted.

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