Nico Ali Walsh is a Chip off ‘The Greatest’ Muhammad Ali
The green flashing lights of the Las Vegas MGM Grand reflected in Nico Ali Walsh’s wide eyes as he held his mother’s hand tightly walking toward the entrance of the hotel casino. Nico was there with his family to celebrate his grandfather’s 70th birthday in 2012, when he looked up to notice a larger-than-life image of the world’s most recognizable face dangling on the side of the MGM Grand.
To the planet, Muhammad Ali was known as “The Greatest.” To 12-year-old Nico, his grandfather was “Poppy.”
“I didn’t really know how popular my grandfather was until then, because there were all of these rappers, and movie stars, and people I would see on TV all coming up to my grandfather celebrating his birthday,” Nico recalled. “I thought people must really know my grandfather.”
Boxing made Muhammad Ali who he was and remains today.
His grandson Nico, a 21-year-old middleweight, has decided to follow in his famous grandfather’s considerable path, starting with his pro debut this Saturday on the undercard of the Andrew Moloney-Joshua Franco junior bantamweight main event from the Hard Rock Live at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa on ESPN & ESPN Deportes (simulcast on ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).
“My grandfather definitely had something to do with me boxing, but I’ve been around boxing my whole life and I got the boxing bug at a young age,” Nico said. “At 21, I still don’t realize how famous my grandfather is. I really don’t. I never saw him as the man the world saw him as. He was always ‘Poppy’ to me since I was born. He was never anyone else than ‘Poppy’ to me.”
Nico is the son of Robert Walsh and Rasheda Ali, Muhammad Ali’s second oldest, two-and-half minutes older than her twin sister Jamillah.
It was Rasheda who first found out Nico was boxing. Nico got banged around in his first sparring session when he was 14. He was thrown into the deep end, battling someone with far more experience than he had, which was none.
Later that day, he tried sneaking into his house with a black eye and traces of dried blood under his nostrils when his mother got a glimpse of him and screamed, “What happened!” Rasheda treated Nico like in a scene coming back from war.
Rasheda wasn’t mad at Nico for getting beat up. She was mad at her oldest son for wanting to continue boxing.
“I wasn’t happy about it at first, but it was daddy who brought me around,” Rasheda said. “It was a gradual process. Nico would do exhibitions for charity events, and when we visited my dad in Scottsdale, Arizona, where daddy lived at the time, I thought daddy would talk Nico out of it. You could hear a pin drop when they spoke, because I was wondering what daddy was going to say.
“I remember my daddy all excited and was encouraging him, and I was thinking to myself, ‘Daddy what are you doing?’
“My dad thought it was a fantastic idea, I didn’t at the time. I was like, ‘Ugh!’ My daddy used boxing as his great platform, and it’s what made him who he was and who he is. If Mama Bird (Odessa Lee Clay, Muhammad Ali’s mother) had told a 12-year-old Cassius Clay he couldn’t box, the world wouldn’t be as great as it is.
“Daddy helped so many people and I didn’t want to be that parent who took away my son’s passion and his love. Daddy did stay in the ring too long, but in my research with Parkinson’s and work with Parkinson’s, even daddy didn’t feel he received Parkinson’s from boxing.”
Nico was a rambunctious kid who was always in trouble, more so in annoying, mischievous ways than anything serious. Nico didn’t have a problem boxing in a local park between the ages of 10 to 14 with friends.
All the while, Nico tried to keep the secret of who his grandfather was. Someone would eventually find out, whether it was teachers, or fellow classmates, or the parents in the Chicago, Illinois, community in which he grew up before moving to Las Vegas, and pelt him with questions.
But taking boxing seriously?
“I would say my first black eye when I sparred that day my mom got mad at me, that’s when I found out how much I had to take boxing seriously,” Nico said. “It was great incentive for me to come back and take boxing seriously from that point on. My mother’s concern was grandfather’s Parkinson’s, which my mother studies. She didn’t want me to get Parkinson’s, which is genetic.
“I didn’t really know where I was going to go with boxing. Everything worked out perfectly, being where I am, being with Top Rank and about to make my pro debut, this is unfathomable.”
About to embark on his senior year at UNLV in September majoring in business- entrepreneurship, the right-handed, 6-foot Nico is trained by the renowned SugarHill Steward, the nephew of late Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, managed by his uncle, Mike Joyce, and will have boxing’s best artist, Richard T. Slone, working his corner as his cut man.
“Nico is a great kid,” SugarHill said. “He has a clean slate, and we so much more control of his career, which allows us to move him the way we want to move him. He’s someone I can get to mold myself, like my uncle did with Tommy Hearns. Nico is a great listener.
“He’ll hear me say something and he does exactly what I say. Nico is learning, and he’s happy to be learning. He’s Muhammad Ali’s grandson and that opens some doors, but Nico is going to have to do the work and he knows it. His grandfather set the path for him. But Nico and I talk a lot about setting his own path. I’m training Nico to be the greatest he can be.”
Rasheda and much of the Ali family will be ringside on Saturday night. She admits that she’ll be a nervous wreck, because “that’s my baby in there taking punches.”
“What’s most important is this is what Nico wants to do and this is what he loves to do,” Rasheda said. “Nico got daddy’s blessing.”
“I’m ready for this,” Nico said. “I know there will be pressure, it’s what everyone tells me. I have no choice but to embrace being Muhammad Ali’s grandson. No matter what I’m doing, I would feel the pressure of my grandfather’s name. Every moment of pressure is an opportunity to show my worth and it’s a dream come true for me to be doing this.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.