No matter what, boxing was always going to be part of Nico Ali Walsh’s life.
But luckily, the 23-year-old grandson of the late legendary fighter Muhammad Ali has always loved the sport, as well as his family’s deep ties to it.
“I was born for this,” Walsh tells PEOPLE. “I feel like it was my calling — my destiny — and I feel like I want to take the same path he did, where I’m boxing not just because I love it but I’m using it as a platform to change people’s lives and be just like him.”
So far, Walsh has proven unbeatable — although, if you ask him whether he might be as good as his grandfather, it will only get you a laugh. Ali’s grandson is 8-0-1 with five knockouts since he turned professional in 2021.
That may very well change this Saturday when Walsh squares off with Sona Akale (7-1-0) at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tulsa, Okla. The matchup has been described as Walsh’s toughest challenge yet and will take place on the undercard of Top Rank Boxing’s next show on ESPN. (Walsh’s fight will air on ESPN+ streaming platform before the event begins at 10:30 ET.)
Whatever the future holds, Walsh has felt “amazing” since turning pro two years ago. “Every fight, I’m showing a lot of improvement,” the young boxer says. “I’m just learning quick.”
He also had quite the head start, learning from his grandfather — simply known as “The Greatest” — since an early age.
“We spoke on boxing all the time,” Walsh says, thinking back to some of his earliest memories, which were with his grandfather inside a boxing ring. “Every time I was with him, I was watching his fights with him. Like, I would pull it up on YouTube on my phone and we’d watch his fights, and then we’d work on my sparring. I got so many tips from him.”
His older brother Biaggio is an amateur MMA fighter, but Walsh followed directly in Muhammad Ali’s path.
Stylistically, Walsh tries to approach fights with the speed and technical work his grandfather was known for while mixing in a bit of Mike Tyson-esque tenacity. He also avoids drinking and smoking just like his grandfather did to stay sharp.
In the ring, Walsh doesn’t try to emulate his grandfather very often, but sometimes the unavoidable similarities squeak out.
The Chicago native says he shares the same sense of humor his grandfather had and, a handful of times, he’s even been teased by trainers for displaying the same mannerisms as his grandfather. Once, he laughs now, Walsh says he pulled out his grandfather’s famous “shuffle” celebration after knocking out an opponent who talked too much trash.
Usually, Walsh’s opponents err towards passing along their respects to his family rather than using his background against him — which makes sense given Muhammad Ali’s reputation as a boxer and person, his grandson says.
“Honestly, the greatest thing about him is that he was the same person on and off the camera,” Walsh smiles. “He was just very caring, especially for someone who was so world renowned. He would meet literal kings and queens, presidents and stuff, and he would treat them the same as a waiter at a restaurant. That was what was special about him.”
Walsh has always hoped to carry his grandfather’s best qualities with him, regardless of how his own boxing career panned out.
“I’ve always looked up to my grandfather so much,” Walsh says. “If he was an astronaut, I would have wanted to become an astronaut. He’s been my hero my whole life.”
And as for the pressure that comes with being an Ali? Walsh says he’s not alone.
“My grandfather was, I believe, truly the greatest boxer of all time, still to this day,” Walsh says. “So, anyone who’s in boxing is in the shadow of my grandfather. It’s not just me. And even though I’m in that shadow, it’s an amazing shadow to be in.”