Nico Ali Walsh’s decision to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps was met with scepticism, and understandably so. But he tells Declan Warrington that the journey is only just getting started
“IT depended on the day. His condition – some days he’d be able to talk clear as day. Some days he wouldn’t be able to at all. No matter what, it didn’t take away his emotion – his laughter; humour; his smile. On the days he was able to talk I took advantage – I asked him a million questions. Boxing; life; stupid stuff. We had fun; it was never serious.
“We had a method of communication. When he was having a bad day when he couldn’t speak, he would squeeze my hand for yes, or wouldn’t squeeze for no. That was our thing. I’m sure other people in the family had their own thing, but that was my thing.
“He was my only living grandfather. We were very tight. When he was in his 60s, had Parkinson’s and was an old man, he still hit the bag. He still hit the speed bag; he was still in the gym. Boxing was his love. I remember those days.
“I was 12 [when I started finding out who he was]. It was really late. Even now I don’t think I see it as well as other people do – he’s always been my grandfather first.”
There is perhaps no heavier legacy to bear in boxing than that that comes with the name Ali, yet at 21 – nine years after starting to appreciate what his grandfather continues to mean to the world, and having also since attempted to distance himself from it – Nico Ali Walsh believes he has finally found his calling.
It took his fifth victory from five as a professional, via an explosive right hand that stopped Alejandro Ibarra in the first round at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena – where fittingly he had previously spent hours with his grandfather, the peerless Muhammad Ali – for him to come to that conclusion. Much like Ali would have done, however, Ali Walsh also increasingly recognises his gradual transformation as the most necessary part of a spiritual journey.
“I was 15 – I started taking boxing serious at 14 – and wanted to quit,” he continues, to Boxing News. “I had a moment when I was alone with him and I was like, ‘I want to quit boxing’; he watched all my sparring tapes; my gym footage; all that. But I wanted him to tell me to stop boxing so that I could get his blessing, and he wouldn’t give it to me. He said ‘Keep boxing’. That gave me more confidence. ‘I can’t quit now.’ I haven’t taken a break since then.
“Some conversations would take place over FaceTime. Some over in Scottsdale, Arizona. Some here in Vegas. This particular conversation was after my brother’s football game in Reno – me and him were alone in the car. ‘You gotta keep boxing.’
“I think about that all the time, and about why I started. ‘Don’t forget why you started.’ When I remember that, quitting’s never an option.
“I felt a glimpse of it after my first fight, but [beating Ibarra] made it real clear [that it’s my destiny to box]. I felt I was given extraordinary power [mental, and boxing ability] – where does this come from? As an amateur I was so frightened by the lights; the crowd; everything. The minute I turned pro, it just disappeared.
“I was very nervous before my first [professional] fight because I thought I’d get those feelings again. But I was just given this ability from the great beyond, or something, where I have zero fear walking to the ring – because I’m doing it for something that’s bigger than boxing.
“I was always fascinated with how every success [my grandfather] had in life he attributed it to God, and a higher power. I was like ‘Why’s he always doing that? Maybe there’s something to it’. That’s where I’m at now.
“My grandfather, aside from boxing, had a bigger purpose. Everyone says they’re born for something, and it may sound dramatic, but I believe that – that certain people are born for certain things, and now I’m starting to realise what I was born for. Continuing what he left.
“I couldn’t care less about [fame and money] – maybe to a fault, at times. I really do think it’s a feeling – there’s things left for me to do in boxing and in the world as a whole, and I’ll know when it’s my time to leave boxing.
“When he’d come to Vegas he’d stay at the MGM, which is why when I fought there it was special. The last time I was in that arena was back in 2012, with my grandfather. We were hanging out that whole night, and then it went from that platform – of just hanging out with him for his birthday – to a ring 10 years later where I’m winning with a sensational knockout. That’s why that fight, and the win in particular, was so special. I was at the MGM with my grandfather every single time he came to Vegas.
“He would have been in the front row [if he was still alive]. Every time I put on gloves, every time I’m in a boxing gym, I think about him, because it’s impossible not to. I wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t for him.
“That’s why every fight I have, it’s not just a fight, it’s so emotional for me and my family. If you could see the way my mum and her twin react on camera – every time they’re crying. It’s not because of me – it’s because they’re seeing their dad come out with the chants of ‘Ali’. It brings back memories to them, so that’s why they’re always crying at every single fight.”
It is not just in his grandfather’s and his career today – he is yet to draw specific conclusions regarding the greater purpose behind his own existence – that Ali Walsh sees significance and serendipity. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, he believes, inspires an entire nation; Tyson Fury, one of Ali’s successors as the planet’s leading heavyweight, can touch the whole world.
“Some boxers are born for boxing, and some boxers are born to box and do something else with it,” he explains. “My grandfather’s a perfect example. Tyson Fury’s a perfect example. If he wasn’t great at boxing, he would still be that great guy on the inside but he wouldn’t have that platform to change those lives.
“Think about all of the millions of lives Tyson Fury probably changed or saved, just because of his boxing ability. If he was born 30 years ago it wouldn’t be the same – right now that’s [mental health] a struggle. Just like back in the day when my grandfather came around, it was a struggle with civil rights. People are born at certain times, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
“I was at Fury-Wilder III, and I was scared. I was nervous. I didn’t want him to get hurt, but for some reason I knew he would win. Who gets up from a Deontay Wilder right hand? Nobody on earth. It doesn’t make any sense. Wilder beats any other heavyweight in the world. That stuff you can’t explain.”
Fury himself had once said that his remarkable recovery from a 12th-round knockdown by Deontay Wilder in their first fight in 2018 came from having “a holy hand upon me”, but unlike Ali Walsh he had always been the most natural of fighters – one not only willing to embrace the weight of history and the grandest stage that comes with it, but as composed under the most intense pressure against the most dangerous of opponents as he is behind closed doors.
Ali Walsh not only once fought debilitating nerves as an amateur, he also attempted to hide his heritage by fighting under the name Nico Walsh. Markedly more challenging to obscure, regardless, is the extent to which he is his grandfather’s grandson.
Beyond the spiritual awareness, sense of purpose and natural athleticism, there is an obvious sense of humanity and loyalty; there is even an appreciation for magic he independently discovered as a child, before Ali had had a chance to pass his on.
“I have special relationships with certain people,” says Ali Walsh, who after graduating from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he studied business entrepreneurship, next plans to move out of the family home in the same city. “[My grandfather] was absolutely one of them; another is my great grandmother, who’s still around today. I don’t know why – you don’t pick these relationships.
“I would listen to him when he spoke about life, and he believed everyone was judged based on what they do in this life, and that this life is a test. That’s what my mum says all the time. ‘You gotta treat everyone equally; you gotta be a good person.’ He made it sound a lot more serious, and a lot more impactful. He was a poet. I always listened to him.
“That, I truly believe, is hereditary – that care for others. Sometimes people take my kindness for weakness, and I struggled with that as a kid – I’ve always cared for life. That’s a family quality. I just cared about people. Even though I’ve always been an introvert outside of boxing, I’ve always cared about people.
“He’s one of the most recognisable people ever, and I’m starting to understand that, but he treated everyone like they were a friend. Every single person, whether it was a homeless guy on the street or, literally, the pope, he treated the same. So if someone at that level can treat everyone the same, who am I to treat anyone different?”
Ali’s humanity – his warmth and enthusiasm for others, and his desire to trust – regardless led to his exploitation. It is often reflected that the biggest tragedy of his career were the struggles with Parkinson’s disease that undermined his extraordinary charisma and quality of life, but Ali Walsh is unconvinced boxing caused it, and is instead concerned only with avoiding the same mistreatment. It is also for that reason that his fourth and fifth fights were overseen by the cornerman-come-artist Richard Slone, a protege of none other than the great Joe Frazier – more significantly, Ali’s greatest rival.
“[My grandfather] was very caring and almost frivolous about money, because he just didn’t care, so a lot of people took advantage of him,” he says. “A lot of people took advantage of his kindness, and boxing’s a dirty business, as anyone knows. My mum [Rasheda] saw it all happen to her dad. I’ve known since I was a little kid about the Don King situation, and all that mess.
“My mum studies Parkinson’s and all those neuro conditions. My mum talks about that around the world. My grandfather’s brother had Parkinson’s – he didn’t box. My great-grandfather on my other side of the family had Parkinson’s – he didn’t box. People get Parkinson’s and they don’t understand how or why.
“Boxing, I’m sure, did not help, but anytime someone would say to my grandfather, ‘You got Parkinson’s from boxing’, he would say ‘Name me another boxer with Parkinson’s’, and no one was ever able to. We don’t know how people got Parkinson’s or where it came from, and it was a fear of mine, but I’ve decided I can’t live in fear. There’s a million boxers over history – how many of them got Parkinson’s?
“My mum didn’t want me getting hit for a living. I don’t know if it’s because of Parkinson’s or mainly because she didn’t want to see her son getting hit, but it never deterred me
“[Ali-Frazier] was probably the best sports rivalry ever – or one of them, at least. But what it came down to is admiration, more than anything. He would absolutely love [that I’m learning from Slone]. I don’t think my grandfather loved another fighter more than he loved Joe Frazier; he would be over the moon about it.
“Richard gave me a left glove that belonged to Joe, and I use it in training now, and I just try to channel the greats’ energy. It’s a cool story because they were rivals, but at the end of the day there were like best friends. I said, ‘Rich, you gotta frame this thing’, but he was like, ‘No, just wear it’. It looks old.
“I’d have loved Frazier as a fighter. Absolutely fearless. He’s one of those greats because of that – because of that fearless quality that he had.
“I’m just drawn to Rich. I don’t know why. We talk about [Frazier] all the time. They were very close. He says Joe would be very happy with where I’m at, which is great to hear. It’s very motivating – I look up to him. He trains me the same way that Joe trained, which is special.
“It’s like a calling. I don’t know what it is – I think it’s grandfather-related. I think it’s building off his legacy. Not going the same path as him, but adding to it. I don’t know fully my purpose yet, but I will.
“There’s a quote. ‘The two most important days in someone’s life is, one, the day you were born, and two, the day you find out why.’ When my grandfather found out why he was born – he knew at a young age – that’s when he just soared. I haven’t found out why yet, but once I do I’ll be soaring.”