No one disputes that boxing is hard, really hard. For Nico Ali Walsh, living up his grandfather’s name might be even harder.
He was, after all, The Greatest.
“He’s just my grandfather and it’s as simple as that,” Ali Walsh said. “So it’s hard for me to see him as anything else.”
The grandfather, if you haven’t figured it out already, is Muhammad Ali. And the grandson is about to set off a journey bordering on the impossible — making a name for himself in the ring while carrying the name of his legendary grandfather.
The 21-year-old fights for the first time as a pro Saturday night in a scheduled four-round middleweight bout in Oklahoma. He’ll do it on national television not because of anything he’s done in boxing but because he descends from greatness.
And he’ll do it in front of Bob Arum, who promoted Ali in some of his biggest fights and is now promoting his grandson. Arum is honest about Ali Walsh’s potential, but disputes the thought that the bout is likely more of a gimmick than the start of a long career.
“If it was my grandson you’d be on point,’’ Arum said. “But it’s Ali’s grandson and who knows what is in his DNA. You cannot completely discard genetics.”
Ali Walsh himself understands he’s getting a chance because of his name. But the college student fought as an amateur and believes he has the skills to be a top fighter.
And while he doesn’t have the bombastic charisma of his grandfather, he’s an engaging young man in his own right.
“Everyone mentions the pressure but every occupation has pressure of its own,” Ali Walsh said. “Mine may seem a little more significant to others but all boxers feel the pressure of fighting someone, fighting for their lives, basically. And that’s just the way I look at it.”
Growing up in Las Vegas, Ali Walsh and his family regularly made trips to the Phoenix area to visit his grandfather. Ali Walsh said the two formed a bond, even as Ali struggled to communicate in his later years before dying in 2016.
Once, he said, they were in a car together and Ali Walsh was down on boxing, wondering if he should continue his amateur career. He said he asked Ali to squeeze his hand if he thought he should continue.
“I was always holding his hand so some days I would hold his hand and say, squeeze it if you want me to grab you a water or do something else for you,” he said. “Some days he wasn’t able to talk so he would just squeeze my hand. And I was down on boxing. I was thinking about quitting. I was like, what did I get myself into. But he pushed me forward. And I still remember that moment to this day.”
Much of Ali Walsh’s family will be on hand in Tulsa for his debut, which will be televised on the Top Rank card on ESPN. That includes his mother, Rasheda, and his grandmother, who was Belinda Boyd when she married Ali as a 17-year-old.
“My whole family is very supportive,” Ali Walsh said. “It was hard at times for my mom to see me come home with a black eye or a bloody nose, as it would be for any mother. But she’s extremely supportive.”
Ali Walsh said he has watched most of his grandfather’s fights on tapes. He’s seen the footwork and movement that made him a three-time heavyweight champion, and knows better than to try and emulate everything Ali did.
“He did things conventionally wrong, like putting your hands down and doing other things they don’t teach in a boxing gym,” he said. “My style is, I wouldn’t say aggressive, but definitely not passive. It should be exciting for people to watch.”
For the 89-year-old Arum it will be a trip down memory lane. He was the promoter when Ali fought George Chuvalo in 1966, a fight that started his legendary career in boxing.
“I felt I’d be in it for one fight, maybe two fights. I wasn’t going to be a lifer in boxing,” Arum said. “Now I end up promoting a fight with his grandson. How crazy is that?”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg