Nico Ali Walsh didn’t default to boxing, even though his grandfather, Muhammad Ali, was a three-time heavyweight champion and one of the best fighters in history.
And Ali Walsh, 21, says none of his relatives pushed him to box professionally, even though people on both sides of his family have deep connections to the sport. An aunt, Laila Ali, went 24-0 as a pro from 1998 to 2007. An uncle, Mike Joyce, manages fighters and runs the Celtic Boxing Club in Chicago.
Instead, Ali Walsh, who grew up in Las Vegas, said he came to love the sport for himself and to handle the family baggage that comes with it. On Saturday night in Tulsa, Okla., he is scheduled to make his pro debut, televised by ESPN. He acknowledges that his connection to Muhammad Ali generates the buzz that landed his first pro fight on an ESPN card. But he also fights to find the balance between honoring his grandfather’s name and establishing his own.
“I’ve never been able to escape my grandfather, no matter what sport I played,” Ali Walsh said in an interview. “I’m starting to embrace it. It’s very hard to do, but you have to embrace the legacy, no matter what it is. Everybody becomes stronger when they embrace what they’re destined to do.”
When he decided to turn pro, Ali Walsh, who will compete as a middleweight, took advantage of family networks. Joyce will manage Ali Walsh, who in June signed a contract with Top Rank, which is headed by Bob Arum, who first promoted a boxing event in March 1966. The main event? Muhammad Ali’s title defense against George Chuvalo.
“Promoting Ali’s grandson would be the last thing I would have thought about,” Arum said. “Who would have believed that 55 years later, I would still be promoting boxing?”
Ali Walsh is the son of Robert Walsh and Rasheda Ali Walsh, who is Muhammad Ali’s daughter. His brother, Biaggio Ali Walsh, plays running back for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his whole family is aware of boxing’s potential rewards and its dangers. Muhammad Ali earned at least $60 million over his 21 years as a pro, but he also suffered terrible beatings over the second half of his career and showed signs of brain damage even before he was found to have Parkinson’s disease in 1984. Ali died in 2016.
“They didn’t want to see their son get hurt, but they can’t force me not to box,” Nico Ali Walsh said. “They would just always ask me, ‘Are you sure?’”
For his part, Joyce isn’t worried his nephew just wants to benefit from nepotism and monetize his famous name. Last year, Ali Walsh spent six months in Big Bear Lake, Calif., training with the veteran coach Abel Sanchez, essentially serving an apprenticeship in a gym full of serious pro boxers.
“Over a year ago he told me about it, but I didn’t think he was ready,” Joyce said. “But by going to that training camp, he proved to me that he has what it takes to be a professional fighter. He proved to me that he wanted to do this thing.”
While multigenerational boxing families are common, world titles across generations are rare. Wilfredo Vazquez won world titles in three divisions in the 1980s and 1990s, and his son, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., won a 122-pound championship in 2010. But father-son world champs are outnumbered by families like the Fraziers — Joe is a Hall of Fame heavyweight, while his son, Marvis, was a fringe contender in the 1980s best known for losses to Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson.
When Ali Walsh first joined a boxing gym as a child, Muhammad Ali would often watch his training sessions via FaceTime. Ali Walsh says his grandfather would offer advice, but never tried to mold him as a fighter. So where Floyd Mayweather Jr. fought like a stronger, more versatile version of his father, Floyd Sr., Ali Walsh never learned to mimic Ali in the ring.
“Hands down, chin in the air — things you shouldn’t be able to get away with, he got away with,” said Ali Walsh, who is a business student at U.N.L.V. “He was just special in that sense. I’m not trying to emulate that.”
Still, Ali Walsh’s lineage has already shaped his career. He’s turning pro on ESPN despite a sparse amateur career, and he already has a sponsorship deal with the equipment maker Everlast.
Joyce points out that Ali Walsh’s heightened profile complicates matchmaking. If Ali Walsh turned pro away from the spotlight, Joyce says he could match him more strategically, against fighters who might have losing records, in bouts that might not entertain, but would teach Ali Walsh the nuances of pro boxing. But because Ali Walsh is already on TV, Joyce says he has to make each bout a learning experience for Ali Walsh and an attractive product for the viewer. On Saturday, Ali Walsh will face Jordan Weeks, a 29-year-old who is 4-1 after being knocked out in his last bout by a boxer with a 1-6-1 record.
“Every guy’s got to have a winning record, and every guy’s got to have something TV’s going to approve of,” Joyce said. “That’s the drawback. Every fight, he has to get up for it, just as his opponents will. In their mind, they’re fighting Muhammad Ali, and they’ll get all the accolades if they beat Ali’s grandson.”
Where Ali Walsh’s career heads isn’t clear, even to him and his handlers. Arum praises Ali Walsh’s work ethic, and commitment, but recognizes the long odds against winning a world title.
“He’s a work in progress,” Arum said. “Are we optimistic? Yeah. But we’re also realistic.”
Ali Walsh, who hopes to embark on a post-boxing film career, likens himself to Adonis Creed, the on-screen son of the fictional boxer Apollo Creed and the protagonist in the “Creed” film franchise. Apollo Creed, the fleet-footed, fast-handed, trash-talking heavyweight champion in the “Rocky” movies, is based on Ali, whose win over Chuck Wepner prompted Sylvester Stallone to write the screenplay.
And in the first “Creed” film, Adonis fights in unsanctioned underground fights, not because he needs to — he has a comfortable life and an office job — but because he wants to settle some unfinished family business. For Adonis Creed, the goal was a world title. For Ali Walsh, it’s to fight well enough to feel that his grandfather would be proud.
“For me, success is legacy,” he said. “That can be done without titles. That can be done without any wealth. I’ll know when I’ve done that. Once I feel proud and successful, I’ll know.”