Ready to make ‘Poppy’ proud: Nico Ali Walsh aims to build on Muhammad Ali’s legacy


On Dec. 11, 1981, when Rasheda was 11, she went with her brothers and sisters to watch their daddy fight a man named Trevor Berbick. As no state athletic commission would sanction the bout, the fight was held in the Bahamas and promoted by a convicted felon. None of that was Rasheda’s concern, though. As her parents had divorced when she was 5, Rasheda lived with her mom and siblings in Chicago. Any chance to see her daddy was to be treasured.

Rasheda understood the rules. Daddy, then 39, was the kind of man you had to share, not just with the family, or the block or the neighborhood, but with the entire planet. But if every moment with him was a gift, the exception was that night in the Bahamas.

“It was horrifying,” she recalls. “Daddy was older. Daddy was out of shape. I knew he shouldn’t have been boxing. This young guy was beating him up. And I’m like, Why are you fighting? Stop the fight. Then there’s a photograph of us after. He’s in bed and I kiss him, but I’m telling him, Just stop. Please, just stop.

That was Muhammad Ali’s last fight. The intervening years saw Rasheda and her restaurateur husband, Bob Walsh, raise two sons in Las Vegas, where she made good on her promise to give them what she herself never had. At least once a month, usually twice, they piled the boys into the Dodge Durango to visit their grandfather in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Maybe the rest of the world called him “The Greatest.” But to the boys he was “Poppy.”

By junior high, the elder brother, Biaggio, had already found his passion. He’d go on to star at running back for Bishop Gorman, a football powerhouse. Nico was a little different. “An old soul,” his mother calls him. He was never happier than when he was curling up on the brown leather couch with Poppy.

They did magic tricks. They watched a lot of movies, mostly Westerns and horror pictures. Poppy was a Dracula buff and partial to the 1958 version featuring Christopher Lee.

“That’s the best Dracula,” says Nico, who’d returned the favor by introducing Poppy to the cinematic glories of “Drag Me to Hell.” They both loved Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.”

But the conversations — on the leather couch, or later via FaceTime — would inevitably turn to boxing. Nico wasn’t into team sports. But he was fascinated by the game that made his grandfather the most famous man in the world.

“What’s the most important thing a fighter needs, Poppy?”

“Dancing and moving,” Ali said.

“Poppy, what about training?”

“Roadwork, roadwork, roadwork.”

Eventually, Nico found a gym and started working out in Vegas. He lost his first fight, came home with a black eye.

“You know this is the hardest sport ever created, right?” asked his mother.

Not only did he understand, he also knew the comparison with Poppy would be inevitable and thankless. Nico wasn’t going to be another Poppy. That was never the point.

“Is this something you really want to do?” she asked, thinking: Can’t you just play soccer or basketball like a normal kid?

“I want to box.”

“You understand you have to put 100 percent into it?”

Nico was undeterred. He fought a few smokers for his uncle, Mike Joyce, back in Chicago. He fought a few tournaments in Arizona. He won some. And he lost. Once, he showed up at Poppy’s with a swollen red nose. Just the two of them on the couch.

“Your amateur record doesn’t matter,” Poppy told him. “It’s the experience you get.”

Just the same, losing a fight isn’t like losing a soccer or basketball game. “It takes a lot out of a fighter to lose,” Nico says.

And even more to fight through those losses. Looking back, that’s what Nico takes from their conversation of Dec. 6, 2014, in Reno. The whole family was there. His brother was playing for the state championship with Bishop Gorman. But it got real cold so Nico had to stay back with Poppy in the car, just the two of them. Nico was 14, early on in the amateurs and, if the truth be told, looking for a way to quit. They watched one of his sparring sessions on Nico’s phone.

“Poppy, do you want me to continue?”

His grandfather looked into Nico’s eyes, but no words came. Poppy had good days and bad days with Parkinson’s disease. This was not a good one. He was having a hard time talking. Nico clasped his hand.

“Poppy, squeeze my hand if you want me to quit boxing.”

No response. Nico figured maybe it was worse than he thought. Maybe Poppy couldn’t hear him.

“Poppy, squeeze my hand if you want me to continue boxing.”

Poppy squeezed. Hard.

Fast-forward seven years, Nico will make his pro debut as a “Special Attraction” on the undercard of Franco-Moloney III Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma (ESPN/ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET). He’s managed by his uncle, Mike Joyce. Heavyweight champ Tyson Fury’s trainer, Sugar Hill Steward, will be in the middleweight’s corner.

“Realistically, he’s like a beginner, not even a polished amateur,” Steward says. “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 OK. He’s smart. He can fight.”

He can fight? Steward is asked to explain.

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

Unlike most fighters, however, Nico Ali Walsh will have to glean such knowledge — or not — under the brightest of lights. Steward will endow him with some high-end lessons, no doubt. But it’s his grandfather — or, rather, the idea of Ali — who’ll get him on TV.

“I’m not doing this to be famous,” he says. “It’s not a money grab. I’m doing this for me.”

Something in the bloodline itself speaks to his old soul. No one knows for sure what kind of fighter Nico Ali Walsh will be. But at the end of the day, that’s why he’s doing it. So he knows.

“People can think what they like,” he says. “It’s not about going undefeated or winning a belt, necessarily. I’ll know I’ve had a successful boxing career when I’m content, and my family feels happy with what I’ve done.”

Actually, his mother is plenty happy with what he’s already done and still thinks that soccer or basketball would’ve been just fine.

Rasheda Ali Walsh hasn’t been to a pro fight since that terrible night in the Bahamas. He’s 21, she reminds herself, it’s his decision.

It’s better for him to know than not to have tried. But as the fight draws near, she has been waking in the middle of the night with heart palpitations.

Will you be there? she is asked.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she says.

Of course. For her son, for his old soul, and the gift of whom it might summon.

“Daddy will be there, too,” she says “In spirit.”

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