Sonny Conto’s image is larger than life on the casino’s gigantic LED promotional board, towering over traffic on a busy stretch of Packer Avenue.
His feet are fast. His punches are powerful, but the South Philly heavyweight boxer’s personality could light up that board on its own during a power outage.
Conto is undefeated as a professional boxer (7-0, six knockouts) and he’s due to headline a night of fighting on Nov. 18 at the newly built Live! Casino and Hotel Philadelphia, just a short jog from where he grew up in South Philadelphia.
He’s looking forward to pounding his opponent, but mostly enjoys being a mentor to neighborhood kids. Known as “Sonny the Bronco Conto” because his punches are said to resemble a horse’s kick, the 25-year-old has even bigger motivation than scoring another early knockout.
“Just me being able to inspire people is great,” Conto said from his mother’s house on S. 9th Street last week. “The kids from the neighborhood look up to me and I’m very thankful and blessed that I’m in that position. That could be them at Citizens Bank Park, that could be them at the Linc, or Wells Fargo.”
The truth is, Conto is a grizzly fighter, but a gentleman of a human being. He adores both his father, Frank, who is literally in his corner as his trainer, and his mother, Carol, who keeps him well-fed with her home-cooked meatballs and is his No. 1 supporter. Sonny smiles probably more than a 6-foot-5, 230-pound professional fighter ought to. But that’s just part of his charm that makes Conto such a likable role model.
“Growing up, he was very sheltered,” said Carol. “He never ran the streets, he didn’t hang on corners. He was in the house playing video games and he was basically raised in a gym and on the field. That’s all he knew.”
Although he began hitting a heavy bag as a toddler before Sunday dinners at his grandfather’s house, Conto played multiple sports as a kid, including baseball and football, while fishing with his dad during leisure time.
“I always boxed and played baseball,” Conto said. “I would flip back and forth. Once baseball season was over, I’d be in the boxing gym the rest of the year. That was since I was 10 years old.”
Conto walked on to play baseball at Rowan College of Gloucester County (now Rowan College of South Jersey) in 2015, playing outfield and contributing as a relief pitcher with a 0.73 ERA during the Roadrunners’ 39-12 season, which concluded with a third-place finish at the Division III College World Series.
“I walked on to the best JUCO in the country,” Conto said. “They were a powerhouse and I love those guys. I was just an athlete. I’ve always been an athlete.”
After the season, Conto was involved in a car accident and needed back surgery as a result of his injuries. He’d need to rethink his future in sports.
“I was at a dead stop and this lady hit me 65 miles per hour in the back. Boom. Herniated my disc and I couldn’t sit or stand for too long. It was really affecting my life,” Conto said. “That’s really when I hung up baseball. I went back for my second year and I couldn’t get off the mound or field my position. I said, ‘Coach, I’m done,’ and got the back surgery and focused on boxing.”
Conto’s focus shifted completely to boxing and he became a two-time Pennsylvania Golden Gloves champion while often fighting older and more experienced boxers. It’s something his mother came to grips with while watching her son take punches from older athletes as he chased his dreams, fighting out of the Marian Anderson Recreation Center at 17th and Fitzwater streets.
“When my husband brought him home from training for Golden Gloves the first time, I knew he was going in to fight an older guy,” Carol recalled. “His dad looked at me with a certain look to say he’s ready. It’s OK. He’ll be alright.”
Conto has never looked back.
He opened his professional career with his first two bouts at the 2300 Arena on Swanson Street in South Philly before fighting on the Tyson Fury undercard at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 2019.
“It doesn’t get any bigger than that,” Conto said with his infectious smile.
He’s also fought at Temple University’s Liacouras Center and the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. He’ll be the headliner at the first ever boxing match at Live! Casino’s 1,000-plus seat Event Center next week. Conto will face Joel Caudle (8-5-2, five KOs) of Raleigh, North Carolina in a six-round fight.
“It’s motivation,” Conto said. “It’s fuel to the fire. But it’s also a dream come true. I envisioned this as Live! Casino was being built. Me and my friend would get our morning miles in and we’d run by there and I would say I’m going to sell this place out.”
Limited tickets remain at $50, $75 and $125 and are available for purchase at https://philadelphia.livecasinohotel.com/, https://www.axs.com/ or by calling 215-364-9000. Must be 21 or older to attend.
Conto knows he will have a distinct home-field advantage due to proximity to the venue.
“It’s definitely going to be a pro-Sonny Conto crowd,” he said. “That’s for sure. I appreciate all the love and support that all my friends, family and fans give me each and every time I fight. They believe in me. They are part of the team.”
Conto’s undefeated record will be on the line. He says he feels no added pressure in trying to keep a clean slate.
“Pressure does two things: It makes diamonds and busts pipes,” Conto said. “I don’t go in there thinking about any of that. I take each fight one at a time. Some of the greatest fighters ever have multiple losses on their record. I don’t think a loss defines you.”
Conto would rather dictate his own perception. In his free time, he visits his former elementary school Christopher Columbus Charter School to inspire young students and future athletes. He also can be found visiting hospitals, attempting to share a smile with sick kids. He also says he’s never turned down an autograph or a photo. And never plans to.
“I want to keep motivating the youth and making kids believe in themselves,” Conto said. “Maybe I’ll coach someday. I want to be around the sport by keeping positive and trying to motivate others. I want them to know what I can do in boxing, they can do next. They could do even better.”
It’s the same encouragement his father gave him as a child, and continues to dish out during sweaty training sessions and rigorous bouts.
“It’s great,” Conto said. “Fathers and sons always have their ups and downs. If you didn’t, then something’s not right. But it’s great because at the end of the day, I know he has my best interests and I know he’s not going to let me get hurt. And I know he believes in me more than anyone and he pushes me more than anyone. We don’t like losing. It’s not in our vocabulary.”
Conto is hoping to be the next great boxer from a city of boxing champions, which includes Joe Frazier, Bernard Hopkins and, of course, the fictional one in Rocky Balboa. Conto often gets compared to the movie character played by Sylvester Stalone for their similar Italian background and South Philly roots.
“I mean, he ran down my street in the movie,” Conto said with a laugh. “Rocky is fictional and I’m real. But it’s marketable. I get it.”
Regardless, it’s brought pride to the neighborhood and has once again put South Philadelphia on the boxing map. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
“When people drive down the street and beep the horn or wave, I get compliments all the time saying how proud they are and how he’s such a nice kid,” Carol Conto said. “It’s all the things you want to hear.”
Just don’t mistake his kindness for weakness. Or it’s lights out.
“I’m Sonny Conto out of the ring,” he said. “But in the ring, I’m the Bronco.”