IT takes a lot of guts to pull off the Ali shuffle in a boxing ring – but showmanship is in the DNA of The Greatest’s grandson.
This weekend, undefeated Nico Ali Walsh will step into the ring for his 10th professional fight as he tries to prove he is the true heir to his grandfather Muhammad Ali’s sporting legacy.
For as long as he can remember, the 23-year-old fighter has faced people who would like to take down the grandson of the former heavyweight champion, who died in 2016 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
And instead of trying to ignore the enormous shadow of history’s most famous boxer, Nico faces his challengers in true Ali style.
The middleweight, who shares a trainer and promoter with Tyson Fury, has knocked out five of his opponents so far.
And he’s not the only Ali grandson willing to put his family’s reputation on the line in the ring.
Last night, Nico’s brother Biaggio, 24, fought in New York’s Madison Square Garden in a mixed martial arts contest.
One person who knows better than most how the brothers measure up to the legend is their grandmother – Ali’s second wife Khalilah, formerly Belinda Boyd.
She says seeing Nico is like seeing her ex-husband come back, telling The Sun: “He has the stamina, the movement, the motivation, the drive and he has the DNA of a champion.
“He can be very good and I think he can go all the way.
“It’s like reincarnation.
“In his own way, he is Nico Ali, just like Muhammad fought in his younger days when he supported it all the way.”
Khalilah was 17 when she married Ali in 1967, the same year he was indicted for refusing to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War and was stripped of his heavyweight title.
His conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court four years later.
Khalilah stuck by him during the tough times and they had four children, Maryum, now 55, twins Jamillah and Rasheda, 53 – Nico and Biaggio’s mother – and Muhammad Ali Junior, 51.
But after his constant infidelity, Khalilah and Ali divorced in 1977, two years after he defeated Joe Frazier in the match dubbed Thrilla In Manila.
She says: “I went through some very tough times with him and I was very angry at some of the things he did, but I couldn’t take it anymore so I had to let him go in the end.”
As children, Nico and Biaggio watched their grandfather hit a punching bag, and at school they were regularly asked if they could punch as hard as Ali and were often challenged to matches.
But although Nico says he tried to avoid talking about his family connection, there was no escaping it, and to protect himself he learned to spar from the age of ten.
He said: “Everybody wants to knock out an Ali.
“So the first time I sparred in a boxing gym, I felt it.”
Meanwhile, Biaggio initially chose American football and made a big impact as a running back in the state of Nevada, where the family moved before the boys entered middle school.
Rasheda hoped that her father would also encourage Nico to follow a sport other than boxing, but she was disappointed.
She said: “The look on my face is like, ‘Dad, what are you doing? Why are you encouraging him to box?'”
The family’s home in Las Vegas was not far from Ali’s in neighboring Arizona, and the brothers got to know their grandfather well.
Nico was disappointed to lose his first amateur fight at the age of 15, but Ali, whom he called “Poppy”, told him not to worry about it.
He told Nico, “You don’t have to be undefeated to be the greatest.
“It’s part of the journey.
“Enjoy this journey.
“It’s an opportunity to look back and say, ‘I did it wrong. I did it wrong.’
And the defeat did not shake Nico from his love for the sport.
Also, Khalilah (73) is supportive, saying: “I understand that Nico loves his grandfather, he wants to be like his grandfather, but I didn’t see that at all at first.
“When I saw him fight and train in the gym, I have seen differently, but when I went to one of his fights I see that he has mastered his art, he has done it very well.”
Nico turned professional in 2021, signing a deal with veteran 91-year-old promoter Bob Arum, who co-promotes Fury and looked after more than 25 of Ali’s fights.
Nico has been training with Sugarhill Steward, who last year helped guide Fury to victory against Deontay Wilder.
On moving up from amateur boxing to professional boxing, Nico says of the British boxer: “He gave me the best advice I’ve ever heard.
“He said he had 35 amateur fights – if you can fight, you can fight.”
With such top-class backing, Nico has the opportunity to work his way up to a championship attempt.
But, as with any new fighter, his handlers aren’t rushing him.
On Saturday, he will face the undefeated American Sona Akale at the Hard Rock Hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Khalilah says: “He takes his time and he loves Muhammad so much and wants to be like him.
“But you know what, he’s undefeated, he’s a knockout artist – he knocks people out.”
Nico also shows some of the great entertainer’s bravado by shuffling his feet in front of an opponent.
Khalilah continues: “He sometimes says he shuffles like Muhammad.
“He says it would just come to his mind because he lives his passion in sports to perfect what his grandfather had.”
Biaggio, who works as a bouncer, remains an amateur MMA fighter, despite joining the Professional Fighters League.
He has achieved an impressive four consecutive knockouts in the first round.
There’s one difference between the Ali generations – and that’s that Nico isn’t one to trash-talk another fighter like his grandfather used to be.
Ali famously said that his opponent Sonny Liston was “too ugly to be world champion” in 1964.
Nico said: “My grandfather sells my matches for me because of the name.
“All I have to do is work hard and show my commitment and my ability and that sells the game.
“I don’t have to be a boastful, loud guy like he was.”
Among those trying to lure the Ali Walsh brothers are You-Tuber and occasional boxer Jake Paul, who has challenged them both to a fight.
But at 6ft 1in and around 13st, cruiserweight Jake – who is now turning his hand to mixed martial arts – is considerably bigger than either brother.
Biaggio said, “I don’t have a problem with Jake Paul, but he should be fighting someone his own size.”
Jake is hardly the last person to try to get some publicity by bragging that he can beat an Ali.
Nico understands that he is a big name that everyone wants to put down.
He said: “It’s like that every single time – they just prepare because they want to be able to beat an Ali, I guess.
“So I’m prepared for it and it’s funny how it works. But I’m ready.”
Tyson Fury has also drawn comparisons to Ali, with his charisma and larger-than-life showmanship, singing after fights, and Khalilah is a fan, although she adds: “I think Tyson Fury is a great fighter, but he is not Muhammad Ali at all.
“He can try to be like Muhammad Ali and have the confidence and all that, and that’s a good thing, but he’s no Muhammad Ali.”
In his younger days, Nico struggled to be compared to his grandfather, but he knows there’s no escaping the Ali legacy.
Instead, he has embraced it by having two portraits of Ali tattooed on his arm.
He said: “When I was younger I hated it.
“I’m still trying to embrace it myself.
Read more at the Irish Sun
“But that’s what it’s about – I have to run towards it because I have no other option.”
- Undefeated: The Untold Story Of My Forgiveness, Healing And Reclamation, by Dr Khalilah Ali Camacho, is available through Amazon.
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