The professional boxing debut. A stressful moment in any case, but particularly so if you happen to be the grandson of “The Greatest.”
But Nico Ali Walsh isn’t blinking in the days leading up to his Saturday bout against Jordan Weeks, even as he receives the type of attention and scrutiny few debuting pros get.
“I really do think I'm good with it, and it's not so distracting,” he said. “I've been doing great in the gym, I've been staying really focused on the fight and I'm very excited for the fight. So, all the outside noise hasn't been bothering me.”
Talk to the 21-year-old for a few minutes and you can’t help but believe him. Personable, calm, and already with the demeanor of a seasoned pro, Walsh is a kid you want to succeed, even though there will be the inevitable legion of “fans” who doubt his intentions or his talent. “How dare he compete in the same sport at Muhammad Ali?” they’ll say, but in Walsh’s eyes, this whole boxing thing wasn’t an accident.
“My family's very spiritual,” said the son of Robert Walsh and Rasheeda Ali Walsh. “I'm Muslim, just as my grandfather was, and I was raised that way, so I believe everything happens for a reason. I'm a very spiritual guy myself and I do believe that this is my destiny, and I was born to do this. I wouldn't be doing it if I wasn't. It's great because my trainer, Sugar Hill, is going through the same thing. His uncle, Emanuel Steward, had a mission and a destiny, and Sugar Hill is carrying on that destiny through training, and that's what I'm done. So we're in the same shoes and somehow met each other and it's perfect.”
If there is a perfect scenario for a pro boxing debut, the Chicago-born Walsh found it. Trained by the respected Hill, promoted by Bob Arum’s Top Rank, and televised on ESPN, Walsh has all the ingredients to make plenty of noise in his first time in the punch for pay ranks, and for all the skeptics, the fact remains that those names would not be involved with something who they didn’t think have the talent and drive to succeed.
“The thing with Top Rank, it's the biggest promotion in boxing,” Walsh said. “I'm not just saying that; it is, and if I was the king's son, Top Rank would still have to approve of signing that person. For anyone to say that hey, if I was someone else I wouldn't be signing with Top Rank, it's wrong, because Top Rank does their research and I passed the test, which is good, and I'm here.”
And he plans on sticking around a while.
“This is my job, this is my career, this is what I'm gonna be making income from, this is what I'm putting all my effort into, so I take it very seriously,” said Walsh, who was already planning on a pro debut in 2021 after approximately 30 amateur bouts.
“I was constantly training,” he said of the lead-up to his signing with Top Rank in June. “I haven't had any time off from training in the last few years, but I was up in Big Bear with Abel Sanchez just training with him and learning new stuff with boxing. That's when I turned pro and I didn't know where I would fight or how that would come about, but then Top Rank happened to come about through my uncle and manager Mike Joyce and it worked out so perfectly.”
There’s that perfect word again, and while no one is perfect, Muhammad Ali as a complete package was as close as we’ve seen in the sport. That means what happened in the ring and outside of it, both of which Walsh has paid close attention to over the last several years, even if he wasn’t completely aware of just how much his grandfather meant to the world until the 70th birthday party of the legendary three-time heavyweight champion in 2012. Before that, he was just his granddad.
“I still believe that he is like the other grandfathers,” Walsh laughs. “To me, at least, maybe not to most people. But his 70th birthday was a real turning point for me that I realized a lot of people knew him. Some people even said that he was the most famous person in history or something like that. But I really started to take notice at his 70th birthday party in Las Vegas.”
From there, Walsh was hooked, and there’s nothing he doesn’t know about Ali these days.
“I probably watched with him every single interview that there is to watch, every fight that I could possibly watch, so I've run through basically everything.”
What Walsh keenly noticed is that while no one can question Ali’s resume in the ring, it’s the effect he had on people that left the most lasting impression. And that’s something the soon-to-be pro wants to emulate over the course of his own career.
“I do believe that the way you treat others determines your fate, so to speak,” he said. “So I think it's incredibly important how you treat other people, and I'll never be the type of person that bashes anybody. I look up to my grandfather because his personality was being loving and being charismatic and being caring - making everybody feel important. That's the way my mom is and that's the way I feel I am and that's the way I want to be. People always use the term 'The People's Champ,' and it's an overused term at this point and most of the people who use it don't really follow through with it. My grandfather was truly 'The People's Champ,' and that's what I want to be.”
There will never be another Muhammad Ali. But maybe the world’s ready for the first Nico Ali Walsh, and he’s looking forward to introducing himself this weekend.
“This first fight is a very emotional journey,” Walsh said. “It's a huge milestone in my life just getting here. This is what I set out to do years ago when I was talking to my grandfather about boxing, so it will be an emotional night, and it will be a great night.”