Sonny Conto is three fights and just four rounds into his professional career, yet he’s already a Philadelphia phenomenon. Indeed, Conto has received more than his share of high-profile attention in the lead-up to his tilt this Saturday at Philly’s Liacouras Center on the undercard of what was to have been Carl Frampton’s long awaited comeback bout (that match is cancelled due to injury; the main event is now Jason Sosa vs Haskell Rhodes). In recent weeks the young heavyweight prospect has been featured on one of the city’s biggest morning TV shows, landed the cover story on Philadelphia Weekly, and thrown out the first pitch at a Phillies game. And all of this with about ten minutes of actual in-ring experience under his belt. So what is it that makes “The Bronco” inspire so much hype from casuals and fight freaks alike?
To be clear, it isn’t as if Conto had no pedigree before turning pro. He is a two-time Pennsylvania Golden Gloves champion, a silver medalist at the 2018 National Golden Gloves, and a bronze medalist at the 2017 National Golden Gloves. Additionally, he played baseball at Rowan College, which shows the genuine athleticism possessed by this big man. All of this makes him a prospect to watch, but that’s not what endears him to the larger public.
Conto is of Italian descent, and lives on South Ninth Street in Philadelphia, just a few blocks from the Italian Market. And this makes the comparisons to the fictional character of Rocky Balboa inevitable. Conto runs the same streets as the most famous cinematic pugilist, and his South Philly accent makes one think of Sylvester Stallone’s portrayal of the famous screen character. Few fight fans can resist a real-life Rocky story, but especially not Philadelphians.
Conto is also extremely personable, outgoing, and genuine. You can see this in his interviews, but also when he’s not on camera. At his debut back in February at the 2300 Arena, Conto demolished Jimmie Levins in front of hundreds of people wearing t-shirts with his name on them. It would have been easy to enjoy a victory lap in that atmosphere, but as the card went on Conto came out in his sweats and quietly said hello to his friends in the audience. A few of those friends happened to be sitting right in front of me, and they exchanged hugs with the big man, clearly on no different terms than they had been before Sonny signed a deal with mega promoters Top Rank.
But while it is easy to like Conto and root for him, everything that makes him a promoter’s dream doesn’t help him inside the ropes. He knows this. And it’s when he starts really talking the fight game, not the promotion game, that the most dedicated boxing heads can start to believe in his potential.
“Rocky was fictional,” says Conto. “I’m for real. I tune all that stuff out. You’re only as good as your last performance. June 15th is the past and now I’m focused on August 10th.”
That fight in June was massive for such a young fighter as it was on the Tyson Fury vs Tom Schwarz undercard. And while the national exposure of his knockout over Daniel Infante only means good things for his reputation and drawing power, he talked more about the experience of being in Tyson Fury’s camp for three weeks than about being in the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” he said about sparring with the man many consider the lineal heavyweight champ. “I was really blessed to get the opportunity and I soaked it all up.” When asked what he gained from working with Fury, Conto said, “Ways to move in and come inside behind the jab. When to load up. And the mental part of it.”
Understandably, some things have to stay in the gym, but it was easy to see that Conto cared more about improving than about knocking out his opponent, even on ESPN. And this is something that distinguishes Conto from the stereotypes of Philly fighters: he’s more concerned with his own development than being a part of the tough pugilistic culture in his home town.
“Sparring in Philly is about gym wars, but that’s not how you learn,” says Conto. “I don’t really believe in it, but it’s in our blood and it happens. I’ve done it, plenty of times. But we’re not here to see who’s the tougher guy; I’m here to learn, to get better.”
The first time I heard Sonny Conto’s name was about a year ago when talking to Jesse Hart, who has a reputation around Philly for going particularly hard in sparring. He worked with the much larger Conto in preparation for what turned out to be Hart’s destruction of Mike Gavronsky. It’s also worth nothing that Conto went to Montreal and worked with former Olympian and current top contender Oscar Rivas prior to Conto’s pro debut. Clearly this is a young boxer who wants to take advantage of every opportunity to learn and gain experience.
It’s tough to see just what kind of style Conto has based on the limited rounds he’s logged to this point, but even in the very limited sample size available, one sees flashes of skill and ring IQ. For example, when Conto got Omar Acosta pinned in the corner, he showed solid finishing instincts by upping the intensity of his attack, while in terms of craft Conto had the nous to mix up head and body shots and use one hand to smack Acosta’s guard away so he could score with the other fist. The result was Acosta never escaped that corner until he was on the canvas and the match was over.
“I have different tools,” says Conto about his style, “I feel like I can be Holyfield and come forward, or be mobile like Muhammad Ali and use my footwork and reach and speed. Moving up the ranks I’ll have to utilize all the tools.”
Those are lofty comparisons, to be sure, but there’s no question that Sonny Conto has the physical equipment to both brawl and box. At this point it’s all a question of skill development, along with solid matchmaking and staying active. When you’re 3-0 and 23-years-old, time is still clearly on your side.
Sure there are a few Rocky Balboa parallels, but in truth the real-life prospect and the fictional pug are almost nothing alike. Rocky was a down-and-out club fighter, while Conto is backed by one of the top promoters and has already fought in one of the most storied arenas in Las Vegas. If his successes keep coming and he moves away from the cinematic comparisons, Conto’s fan base is sure to grow along with his exposure to the larger boxing community.
“The fans are everything” says Sonny. “Without the fans, I’m nothing. Sometimes they’re rowdy, but they’re there for me. Big respect to all my fans and hopefully I can gain more.”
A nice, respectful kid outside the ring, but a destructive force inside it. That, for sure, is a recipe for success, and a reason to watch Sonny Conto closely. — Joshua Isard