As Nico Ali Walsh prepares for his professional debut, he knows the weight of his legendary grandfather’s name brings both pressure and opportunity, writes James Lupton
“MY main objective is to become world champion and to make a name for myself. But while I’m also making a name for Nico, I want to continue the legacy that I already have for my grandfather. I want to continue his name and build off that legacy and create something bigger, something of my own.” Nico Ali Walsh is perhaps an unfamiliar name among boxing’s most ardent fans, but the Ali name will forever be a mainstay in the sport that cemented his grandfather as a global icon and ambassador. Walsh is the grandson of the great Muhammad Ali, whom he has decided to follow to the ring, after signing a professional contract with Top Rank like Ali did back in 1966.
The burden of the Ali surname might ultimately prove too heavy to handle and Nico, still only 20 years old, admits his heritage all but forced the sport upon him. “I want to say that if he was just Muhammad Ali from down the street that I would still be boxing but I was kind of pushed into boxing a lot growing up,” admits Walsh, telling Boxing News of his poisoned chalice. “I just kind of fell in love with it as a little kid because I’ve always been around it, so, I don’t know. I mean, if I wasn’t surrounded by boxing my whole life, I probably wouldn’t have become a boxer, but I was [and] that’s really what pushed me to box.”
Nico’s journey has already been problematic. He lost his first amateur contest before being convinced by his grandfather to carry on. “My first amateur fight I fought really good competition, he ended up being number one in the country in my weight class and I lost that first fight in Scottsdale, where my grandfather was staying,” he explains. “Right after the fight, I went to my grandfather and I was like, ‘Well, I lost. I don’t know what to do, I didn’t prepare to lose,’ and he just talked to me, and he said, ‘You just got to put that behind you. Losing means nothing, you shouldn’t even remember how many losses you have.’ Since then, I have forgotten how many losses I’ve had. I’ve forgotten how many wins I have because he would say that [the] amateurs are just experience.”
If Muhammad Ali’s guidance wasn’t enough for the teenager, he also received words of wisdom from another supreme heavyweight, “Iron” Mike Tyson: “I talked to Mike Tyson after I lost my first fight and he told me about the amateurs and [he said the same], it’s just an experience thing. You got to get used to being in a ring, being in the crowds, and that atmosphere and just fighting under those lights. And so, my goal right now would just be to get as much experience as I can.”
We’ve all seen the trash-talking, cocky Muhammad Ali in his prime but very few knew the family man behind the scenes. Nico opened up about the man he knew; the loving, caring ‘Poppy’: “Well, there’s so many memories but honestly my favourite memory would be when we took him to see King Kong when it came out in theatres [cinemas]. He loved that movie, and it was just so crazy because being that he’s just my grandfather, I didn’t know how people would react to seeing him at the theatre and people went wild.”
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome which he made public in 1984, three years after his retirement. Parkinson’s disease restricted “The Louisville Lip” from many things. Walsh remembers his own struggles, coping with Ali’s decline as an innocent grandson. “It was a big struggle handling that because it’s so random. Some days are good and some days are bad and there’s nothing you can do really. You just got to go with the flow of things, and we prayed for more good days than bad, and a lot of the time we did get those good days, he was able to talk clearly with us. We were able to take a bunch of good photos with him and take a bunch of funny videos with him, and so it was a struggle with the disease, but we still have great memories.”
Although Ali wasn’t the man he once was he was most importantly still ‘Poppy’ to Nico, full of love and wisdom. “He told me to always eat right and for some reason that stuck with me more than really anything – eating right. And it seems so simple but just simply eating right and always staying in shape that’s what he would say [was important]. Eat right, always stay in shape and do plenty of road work and those are so small to the average person but they’re so big to me because they came from him and I followed that to this day and it’s helped me in my boxing, following it.”
Walsh freely admits that his bloodline was the biggest factor in Bob Arum and Top Rank signing him. But he also highlighted it’s his own ability that will ultimately determine his future and he’s okay with shouldering that pressure: “I think the name definitely could assist me in getting a better promoter or more purse for a fight. The name would be part of that, but nothing would work if I’m not skilled in boxing. So the name can help me to get to a certain point but it won’t be able to get me to where I need to be because I also need to be skilled in the sport as well.”
On March 6, 1964, Nico’s grandfather announced that he no longer would be known as Cassius Clay but as Muhammad Ali. This caused a stir around the world after Ali had previously devoted himself to Islam in 1961. Due to his religious beliefs, he refused to partake in military service which saw him suspended and his prime years as a fighter ripped away from him. Faith was the one thing Ali kept dear to him until his dying day. Faith and family.
“I want to leave a tremendous mark on the sport of boxing, that’s very important to me but that’s not the most important thing to me,” Nico says. “I’m Muslim; my family’s Muslim and my grandfather was a very strong Muslim figure.
“I’m more focused on leaving a mark on the people and leaving a mark on the world rather than just leaving one on the sport of boxing. I want to be a great person like he was, and I want to leave a positive impact on others just like he did.”
As well as Top Rank heading up promotional duties, he will have Sugarhill Steward in his corner and top artist and cutman Richard T. Slone on hand for guidance. The 20-year-old, who was once told by his mother the Ali name was a blessing and a curse, is set to make his professional debut on August 14.