Long before Sonny Conto made his professional heavyweight boxing debut at 2300 Arena by pounding Jimmie Levins until the ref stopped the fight in the first round, “Sonny from S. 9th Street” was just a well-known guy from the neighborhood.
Like a hyped rap act with posters announcing its first mixtape or a young punk band hustling DIY stickers, the six foot-four inch Conto, 23, who weighs between 214 and 220 pounds, was renowned as a two-time Pennsylvania Golden Gloves champion before he went pro.
Now, he’s better known as a guy who won his first three pro fights within minutes.
His status as a legend is quickly burgeoning. He’s a cheerful, focused fighter trained by his father since childhood, working out in a beloved local gym that doubles as a mechanics garage, born to a mom who has engulfed the family’s neighborhood in posters and t-shirts. All of which gives Conto extra oomph.
Add in a rabid crowd of young locals, friends and family members wearing Conto’s face on their chests, and his pro debut (like his second bout at South Philly’s 2300 where he pummeled Omar Acosta into another first round stoppage on March 30) was more than oomph. It was a mad cacophony of screaming, and sometimes insult-hurling, manic fans contributing to the thundering rumble that is a boxing arena at peak capacity.
It was a vibrantly propulsive and thrilling pairing of the smiling, smart, loud-and-proud family of Conto with the wildly devoted fan base pressed into one small space, with ESPN commentators and television cameras along for the ride.
“Sonny Conto is a breath of fresh air,” said Philly fight promoting legend Russell Peltz. “If I could have him on every single show, I would. He’s a white heavyweight from South Philly, he’s got a heavyweight personality and he’s got a devoted group — not just his family, but people, fans [and] a following — [many who are] mostly new to boxing. That’s good for the sport, a new, young fan. We need that.”
Raging Babe Productions’ Michelle Rosado, a co-promoter with Peltz Boxing Promotions for Conto’s first fight, is proud that the fighter made his pro debut on her “Philly Special” card. “He has a solid amateur pedigree, a promising professional career and a million dollar smile,” she said of Conto’s backstory. “He's a family man, a dog lover and has a big heart. I like that he proves his mettle in the ring. He doesn't have a big entourage, stress about what he's going to wear on fight night or which corner he’s in. He's focused on the fight and is humble. His family and a close circle of friends that are like his brothers keep him on track and have his best interests at heart.”
Now, after last weekend’s high profile, third consecutive knockout win beating Daniel Infante at MGM’s Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas as part of the Tyson Fury-Tom Schwarz undercard, the inevitability of Sonny Conto as a heavyweight contender and true champ is brighter than ever.
“The kid has it all,” said Frank Conto, Sonny’s father and trainer. “He’s a great all-around athlete, has great footwork, great reach, great power with each punch, his height. He can stand to gain a few pounds, but he’ll fill in, we know that. It’s just a matter of time.”
With all that and his background as a South Philadelphian Italian heavyweight, is this the Rocky Balboa that the region has been searching for?
“I’m the real Rocky,” Conto said, days after his Vegas victory during a rare day off from training at Mickey’s Auto Repair on Chadwick Street. “I think that this is all meant to be.”
BORN READY TO RUMBLE
It’s hard to not think of something as “meant to be,” considering Sonny started hitting the big bag at two years old.
“My dad hung a heavy bag in the living room then,” said the 9th and Porter native matter-of-factly, as if every kid had one at two. “There was no fighter who turned me onto boxing. It was me. It was my dad. Don’t get me wrong. I love watching other fighters now, but that’s not how I came up. It was always just me, myself and my heart.”
Frank Conto laughs at the memory of hanging that bag where the family watched television. “Yeah, it was something I just did. I was always into boxing my whole life, so I wanted to see him hit the bag regularly.”
Although he never boxed professionally, Frank is proud that he has fighting in his blood. For 35 years, he sparred and trained along with boxers, worked in gyms and fight night corners, and learned the ropes, literally and figuratively. “I studied in those gyms… everything,” he said.
That really wouldn’t matter for a minute, however. Though the younger Conto boxed and trained in his youth, Frank thought he’d end up playing baseball. “That’s what I originally wanted him to do, play ball. I knew he could go far in baseball,” he said.
And he was on track to go far. He attended West Deptford High School in Jersey rather than his neighborhood’s Neumann-Goretti because the former had a better ball program. Conto, a pitcher, continued on at Rowan College as a Roadrunner, reaching the 2015 NJCAA Division III World Series.
Then came the accident of summer 2015 where his car was hit from behind, harder than he first realized. He seemed, during our conversation, as if he didn’t want to go back to that painful time. “Yeah, I’m sure it had something to do with my decisions going forward,” he said, quietly, of an operation that left a scar on his lower back and required many epidurals.
“Everything happens for a reason. Baseball? Pitching? I couldn’t come off of the mound to field ground balls any more. I wanted to change things up, change focus, change physicality,” Conto said.
Somehow, the Herculean intensity of boxing was more therapeutic than baseball, possibly because, as Frank stated, his son has always been “a great, natural, all-around athlete,” not good at only one move, but rather, a front of energy, talent and God-given strength.
He hung up his cleats and grabbed the boxing gloves.
Besides, Conto didn’t love baseball. “Boxing was my back-up until it wasn’t, until it was my one-and-only.”
“I could tell that he didn’t love baseball,” Frank said. “You have to love it. He had to follow his heart. I couldn’t tell him what to do. I knew he was prepared to box. Let the kid do what he loves.”
Loving and turning his full attention to boxing meant that, before making his professional debut in February 2019, Sonny Conto had a record of 40-2 in the amateur heavyweight division and a Golden Gloves Championship once his pugilistic career started in earnest. With that immediate upswing came the hype from his family and friends.
“I have a wonderful relationship with Sonny’s mom Carol who I know is a big part of his promotion,” Peltz said. “His fans? They love Sonny. They’ll go anywhere to see him fight. They’ve been fiercely loyal from the start. But it’s the family aspect that is a great subtext to all this. It’s new to them. They’re promoting Sonny as much as we are — in the streets, the neighborhood, with the t-shirts. It’s fresh. It’s invigorating.”
The largest part of this fan vigor stems from the notion that — in terms of South Philly — Sonny Conto is one of them. He’s a young Italian-American with a close-cropped Caesar haircut and easy, neighborhood charm. “His smile, the way he carries himself,” remarked Peltz. “He seems as if he might be a jokester or a prankster. He’s got positive energy. Boxing can use all of that it could get.”
Adding to that allure, corny as it might sound, Sonny Conto runs down 9th Street, right where Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky ran.
“I live on 9th Street,” Sonny said. “He’s an Italian from South Philly. That’s me. He was a heavyweight. I’m a heavyweight.”
Sonny Conto knows that the myth of Rocky is his myth and a big deal to his friends, family and fans. “Rocky’s a fictional character,” Conto said. “I’m doing this for real. It’s definitely a big thing to have behind me, don’t get me wrong, but you know… I’m the real Rocky.”
Of Conto’s enthusiastic fan base, Peltz laughed and said, “They’re so fiercely loyal just from what we see on social media, I think that one of them would take a bullet for Sonny.”
Dylan DelloBuono, a friend to Sonny and fan to Conto’s fight game, laughed when I mentioned Peltz’s theory. “Sonny’s just a good guy,” said the Rittenhouse-area DelloBuono, who often welcomes Conto into his home. “He’s funny. Plus, he just happens to be a great boxer who’s going to go all the way.” DelloBuono is confident of that.
So are his friends. Of the crowd of DelloBuono pals, all around 24 to 28 with a similar level of camaraderie to Conto, DelloBuono said, ”Sonny’s one of us.”
If Sonny wins, his friends, fans and family win too, it seems.
Sonny makes boxing look easy with his confidence and all-around feel for the game.
Take his most recent bout in Las Vegas, the first to take him out of his native Philly and his comfort zones. He loved the feel of the grand stage, literally and figuratively.
“Man, everything about Vegas was awesome,” he said. “Winning that… as soon as I ducked my head through the ropes to leave the ring, I felt like THAT was a feeling that I would feel a lot more. That it was just the beginning.”
Even when Sonny Conto is in the moment, he thinks of his future and ultimate destiny. Pressure comes for him on many levels. His career trajectory and the arc of three hard and fast victories come at a time when boxing in the Philly/Atlantic City are is coming into its own once more, despite the recent absence of HBO Sports’ participation.
“Sonny Conto is a breath of fresh air. If I could have him on every single show, I would. He’s a white heavyweight from South Philly, he’s got a heavyweight personality and he’s got a devoted group — not just his family, but people, fans [and] a following — [many who are] mostly new to boxing. That’s good for the sport, a new, young fan. We need that.”
– Philly fight promoting legend Russell Peltz.
“Local boxing is healthier and in a better place than it has been in a while,” said Peltz, a man who has been in the game since 1969 and knows the ropes. He attributes that to better, more competitive fights taking place, with fighters more accurately matched. “There’s not as many one-sided fights as we had a few years back.”
As for Sonny Conto’s career arc, Peltz laughed. “There’s no arc, yet. Too soon.”
Peltz hasn’t been able to witness a Sonny Conto signature move or punch because he just keeps beating his three pro opponents too quickly and ferociously — all within three rounds.
To that, Conto answers, “Look, THIS IS THE THING… this is heavyweight boxing. Not lightweight or featherweight. These guys are strong. You need to have great eyes. Great defense. You have to utilize every tool you have. Me being tall, I have a great jab, and I have to work it overtime. Everybody’s good at everything in the ring. It’s about finding out what the next guy isn’t so good at and attacking that. It’s more than boxing. It’s a chess match. You have to be smart. A high boxing IQ will take you over a lot. Experience is big. But it’s IQ that carries you through this sort of chess match. Going in there, I’m not forcing the knock-out. It’s going to come… sometimes in just one punch.”
Peltz agreed that it’s hard to tell what Conto has up his sleeves. He is willing to bet that Peltz Promotions’ next show with Conto and Top Rank on ESPN at the Liacouras Center on August 10 should be a great time to pay attention. “I was happy when he knocked out that guy in Vegas last week,” Peltz said. “That was a proper set up from the last two guys he fought at 2300, a natural progression.”
Rosado noted that Conto’s form is solid, athletic and composed. “He's tall but not a supersized heavyweight, has strong bone density and doesn't carry a lot of excess weight,” stated the Raging Babe promoter. “His weight is functional weight. He has good hand speed, balance, and knows what he needs to do to win rounds. He has excellent hand release. He doesn't try to load up. He punches from the shoulders. It's very natural and important for him in the heavyweight division. He will only get better. He will develop into a nice prospect and be ready for a title shot in about 18 to 20 fights. He's got a big upside, but you can't rush experience.”
Training, even when Sonny might not feel up to it, is key. Working as they do with legendary local co-trainer Mickey Rosati at Mickey’s Auto Repair shop (“Mickey’s the perfect second set of eyes,” Conto said), the two Contos know they must keep the pressure up and work hard.
That this happens to be the first (one) week off that they’ve had since Sonny went pro is telling. “Man, I haven’t even felt like thinking about boxing, let alone talk about it,” he said. “I just wanted to spend some time alone with Tank, my pit bull, who I left behind for the first time when I went to Vegas to fight and train and spar in Tyson’s camp.”
Tank was named in honor of Salvatore DiNubile, the South Philly boxing youth who was gunned down in 2017.
While his son is taking a much-needed momentary break, Frank is watching footage of the opponent for the Liacouras fight, Guillermo Del Rio, and working up a game plan. “I know he’s not going to be on Sonny’s level, so we’ll go in there, not rush, take our time, and the win will come,” Frank said.
As for being his trainer and his dad, Frank Conto knows there could be issues that affect the father/son dynamic.
“So far, so good, no issues,” he said bluntly. “I’m his dad. When it comes to training, we bump heads in regard to frequency and stuff like that. That goes with this territory. Sonny knows at the end of the day, I’m going to be right. He’s young. He’s hard headed, but I’m telling him the same thing Mickey is telling him. Certain days, Sonny might be strength training and getting sore late in the day. Maybe he doesn’t want to push himself … this is the mental part you have to overcome to be a great contender.”
Conto mentioned that his dad wasn’t his first trainer. He’s had Elvin Thompson and Hassan “Candy Man” Williams in his corner. “A lot of people think that because my dad wasn’t a trainer or in the game that he didn’t know shit — but he knows everything. He can tell you what’s going on before it goes on. And he has picked everyone I have ever worked with since day one. He spars with me, runs with me. He’s 50, but he keeps up. In my eyes, he’s like Superman.”
Along with that pressure comes having to maintain his local hero status and upward career trajectory, especially considering the added incentive of his family’s promotional devotion and his friends’ zealous enthusiasm. His mom and cousin Devin were fully responsible for selling out the 2300 Arena both times he boxed there, he said.
“They’re a little crazy, my buddies, but I love every one of them,” Conto said. “They’re from South Philly. They can be nuts and say things they shouldn’t. I’ve heard other pros say how rough South Philly fans can be. I can’t help that. But they’re good people. I just want them to come with respect. Respect is important.”
Conto feels pressure leading into the ring every time he fights — fight week, the night before, the day of and all the way through to the ring walk, when he comes out of the dressing room and through the tunnel.
He spoke of spending three weeks with Brit Tyson Fury, the unified WBA, IBF, WBO lineal heavyweight champ. “I was his sparring partner, and he told me something interesting. ‘Don’t overthink it. It’s just another day with a pair of boxing gloves.’ That really hit me, boosted my confidence. Before I get into the ring, there is pressure all the way until I put my feet through the ropes. When I’m in the ring, after the first few punches are thrown, the pressure is out the window. It’s time to perform, do what I do best. Have fun. If you have a good IQ, you don’t need to be overly athletic, you just need to know what you are looking for — [it’s like playing] chess.”
Chess, like boxing, can be a lonely sport. And while Conto’s chosen to work out at Mickey’s Auto Repair gym because it’s so private, he feels very much alone there — a feeling of isolation that the outgoing fighter attempts to avoid at times. “It’s why I like my friends coming by Mickey’s gym to support me,” he said. “I feel a little less lonely, and I love the support.”
Ultimately, Sonny Conto wants onlookers and fans to know that he’s a fun, outgoing, loving and positive guy. “I don’t want anyone to bring negativity my way,” he said. “I want to see everyone happy, everyone successful and everyone [just] win.”
Except, of course, for his rivals in the ring.