Nico Ali Walsh is back in the ring, this time as a sparring partner of Muhammad Ali. The previous day the Irish fighter had shared the ring with the legendary Ali. It was Ali’s last exhibition fight, as he was dying of cancer at the time.
On February 25, 1967, Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier for the world heavyweight title in a bout that Ali won by unanimous decision. Ali would go on to lose that title to George Foreman the following year. Ali’s legendary career spanned five decades, but he remained a champion of non-conformist sportsmanship.
This week in New York, Nico Ali Walsh, the CEO of the Muhammad Ali Center, is launching the Muhammad Ali Fund. The new non-profit organization will help people “to achieve their dreams” and “change the world.” The Muhammad Ali Fund is part of a larger project that Walsh has going on in his hometown of Louisville. With help from local celebrities, Walsh is building up the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, which will feature a museum, a research library, and educational programs to promote interest in the boxer’s life and legacy.
6:51 a.m. Eastern Time
ESPN’s Mark Kriegel
Rasheda was 11 years old when she went with her brothers and sisters to see their father fight a guy called Trevor Berbick on Dec. 11, 1981. The fight was conducted in the Bahamas and sponsored by a convicted criminal since no state sports body would approve it. Rasheda, on the other hand, was unconcerned about any of it. Rasheda grew up in Chicago with her mother and brothers after her parents separated when she was five years old. Any opportunity to visit her father was cherished.
Rasheda was well-versed in the regulations. Daddy, then 39, was the sort of guy you had to share with everyone, not just your family, your street, or your neighborhood, but the whole world. Even though every time with him was a gift, that night in the Bahamas was an anomaly.
She remembers, “It was terrifying.” “Daddy was the elder of the two. Daddy was in poor physical condition. He shouldn’t have been boxing, I knew. He was being beaten up by this young man. And I’m thinking to myself, “Why are you fighting?” Put an end to the conflict. Then there’s a picture of the two of us. I kiss him in bed, but I’m asking him to just stop. Please, just quit talking.”
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Muhammad Ali fought for the final time in the bout. Rasheda and her restaurateur husband, Bob Walsh, raised two boys in Las Vegas over the intervening years, fulfilling her vow to provide them what she never had. They packed the boys into the Dodge Durango at least once a month, if not twice, to see their grandpa in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Perhaps he was dubbed “The Greatest” by the rest of the world. To the lads, though, he was known as “Poppy.”
Biaggio, the older brother, had already discovered his calling by junior high. Bishop Gorman, a football powerhouse, would go on to have him as a great running back. Nico was a unique individual. His mother refers to him as “an ancient soul.” He was never happier than when he was snuggled up with Poppy on the brown leather sofa.
They performed a variety of magic tricks. They watched a lot of films, mostly Westerns and horror films. Poppy was a big fan of Dracula, especially the 1958 film starring Christopher Lee.
“That’s the greatest Dracula,” Nico adds, having repaid the favor by exposing Poppy to “Drag Me to Hell’s” cinematic splendors. “King Kong” by Peter Jackson was a favorite of theirs.
Inside Bob Arum’s office, Nico Ali Walsh examines a photograph of his grandpa, Muhammad Ali. Top Rank/Mikey Williams
But, whether on the leather sofa or later over FaceTime, the topic would always shift to boxing. Nico was uninterested in team sports. But he was enthralled by the game that made his grandpa the world’s most renowned man.
“What do you think a warrior needs the most, Poppy?”
Ali described herself as “dancing and moving.”
“How about training, Poppy?”
“Roadwork, roadwork, roadwork,” says the narrator.
Nico eventually found a gym in Vegas and began working out there. He was defeated in his first battle and returned home with a black eye.
“You do realize this is the most difficult sport ever invented, right?” his mother said.
He not only understood, but he also realized that the comparison to Poppy would be unavoidable and unthankful. Nico was not going to follow in the footsteps of Poppy. That was never the goal in the first place.
“Do you really want to do this?” she said, thinking to herself, “Can’t you simply play soccer or basketball like a regular kid?”
“I’d want to box.”
“Do you realize you have to give it your all?”
Nico, on the other hand, was unfazed. Back in Chicago, he fought a few smokers for his uncle, Mike Joyce. In Arizona, he competed in a few events. He was successful in obtaining some. And he was defeated. With a swollen red nose, he once showed up at Poppy’s. On the sofa, it’s just the two of them.
Poppy informed him, “Your amateur record doesn’t matter.” “It’s all about the experience.”
Losing a fight, however, is not the same as losing a soccer or basketball game. “Losing takes a lot out of a warrior,” Nico explains.
And much more so in order to overcome such setbacks. That’s what Nico remembers from their discussion in Reno on Dec. 6, 2014. The whole family was present. His brother was a member of Bishop Gorman’s state championship team. However, since it became very cold, Nico was forced to remain in the vehicle with Poppy, just the two of them. Nico was 14 when he started in the amateurs and, to be honest, he was searching for a way out. On Nico’s phone, they saw one of his sparring sessions.
“Do you want me to keep going, Poppy?”
His grandpa looked Nico in the eyes, but said nothing. With Parkinson’s disease, Poppy had good days and terrible days. This wasn’t going to be a good one. He was having trouble speaking. Nico clenched his fist.
“Poppy, if you want me to stop boxing, squeeze my hand.”
There was no answer. Nico reasoned that it could be worse than he had imagined. Perhaps Poppy was deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly deaf
“Poppy, if you want me to keep boxing, squeeze my hand.”
Poppy clasped her hand. Hard.
Seven years later, Nico will make his professional debut as a “Special Attraction” on the undercard of Franco-Moloney III in Tulsa, Oklahoma (ESPN/ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET) on Saturday. Mike Joyce, his uncle, is his manager. Sugar Hill Steward, the trainer of heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, will be in the middleweight’s corner.
Steward adds, “Realistically, he’s like a novice, not even a polished amateur.” “That’s how I was taught, and it’s how I like to teach: from the ground up. It’s been enjoyable, and I’m seeing progress. He’s worked with all of my men and done well. He’s astute. He’s a fighter.”
Is he capable of combat? Steward is pressed for an explanation.
He says, “He’s not frightened.” “He isn’t afraid of being struck or thrown down. It’s simply a question of him improving his fighting skills.”
Nico Ali Walsh, unlike other boxers, will have to gain such information — or not — under the brightest of lights. Without a doubt, Steward will provide him with some high-end instruction. But it’ll be his grandpa — or, more accurately, Ali’s idea — who gets him on TV.
He adds, “I’m not doing this to get famous.” “It isn’t a cash grab. This is something I’m doing for myself.”
Something in his ancestors’ blood calls to his ancient spirit. Nico Ali Walsh will be a combatant who no one knows for sure. But, at the end of the day, he’s doing it for that reason. So he’s aware.
“People are free to believe anything they want,” he adds. “It’s not always about going undefeated or winning a championship. When I’m satisfied with what I’ve accomplished and my family is, I’ll know I’ve had a great boxing career.”
His mother, on the other hand, is content with what he’s accomplished so far and still believes that soccer or basketball would have sufficed.
Rasheda Ali Walsh hasn’t fought professionally since that disastrous night in the Bahamas. He’s 21, she tells herself, and he’s the one who has to make the choice.
It’s better that he knows than that he didn’t try. However, as the battle approaches, she has started waking up with heart palpitations in the middle of the night.
Are you planning on attending? She is questioned.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she adds.
Yes, of course. For her kid, for his ancient soul, and for the gift that it could elicit.
“In spirit,” she adds, “Daddy will be there as well.”
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