A crowd of 6,180 gathered up at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky, on Oct. 29, 1960, to watch an 18-year-old hometown hero and Olympic boxing champion make his professional debut in a six-rounder against a police chief who was 12 years his elder.
There was vastly less fanfare surrounding Cassius Marcellus Clay’s pro debut, a unanimous decision over Tunney Hunsaker, than there has been surrounding the debut of Nico Ali Walsh.
A 21-year-old middleweight, Ali Walsh will make his pro debut against Jordan Weeks on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+) in the co-main event of Top Rank’s card in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has no substantial amateur accomplishment, but landed the coveted spot on TV because of the winner of that fight in Louisville nearly 61 years ago.
Ali Walsh is the grandson of Muhammad Ali. Ali, of course, is one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century, as well as one of the greatest boxers of all-time. He died on June 3, 2016, when his grandson was a little more than a month from his 16th birthday.
Ali Walsh is the son of Muhammad’s daughter, Rasheda, who herself was only a little girl when her father was fighting. Muhammad was retired for 19 years when Nico was born in 2000.
But because of his name, there has been always a pressure and an attention paid to him that others simply don’t get.
“I see the pressure living up to the name,” Ali Walsh said. “Unfortunately, well, fortunately for me, actually, I’ve had to live with this pressure my whole life. So whether it’s boxing or school or anywhere in life, I’m always compared to my grandfather. Obviously, I’m more heavily compared to him if I’m picking the same, exact sport that he was in, but I’ve felt this pressure my whole life.
“But I feel like every fighter has pressure. So I don’t see it as most people do.”
He is a charming, well-spoken young man, far more self-effacing and humble than his famous grandfather was at the same age. If one didn’t bring up his grandfather, he’s not the type to mention it.
He comes from an athletic family. His older brother, Biaggio, was one of the nation’s hottest football recruits in 2017 as a running back at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, and wound up signing at Cal before transferring to UNLV.
Nico understands what it takes to be a successful athlete. He’s also shrewd enough to realize he wouldn’t be the center of attention in his pro debut were it not for his grandfather. So he does every interview as if it’s the first time he’s ever revealed to anyone his famous grandfather’s identity, but doesn’t let it get in the way of his preparation.
“I would say one of my attributes is that I’m very focused,” he said. “I don’t go out. I don’t go to parties. I don’t really go to social gatherings anyway, but especially now that I’m training for my first fight, I’m extremely focused. I can’t let any outside source, whether it be media or scrutiny from other people, I can’t let anything on the outside affect my training. I’ve been doing well with that so far.”
It’s not fair to ask him to be anything remotely close to what his grandfather was because it would be unfair to ask any fighter to be what Muhammad Ali was. When Ali won the heavyweight title, he might have been the perfect fighter.
He was 6-foot-3 with a long reach, incredible speed and quickness and a peerless sense of timing and distance. Though most boxing historians regard Sugar Ray Robinson as the greatest boxer of all-time, the Muhammad Ali of 1964-67 might have been the most perfect, unbeatable boxer ever.
It would be incredible for the world to have Ali’s grandson have those same kinds of physical gifts, but he was one of a kind for a reason. And Nico is the first to admit he does not.
He’s more like his brother in that he’s a hard-nosed kid with a burning desire to succeed.
“I have to go with focus again,” he said when asked about his best attributes as a fighter. “I’m a big fan of fighters who have extreme determination and focus because it’s not easy. Boxing is 90 percent mental and I’m sure the greatest boxers of all time would tell you that.
“I would say I’ve been doing a great job of staying focused and staying determined. This is something I really want in my heart. I’m very passionate about it and I keep that drive. I’m very proud of myself for that.”
When he was a teenager before his grandfather passed, Ali Walsh told him that he wanted to box. He showed his grandfather his sparring and training videos and they used to watch Ali’s sparring and training videos together.
They had a close relationship and he glows when he speaks of his grandfather. Ali loved magic tricks and would routinely perform them for reporters when he was being interviewed. Nico loves magic, as well, and said he taught his grandfather a few tricks.
He said the Ali that the world grew to love was much the same as he saw in private.
“Everyone who watched him saw his charisma, and he kept that same charisma even in his later years when it was harder for him to talk and harder for him to walk and do things,” Ali Walsh said. “You still felt that charisma and that personality. He never lost that. It was just fun. It was so much fun hanging out with him. We did the normal stuff you do with your grandparents.
“He was the only grandfather that I had in my life. It was just a ton of affection and attention and gifts given with our relationship. It was very fun.”
It’s going to be fun to see him develop. Most will love him because of his grandfather, but he knows there will be a sizable portion who don’t for the same reason.
But if there is anyone who can deal with the burden of being compared to “The Greatest,” it’s this kid.
Yeah, it’s his pro debut and truth be told, no one knows how good he can be.
One thing is certain, though: It’s going to be fun to watch.
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