Nico Ali Walsh used to wear a jacket to cover the tattoo on his forearm to avoid drawing attention to it.
It’s not a controversial tattoo. It is just a face of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
But questions arose when people asked about his connection to the great man — he is his grandson.
Not only did his association with Ali bring attention, but as an aspiring boxer, being the grandson of one of the greatest to ever step into the ring brought pressure and expectations.
However, Walsh didn’t let that pressure get to him as he won his professional debut, beating Jordan Weeks with a first-round stoppage at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Catoosa, Oklahoma, in August.
And ahead of his second bout on Saturday, October 23 at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Walsh told CNN that he is finally starting to embrace the pressure that has been there his “whole life” being related to Ali.
“I’ve always felt the need to be on my best behavior. And it’s really annoying at times but that’s how it’s been,” the 21-year-old told CNN.
“And I’ve just recently started to embrace the name because I’ve been hiding from it for so long … and I was just running from the name so much. But I cannot run from it, especially in the sport I’m in now. So I’ve really been trying to embrace it. And so I would say it’s more pride now and I’m blessed that that’s the way it’s turned out because it hasn’t always been that way.”
But in his debut victory, Walsh says he’s had fans of his iconic grandfather reaching out to him saying he’d “brought him back to life.”
“It’s kind of been a funny thing between me, SugarHill (Steward, his trainer) and my strength and conditioning coach, they’ve been calling me ‘The Ghost’ because I brought him back. It’s just really humbling and it’s something that I’m very happy to do.”
When Walsh stepped into the ring for his professional debut, he was wearing an item of clothing he thought might bring him luck.
Ducking under the ropes and into the ring in Oklahoma, Walsh was wearing white Everlast shorts which had previously belonged to Ali and were passed down after he died in 2016.
Walsh never planned to wear the shorts though; they were only initially meant to be an item of memorabilia.
However, after his custom shorts were not ready in time, it just so happened that the only other shorts he had to fight in were the ones his grandfather had given him.
And just having something so closely connected to his grandfather with him for the fight gave him that extra little bit of motivation he needed.
“It gave me so much extra pep. It was just a crazy, crazy night,” he remembers. “And that was one of the many things that brought my grandfather to life on Saturday night.
“I really do feel that he was alive that night. And in so many ways, through the chants in the crowd, they were chanting: ‘Ali,’ which I’ve never seen before. I’ve only seen that on black and white clips on YouTube. But he was alive on Saturday night and it was through me, it was through the shorts and it was just such a blessing the whole night was. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better night.”
While the shorts brought him some good luck and a little extra energy, after the fight, Walsh said he wouldn’t be wearing them again, although he wasn’t ruling out finishing his career in them.
“I wasn’t supposed to wear them my first fight, but destiny and fate had it that I had to wear them. And it’s locked in history forever now. That’s my pro debut. That was the biggest night of my life. That was the greatest night of my life. And I want to remember the shorts for being just that, and that’s why I’m probably not going to ever wear them again.”
Living in the shadow of one of sport’s biggest names isn’t something most have to deal with.
For Walsh, when he was growing up, Ali — who had a 56-5 professional boxing record in which he beat such legends as Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sonny Liston — was just “grandpa.”
Although his amateur opponents upped their game when they realized who they were sharing the ring with — “If I fought an average Joe amateur fighter, he would turn into Joe Frazier when he fought me,” Walsh remembers — it was Ali’s 70th birthday party when he realized how much people outside his family loved his grandfather.
“I went to his birthday party and I was seeing a bunch of celebrities that I only looked up to on TV. The main one that I saw was Ken Jeong. He played Mr. Chow from The Hangover. And I saw him and I said: ‘Mr. Chow was saying Happy birthday to my grandfather.’ I was only 11 years old and I loved him. And I was like: ‘Wow, my grandfather must be a special guy.'”
Given his grandfather’s success, being a boxer felt like “destiny” for Walsh. He remembers trying football for about “48 hours” before he figured the sport wasn’t for him.
After committing himself to boxing, Walsh made sure to tap into the knowledge his grandfather accrued over his stellar career.
“I always showed him my videos. I always showed him my sparring and my training clips,” Walsh said.
“And I asked him for advice one particular day that he was talking real well. Because of his condition, he didn’t always talk the best, but one day he was talking so sharp and so clear and he just was saying that moving and dancing makes a fighter. And I was just getting advice about what makes a fighter and what I should do to be a good fighter. And he just said: ‘Eat right, do plenty of road work.’ And that’s all things that I remember to this day.”
Before a media session ahead of his debut professional, Walsh lounged confidently wearing a t-shirt with Ali’s face and with his quote — “When you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble” — emblazoned on it.
And with the benefit of hindsight, he had a good reason to be, beating Weeks in the first round.
Trained by SugarHill Steward, Tyson Fury’s trainer, and managed by Bob Arum, who promoted 27 of Ali’s fights, Walsh’s performance belied his experience.
Steward doesn’t reveal to Walsh the identity of his opponent until a few days before his fights, and the young boxer sees the positives behind the strategy.
Although he’s at the beginning of his boxing journey, not getting ahead of himself is what’s important to him.
“My biggest goal is to take one fight at a time and be the greatest Nico that I can be, and because I have such a high expectation for myself and obviously the whole public has a high expectation for me as well. That is a great goal to have, to be the best that I can be.”
Outside of the ring, Ali wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he believed in, even if there were consequences, a trait that has been passed on to Walsh.
“That’s what I’ve always been passionate about, things outside of the ring. The causes that my grandfather stood for are parallel to the causes that I would stand for today,” he said.
“And unfortunately, there are still issues, social issues, social injustices that take place in America with African-Americans and minorities in general. And it’s very unfortunate that it’s still a thing. The injustices that he was fighting for back in the 1960s are still prevalent today, just at a different level. That’s more important to me than the fight inside the ring. It’s the fight outside the ring.”
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