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For Muhammad Ali’s grandson, family legacy extends beyond the ring

Nico Ali Walsh, grandson of three-time world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, will face Reyes Sánchez on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
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Nico Ali Walsh is preparing for his next test. Literally.

The young boxer is many things: a fledgling middleweight, the grandson of Muhammad Ali and a business major at UNLV trying to juggle finals with preparations for the final fight of his first professional year.

After he won his first two matches by technical knockout, his third will come against Reyes Sánchez (6-0, two knockouts) on the undercard of Saturday’s feature bout between Vasiliy Lomachenko and Richard Commey at Madison Square Garden. Forty years to the day after his grandfather’s final fight, Ali Walsh will compete in the same venue where Ali fought Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century.”

Ali Walsh, 21, toured the arena Wednesday, appreciating the history and the memorabilia on display, before he turned his attention to a geology final that night.

“If you’ve got any rock that you’re looking to categorize as igneous or sedimentary, I can help you out,” he joked on a video call. “I could probably tell you the luster and the make of the rock if I see [it].”

Ali Walsh hasn’t physically gone to class since March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. But he has embraced the detachment, separated from classmates who might recognize him or professors who have messaged him on Instagram since his star began to rise, fueled in part by his early successes but primarily by his name.

The son of Ali’s daughter Rasheda, Ali Walsh joined the amateur circuit at 14 and signed with Top Rank this summer, three weeks before his 21st birthday. He finished an overmatched Jordan Weeks (4-2, two KOs) by first-round TKO in his August debut, then twice dropped James Westley II (1-1) en route to his second pro victory in October, displaying a thumping right hand but lax defense.

SugarHill Steward, perhaps best known as heavyweight champion Tyson Fury’s trainer, also works with Ali Walsh. Steward told ESPN that the young boxer’s skills are unrefined but that he is continuing to evolve.

“Realistically, he’s like a beginner, not even a polished amateur,” Steward said. “That’s how I was taught, and that’s how I like to teach — from scratch. It’s been fun. I see improvement. He’s been in with all my guys and done okay. He’s smart. He can fight.

“He’s not scared. He’s not shy to get hit or thrown down. It’s just a matter of him learning to fight better.”

Ali Walsh acknowledged that need for growth, adding that his confidence and comfort in the professional ring have increased through his first two pro tests.

“I’m looking to use my jab more. I’m looking to improve my defense. I’m looking to improve my footwork,” he said. “There’s a million things to improve on. I don’t care how great of a fighter someone is. You can always improve. And I think you’ll see that Saturday, just improvement.”

Inevitably, Ali Walsh fields comparisons to his grandfather. He is constantly asked about legacy and the pressures of carrying his family’s name, which he describes as “the weight of a million people on my back but in a good way.”

“It’s bigger than me,” he said of Ali’s legacy. “So I’m not nervous about it. I’m just glad that I get to continue it.”

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That pride and appreciation, along with the emotional and spiritual connection he feels to his grandfather, have animated Ali Walsh early in his career.

He signed with Everlast in August, noting his connection to the company that supplied the boxing attire seen in his grandfather’s iconic images. In his debut later that month, he wore the original white trunks that Ali gifted to him, then stirred the crowd as it chanted “Ali, Ali” after he downed Weeks with a right hook.

Ali Walsh wants to become the best boxer he can be, but he said he will continue to embrace the impact of his “Poppy” on him and others. Moving forward, that means his plans could include a stop that Ali made throughout the 1960s.

“I probably will be going overseas next year to the UK, which would be amazing,” he said. “My grandfather had a million fans in the UK, so that would be really fun.”

The young boxer hopes to close this year undefeated and to set up greater opportunities for himself, although he is quick to acknowledge why they have come his way.

“It’s my grandfather. It’s not me,” Ali Walsh said. “Of course, if I wasn’t winning, if I wasn’t doing my part and working hard and training hard, then people wouldn’t be as captivated, but it’s my grandfather. People love him. It’s awesome to see that, and they’re just extending that love to his family in myself, so it’s an honor that I get to share the same love that people have for him.”