There are plenty of active fighters who come from boxing royalty but there is something about Nico Ali Walsh that means he might be judged a little more harshly than most.
He is the grandson of Muhammad Ali and, now 5-0, has to perform without a safety net or much amateur experience because the comparisons are and will always be unfair.
Still, he’s not baulking at them and understands he will have to progress briskly and almost faultlessly to steer clear of criticism.
He says he’s ready to do that, too.
“I feel like I want what the fans want,” Walsh explained. “The fans want great performances, everyone loves knockouts and obviously I want that, too. But more than anything I’ve noticed with boxing they like a showman, like my grandfather was, like Tyson Fury is. He’s a showman, he’s not just an excellent boxer – so I’m trying to be a showman too. I feel that’s just naturally in my personality. At the pace I’m going, it shouldn’t take too long [to reach the top]. It’s not going to take a decade. I’m moving very fast, the improvements I’ve made in my fifth fight versus my first fight is dramatic and it hasn’t even been a year, it’s been eight-nine months.”
Boxing is a vehicle that allows Nico to metamorphosise. He claims he’s naturally a quiet guy and wouldn’t seek the limelight, but under the bright lights, things change.
“I’m a total introvert, but with boxing it’s like I put on a different mask and with boxing I’m very ‘out there’ because I love boxing so much but I’m an introvert at heart,” he continues. “I’m not the type to be going to parties. That’s not me at all.”
Instead, he’s furthering his boxing education, both inside and outside the ropes. He’s learning through sparring, through trainer Richard T. Slone and watching fights of the best who have done it, from the past and in the present day.
“I want to say I’m going to fight three or four more times [in 2022],” Walsh goes on. “The more the better. It’s going to be a busy year fighting. My first three fights, I was getting my feet wet, in my fourth fight I did the shuffle and stopped the guy in the second round and then I knocked a guy out in the first round. You can see I’m progressively getting better, but not only am I getting better, I’m fighting better opposition, so this last fighter [Alejandro Ibarra] was my best opponent. People were telling me, ‘Nico, watch out for this guy. He’s the most skilled opponent you’ve fought yet.’ He was 7-1, but I’m getting better so he just caught me at the wrong time because right now I’m going upwards and I’m putting the work in. I would expect better fights each time. I want to become a boxing encyclopaedia like Mike Tyson. He can just talk about any fight in the history of boxing. I’m big on today’s boxing, because before I was just an old head, watching all of the old guys.”
Through the passing of time, once ambitious and determined fighters have passed through the sport and their children have followed in their footsteps. In the UK, Chris Eubank Jr, Conor Benn and Campbell Hatton all have iconic fathers who paved the way for them and thousands more and Walsh identifies with the struggles they face that differ from other boxers.
The surname is a heavy burden, but it’s also a privilege.
“Those guys would understand, it’s a double-edged sword because it opens doors, but when you have people who know you like that you’ve got to work harder than most because you got a lot of people you’ve got to prove wrong,” Walsh explains. “Definitely it’s a blessing and a curse. Sometimes it seems like more of a curse but I see it as a blessing now and I’m trying to embrace it.”
Of course, Walsh’s grandfather was known for his accessibility, with journalists and with the general public, but times have moved on and now social media is a 24/7 barometer of a fighter’s success or failure.
“I pay attention to all the positive,” Walsh admits. “If the negative is funny, then I’ll pay attention to that. But if it’s not funny I don’t.”
There will be plenty of naysayers but you can’t help but admire Nico’s ambition. He wants to make a difference and he wants to make history.
“I want to take it to the top,” Nico says, of where he wants to go on his boxing journey. ‘I can’t speak for anyone else, but I wouldn’t continue a legacy if it wasn’t to take it all the way to the top. I would never say I’ll stop after 10 fights or 15 fights. I’m not going to stop until I feel like I’ve done enough to be great. I think it’s exciting. When it comes to continuing my grandfather’s legacy outside the ring, it’s not daunting at all. What I’m doing is bigger than just boxing to me. Obviously I want to be great in boxing and I want to make it to the top, but I also want to have the impact my grandfather had, and I feel like I’m being blessed in certain areas because I’m trying to do good with this. It’s very exciting because you can’t mess up… If you’re trying to change the lives of millions, and if you’re trying to help others, you can’t mess up. There’s no wrong way to help someone.”
Walsh lives in Vegas and trains at the Top Rank Gym just off The Strip. After around 25 amateur fights, he’s still finding his professional feet but he is conquering his nerves. He used to struggle with them before fights in the amateurs.
“I was a nervous wreck in the amateurs,” Walsh adds. “I don’t know what happened between then and now but the nerves are almost non-existent for me now, it’s awesome. It sounds weird but I feel like my family is so spiritual and my grandfather was so spiritual and he was so big on religion I feel like I was just blessed to not feel those nerves anymore.”
While one only needs look at his grandfather for inspiration, he has a current favourite fighter who Nico admires like no other.
“My absolute idol is Canelo,” Walsh admits. “I don’t think anyone beats him. I think he’s the greatest fighter of my generation, so he’s my No. 1 today. [Against Bivol this weekend] I see it going however Canelo wants it to go. I think Canelo will stop him, but you’re talking to the wrong person! I think that if Canelo went against Superman, he’d knock him out!”
This weekend, Las Vegas will come to a standstill for Canelo-Bivol and Walsh wants to get amongst those huge nights and massive events. More than that, he hopes for defining rivalries, like Ali had with Philly warrior Joe Frazier.
“I think I’ll do better with that,” he says, craving high-profile grudge contests. “You kind of have to be a little crazy to box and I’ve got that little bit of craziness in me. When guys start punching harder and start wanting to hurt me, I kind of just laugh because that’s what it’s all about, that’s what I train for, so I’m looking forward to my Joe Frazier. He’s out there somewhere.”
Of course, Ali and Frazier inflicted terrible damage upon one another and both struggled with poor health after their careers ended. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s but as our understanding about sports and head trauma evolves, many contend Ali’s ill-health was down to the punches he took.
It’s something Nico, only 21, is mindful of. He understands about the toll of the ring and the mileage of fights and sparring.
“Definitely, all the time,” he explains, talking about how often he thinks about it. “My mum works with neuro-degenerative disorders and that kind of thing, and she talks about Parkinson’s all the time, which my grandfather had. We don’t know if it was related to boxing, but boxing certainly didn’t help. But as long as I protect myself and don’t take a lot of shots, I’ll be good in the long run. And I’ve got to get out of boxing when it’s time to get out. My grandfather didn’t do that, he kept boxing when he had signs of Parkinson’s. He was still fighting, so a lot of boxers stay in the sport too long. I’m not going to be one of those guys. And you’ve got to make these choices now, so I’ve got to stick with them. All the damage from boxing I believe truly comes from the sparring, not the fights. If you look at someone’s fight and you look at the camps… For example, my grandfather had 50-something fights. So, if you look at all his training camps, how many rounds of sparring did he do for each fight? You’re going to multiply that by 50, which is crazy.”
Walsh reckons he sparred around 170 rounds for his last fight, a first-round stoppage of Ibarra. “So if you add that 170 and my career if I have 30 fights and you times that together, that’s a lot of punches being taken and you’ve just got to be careful. That’s where my trainer, Richard T. Slone, comes in. He helps with that. I have to keep doing what I’m doing, because the only missing link is experience and I’m getting that in the gym. When it comes to work ethic, discipline, training hard, I don’t need any improvements there, because I will never cut a corner in boxing and training, that’s just not my personality.”