ON December 11, 21-year-old Nico Ali Walsh won a majority decision over Reyes Sanchez on the undercard of Vasiliy Lomachenko vs Richard Commey at Madison Square Garden.
I was a guest at the wedding decades ago when Nico’s parents got married. And I knew his grandfather well. Nico’s grandfather was Muhammad Ali.
Nico grew up watching videos of fights with Muhammad by his side. “His favorite fighter to watch,” Nico remembers, “was himself.” And while people who lived through Ali’s glory years were saddened by Muhammad’s physical decline, Nico had a different perspective.
“My grandfather was having physical problems by the time I was born,” Nico recalls. “Slow, soft-spoken; that was how I was used to seeing him. That was the only Muhammad Ali I knew. So his condition wasn’t as hard for me to accept as it was for some people. In fact, I remember watching tapes of him when he was young and saying to myself, ‘Wow! Who is that guy?’”
Nico had his first amateur fight at age nine and participated in close to 30 bouts over the course of 10 years. Then he decided to try his hand at professional boxing, which led to a meeting with Bob Arum at Top Rank.
Mike Joyce (Nico’s uncle, who is also his manager) took the lead at the meeting on Nico’s behalf. Joyce is a Chicago attorney and understands both the sport and business of boxing. His mission is to protect Nico as best he can within the realities of the sweet science. Nico and his parents (Rasheda and Robert Walsh) were also at the meeting.
Nico, it was explained to Top Rank, wasn’t focused on belts. He wouldn’t be boxing with the expectation of becoming a great fighter. He would be boxing because he wants to challenge himself, experience the core of what his grandfather experienced in the ring, and fight in places with connections to his grandfather.
“Doing what my grandfather did makes me feel closer to him,” Nico says.
Nico made his pro debut on August 14 in Las Vegas (where Muhammad Ali fought seven times). His opponent was a no-hoper from South Carolina named Jordan Weeks, who came into the bout with a respectable 4-1 record and had been chosen for his lack of ring prowess. The fight was heavily hyped because of Nico’s lineage and was covered by worldwide media outlets such as the New York Times and CNN.
ESPN televised the bout and made a point during its telecast of saying that Nico was wearing trunks that Everlast had made for his grandfather.
Indeed, blow-by-blow commentator Joe Tessitore spoke so reverentially of the trunks that one might have concluded they were a relic on a par with the Shroud of Turin.
However, according to Craig Hamilton (the foremost boxing memorabilia dealer in the United States), Everlast made hundreds of trunks with the same Ali label. Their manufacture started circa 1973, and many of the trunks never reached Ali. They were siphoned off for resale by members of Muhammad’s entourage or given to third parties by Everlast. Also, Nico weighed in for his pro debut at 162 pounds. And from 1973 on, Muhammad fought at weights ranging from 212 to 236 pounds. Boxing trunks aren’t one-size-fits-all.
Nico, in his pro debut, knocked Weeks out in the first round.
“He’s fighting to keep the Ali name alive,” Tessitore gushed.
Hyperbole aside, with or without Nico’s ring career, the Ali name will live forever.
After his pro debut, Nico journeyed to Atlanta (where his grandfather knocked out Jerry Quarry in 1970 and lit the cauldron at the 1996 Olympic Games). This time, the opponent was 36-year-old James Westley (a novice with one pro bout on his ring resume). Nico did some effective body work against Westley and hit hard enough to do damage against a guy without much of a punch or chin. There were two knockdowns. KO 3.
I met Nico for the first time when he was at Gleason’s Gym for a light workout three days before fighting Sanchez at Madison Square Garden. People whose judgment I trust had told me that he’s a nice young man. They were right.
Nico has a fighter’s nose and doesn’t look at all like his famous grandfather. With his graceful movement and lithe frame, he could pass for a ballet dancer.
Muhammad Ali fused his own father’s loud bombastic behaviour and his mother’s loving sweetness into one cosmic personality. Nico exudes his grandfather’s gentle side. He likes people, and people like him. He’s unfailingly polite and has a kind word for everyone he meets. “I don’t have a problem inflicting pain when I’m in the ring,” Nico says. “It’s part of the job. But other than that, I try to be nice.”
Nico seems sincere when talking about his long-term goals. “I love boxing,” he says. “I’m passionate about boxing, but it’s not my life. I want to do something with my life that makes people feel good about themselves.”
He’s also intellectually curious and has one semester remaining as an undergraduate at the University of Nevada Las Vegas where he’s majoring in business entrepreneurship. While in New York for the Sanchez fight, he juggled fight preparation with online exams in marketing, business law, and geology.
Pressed for more about himself, Nico volunteers that he values alone time and likes to do his own thing. “And in some ways,” he adds, “I’m an old soul.” Bolstering the truth of this latter statement, he points to his workout playlist which includes songs by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Temptations, Little Richard, and Bobby Vinton.
Hall of Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler confirms the point, noting that watching Nico in the gym was the first time he ever saw a fighter working out to the tune of Red Roses for a Blue Lady.
Like his grandfather, Nico is a practising Muslim. He takes his religion seriously.
“I don’t drink, smoke, or party,” he says of his lifestyle. But there’s a twist.
“After my grandfather died,” Nico explains, “I wanted to honour him in my own way, so I got several tattoos that paid tribute to him. As a Muslim, I shouldn’t have tattoos. So I’m not a perfect Muslim.”
Muhammad Ali fought three times at the “old” Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets in Manhattan. Nico would be fighting Sanchez in the current MSG, which opened in 1968 and hosted Muhammad on five occasions (including the historic “Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier 50 years ago).
Lomachenko-Commey was a hard sell. The arena, which seats 20,000 for boxing, was configured for half that number. The announced attendance on fight night was 8,555.
Sanchez had a 6-0 (2) ring ledger. But those numbers were deceiving. His previous opponents had a composite record of 4 wins against 21 losses at the time he fought them. And he’s from Kansas. Boxing in Kansas is like mountain climbing in London.
Nico has reasonably fast hands. But he doesn’t move his head enough (particularly when punching) and brings his jab back low. Watching him hit the pads with Mike Joyce at Gleason’s Gym, the sound I heard was a pop, not a whack. He’s trained by SugarHill Steward, which might not be a good fit. And he doesn’t have the hunger or wellspring of anger that can fuel a fighter to be great.
Top Rank has matched Nico against opponents who shouldn’t be able to hurt him. But every opponent that Nico fights is motivated to beat Muhammad Ali’s grandson. And “hurt” is a relative term in boxing. As Joyce notes, “Even a powder-puff puncher can hurt you.”
Once Nico vs Sanchez began, it was clear that Sanchez had limited physical gifts and only basic boxing skills. But those skills were more than Nico’s first two opponents had to work with. Nico went headhunting in round one. In round two, he opened Sanchez up by going to the body and followed with hurting blows up top. But in round three, the tide turned. Nico tired and got hit in the head by punches he shouldn’t have been hit with. Right hand after right hand. A lot of them. It was painful to watch. I’m sure it was painful for Nico too. Then, in round four, Sanchez tired and stopped throwing his right hand with conviction.
I scored the bout 39-38 in Nico’s favour, calling the last round even. Alan Nance gave the fourth round to Sanchez, making his scorecard a draw. Robin Taylor gave the final stanza to Nico for a 39-37 verdict in his favour. Then came the shocker. James Kinney gave every round (including the third) to Nico.
This isn’t the first time that viewers have seen Kinney embarrass boxing with his scorecard. When Joe Smith fought Jesse Hart on ESPN last year, two of the judges were on the mark, scoring the bout 98-91 and 97-92 for Smith. Inexplicably, Kinney’s scorecard favoured Hart.
Teddy Atlas once addressed the issue of bad scoring in boxing with the observation, “It’s a terrible situation when the best I can say for some of these judges is that they’re incompetent. Because the other alternative, if they’re not incompetent, is that they’re corrupt.”
The fewer fights that James Kinney judges in the future, the better.
What lies ahead for Nico in boxing? Continuing the theme of his fighting at sites identified with his grandfather, there’s talk of fights in London, Louisville, Miami Beach, and Chicago. Zaire and the Philippines aren’t on the list, but Saudi Arabia would like a piece of the action.
Meanwhile, let’s state the obvious. Nico is 21 years old. One month after Cassius Clay turned 22, he defeated Sonny Liston to claim the heavyweight championship of the world. We’re talking about two vastly different levels of boxing.
Nico reveres his grandfather’s legacy – in and out of the ring – and brings credit to the Ali name. He understands which one was Muhammad and which is Nico. But there’s another matter to consider when contemplating Nico’s ring future – brain damage.
Boxing is like cigarette smoking. People know that it’s bad for them, but some people do it anyway. Safe boxing is an oxymoron. All boxers get hit in the head in fights and while sparring.
Getting hit in the head leads to brain damage. The only question is “how much?” Every punch to the head carries with it the potential to cause serious damage. Permanent damage.
Think for a moment about the distortion of a fighter’s face that we see in a photograph taken from the optimum angle at the exact moment a hard punch lands.
When Nico boxes, he inflicts brain damage on his opponents too.
After watching Nico’s fight against Sanchez live from ringside, I watched it again on television the following morning. I counted 25 blows to Nico’s head in round three alone.
It would be a tragedy if, at some time in the future, Nico’s physical condition were to mirror that of his famous grandfather.
Nico will be protected as well as a fighter can be protected by his management team and promoter. Top Rank knows how to build a fighter, commercially and in terms of his ring prowess. Sanctioning bodies will bend over backward to find belts that Nico can fight for. He’ll be well-paid. Close decisions are likely to go his way. That said; I agree with Mike Joyce who, three days before Nico’s fight against Sanchez, told me in Gleason’s Gym, “If I had my druthers, we’d call it a day after this fight.”
Whenever Nico fights, my heart will be in his gloves. But I’d rather that he not fight again. Muhammad Ali sacrificed so much at the altar of boxing – more than enough to obviate the need for sacrifices by any member of his family in the years to come.