When the still-new-paint-smelling Live! Casino & Hotel near South Philadelphia’s Sports Complex welcomes Joe Hand Promotions and heavyweight boxer Sonny Conto into its 1,200-person arena on Thursday, it will be the start of something big. Not just for Live!, as this evening will be the casino’s first foray into the fights game, and not just for Philly boxing as new homes for pugilistic endeavors are few and far between, but also for Joe Hand Promotions as Thursday’s debut set of bouts mark the start of the Philadelphia family promotion’s 50th year in the business.
“I never get tired of re-telling the story of our history,” says Joe Hand Jr., discussing how his dad, Joe Hand Sr., was a Philly police detective with a love of boxing. In 1967, Joe Sr. had an opportunity to become an early investor in the Cloverlay Corporation, the organization that steered the legendary Philadelphia fighter Joe Frazier – following his victory, winning the 1964 Olympic boxing gold medal – to the heavyweight championship of the world when he defeated Muhammad Ali during the ‘Fight of the Century’ in 1971.
“My dad got intrigued by the prospect of forming his own company specializing in sports promotions, asked my mother what she thought, and launched Joe Hand Promotions from their home in Northeast Philadelphia that same year,” continues Joe Jr.
Joe Jr. didn’t ever see himself dealing with boxing. He had his eye on basketball. That is until his dad lured him into the fights game, and a 50/50 partnership in promoting one of the earliest Joe Hand Promotions matches. “I told my dad, ‘Just this one fight, and I’m out,’” recalls Joe Jr. now. “Then I saw the check. The money was great. But the game was greater.”
He’s served as the company’s president since 1987 (Joe Sr. is Chairman, a hands-on presence who comes to the office daily), and Joe Hand Promotions Inc. has become the largest independent TV distributor of closed-circuit and pay-per view programming on the planet, working with Comcast/Xfinity, DirecTV, Dish Network, HBO, Showtime, Ultimate Fighting Championship, Top Rank Inc., Golden Boy Promotions, Kingvision, Main Events and other media companies and promoters.
“Streaming is the thing that is bringing boxing back and to a younger demographic,” says Joe Hand. Jr, pointing at new online ventures such as Triller and their online boxing matches with the likes of social media messiahs such as Logan Paul. “It’s not just an ‘old school’ proposition any longer. Suddenly, my kids and their friends want to know all about boxing.”
If you’re looking to bridge the gap between the legendary old school Philly boxer and the new school, there is no better bridge-builder than 25-year-old Sonny Conto. Often known as “Sonny from South 9th Street” the 6-foot 4-inch tall Conto, renowned as a two-time Pennsylvania Golden Gloves champion before he went pro, won his first three professional fights within minutes, and is the toast of South Philly. If you were ever looking for a real-life Rocky Balboa, you need not browse further than Conto.
“Sonny’s trained with his father since childhood, works out in a local gym that doubles as a mechanics garage, and his mom does his posters and t-shirts – it’s a family operation, he’s a local hero, and what’s great about the November 18 fight at Live! Casino is that Sonny’s audience can walk to where he’s fighting that night,” says Hand Jr.
To go with Conto, the rest of Thursday night’s card is teeming with area fighters: Super lightweights Gerardo Martinez of Coatesville will battle Philly’s Christopher Burgos. In their professional debuts, light heavyweight Tunde Fatiregun of New Brunswick, New Jersey, will go up against Philadelphia native Tariq Green. There’s an all-Philly welterweight six-rounder between Daiyaan Butt and Seifullah Wise, and a five-round light heavyweight bout between Kendall Cannida of Philadelphia against Khainell Wheeler from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
“We want to highlight the locals with this card, AND we want to show off this new arena in the heart of Philadelphia’s Sports Complex,” says Hand Jr.’s of Live!’s 1,200-person space, an intimate hot spot where, in some rows, you are but eight people back from the main attraction’s action – mano et mano, in-your-face boxing. “The entire space is beautiful, and we’re looking forward to many additional fights at Live!,” says Hand. Jr.
So are Philadelphia’s boxing enthusiasts.