Saturday, July 17, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Nico Ali Walsh sat in a parking lot in Reno six years ago and pleaded with the greatest boxer of all time to tell him to stop fighting.
He was 14, months into his amateur career and full of doubt if this future was for him. Growing up he was always that kid on the block who loved to fight, lining up neighborhood boys for sparring sessions or bare-knuckling with his older brother.
But as he looked into the eyes of his grandfather, all he wanted was permission to quit.
Muhammad Ali was near the end of his life and his advanced Parkinson’s sometimes kept him from speaking. On those days, he and Ali Walsh worked out a system — they’d hold hands and Ali Walsh would carry the conversation with yes or no questions. A squeeze of the hand meant yes, and no reaction meant no.
Ali Walsh told his grandfather to squeeze his hand if he should give up boxing. Ali gave no reply, so Ali Walsh asked again.
He remembered saying, “Poppy, please, just squeeze my hand if you don’t want me to continue boxing. This is a lot for me to handle.”
Still there was no reply. So Ali Walsh asked the question he didn’t want the answer to. He told his grandfather to squeeze his hand if he should keep boxing.
“He squeezed my hand so tight,” Ali Walsh said. “OK, OK, I get what you’re trying to tell me.”
To some, that would have been a pep talk from the greatest their sport has ever seen. To Ali Walsh, that legend is “Poppy,” and that encouragement was the reason he’s the boxer he is today.
“After that incident he just kept insisting and insisting and I never questioned it again after that,” Ali Walsh said.
Now 21, Ali Walsh is ready for his boxing career to truly take off. Last month he signed with Top Rank, a locally headquartered promotional company, to end his amateur career and turn pro in the middleweight division.
His first professional fight is Aug. 14 against an unknown opponent in Tulsa, Okla., and will be aired on ESPN.
Ali Walsh is fighting because it’s what he loves to do. He’s also fighting to live up to his family name. Because with his last name, he doesn’t have the luxury of anonymously entering the pro boxing ranks and quietly working his way up.
He’ll have a target on his back from Day 1, just like he has his whole life.
“It’s the start of this journey, this dream I’ve always had to continue the legacy,” Ali Walsh said. “That’s the biggest thing to me for the pro debut.”
His last name may be royalty in the sport, but Ali Walsh didn’t always know he wanted to be a boxer. Despite a grandfather and aunt Laila who are considered two of the best boxers ever, and an uncle who owned a gym, he didn’t know until he was a teenager that this was his future.
Born in Chicago but a Las Vegas resident since age 4, he’s always been around the sport, and even took part in some charity fights when he was 10. But it started to become serious when he joined the amateur circuit at 14.
“I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t really 100% head-over-heels for the idea,” his mother, Rasheda Ali Walsh, said with a chuckle. “I was nervous, as any mom would be.”
Nervous, but not surprised. Boxing is in the family’s DNA, and once Nico Ali Walsh decided he wanted to box, he had the best mentor a young fighter could ask for.
But boxing was never a given. Ali Walsh’s older brother never got into it seriously, as it conflicted with his football dreams. A former star running back at Bishop Gorman High School, where Nico also graduated, Biaggio Ali Walsh grew up with the same love of boxing. Nico was just the one who turned it into a career.
“We were always surrounded by the boxing world and we’ve watched his fights our whole life,” Biaggio said. “When you’re surrounded by stuff like that and seeing who our grandpa is, you find a passion. And that’s what Nico did.”
That passion manifested itself into a permanent tribute on Nico’s right arm, from his wrist to his elbow, a year after his grandfather’s death in 2016. There are two tattooed portraits of Ali, one from his older years and one from his younger fighting days, because to Ali Walsh those are the two Alis.
The brash, smack-talking world champion is the fighter Ali Walsh admires and wants to emulate in the ring. That’s the bee half of Ali’s famous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” mantra.
The other photo, with softer eyes and a solemn expression, is the man the rest of the world didn’t know — Poppy. That’s the man who bonded with a young boy over a shared love of movies and magic tricks. That’s the butterfly half, and why the tattoo is encircled by butterflies.
“We’re a butterfly family,” Ali Walsh said. “I’ve never physically seen the bee. I’ve seen him hitting the bag as an old grandpa when I was a little kid but that was still the butterfly. You can see glimpses of the bee here and there, but I’m more content knowing that I knew the butterfly.”
Top Rank CEO Bob Arum has worked with Ali Walsh’s trainer and uncle, Mike Joyce, for years and knows his parents well. And, more important, Arum promoted 27 of Ali’s fights from 1966-78.
Top Rank wouldn’t sign a fighter and put him in the ring just because of his name, though, Arum said. They see the potential in Ali Walsh, while also tapping into a family history that Arum said makes him “tremendously nostalgic.”
“This is going to be a really fun, fun ride for us,” Arum said. “Promoters really shouldn’t root for fighters. They have to be a lot more perceptive. But obviously everybody in the company is rooting for the kid to succeed.”
Arum set up Ali Walsh’s first fight, a four-round debut, to be in Tulsa for a reason. As the grandson of the sport’s most famous name, the spotlight will be on Ali Walsh in a way it typically isn’t for a rookie fighter. He might very well make his way to a fight in Las Vegas or New York at some point, but the company wanted to ease him into his pro career.
It’s been that way his whole life. Everybody wants to say they beat Ali’s grandson, so Ali Walsh has never stepped into a fight against anyone not giving him their all. He’s a special name to everyone he fights, but his trainers want to rein that in as much as possible.
“We’re going to treat him like a regular person because that’s how he’s going to have to learn,” said BB Hudson, the athletic performance specialist on Ali Walsh’s training team. “He has to learn, he has to go through bumps and bruises just like anybody else.”
While he may never be able to fully escape the enormously long shadow of his grandfather, he’s not really trying to. He knows matching his prowess in the ring is virtually impossible and said he’s more worried about living up to his accomplishments as a humanitarian outside of it.
Ali Walsh laughs off any pressure of trying to be the next Muhammad Ali. He knows no one ever will be, so as long as he just tries to be Nico Ali Walsh — Las Vegas local, UNLV student, Top Rank boxer and yes, the grandson of an icon — he’ll be just fine.
“For me, I’m continuing a legacy, yes. For you guys, I’m continuing the legacy of this larger-than-life figure, this great man. He’s all that to me, but he’s my grandfather,” Ali Walsh said. “So I’m just continuing the legacy of my grandfather so I don’t experience the pressure that it’s Muhammad Ali because I’ve never called him that. He’s Poppy to me.
“I’m continuing a family legacy.”