GLENDALE – As Nico Ali Walsh touched down in Phoenix this week, he couldn’t help but feel the emotions from his last visit.
Over six years ago, Ali Walsh came to the Valley with family to lay his grandfather – the great Muhammad Ali – to rest. Now he’s back in the area preparing for a more cheerful experience, if he can extend his professional boxing record to 8-0 with a victory Friday at Desert Diamond Arena.
“It’s definitely weird being back here, but I’m here for a job, so I’m looking to make a happier memory,” said Ali Walsh, who faces Phoenix native Eduardo Ayala on the undercard of Top Rank Boxing on ESPN presented by AutoZone: Navarrete vs. Wilson. “Change the story, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
So far, Ali Walsh’s story in boxing has been one of victory. The 22-year-old picked up seven wins, five by way of knockout, in just a year and a half as a professional. While boxing seems like a natural career path for Ali Walsh, he wasn’t pushed into the sport at all.
“I was always around (boxing), but I made a conscious decision when I was like 14 to really work (at) everything to make it to the top, and since then I haven’t stopped,” he said.
Ali Walsh began his career in the amateur ranks and took roughly 30 fights before he felt ready for the next step. While that number is far less than most boxers need, he did not rush the transition.
Ali Walsh spent time training in Big Bear Lake, California, with Abel Sanchez, the legendary trainer who has trained multiple world champions, including the unified middleweight champion Gennadiy Golovkin, and garnered honors like the BWAA Trainer of the Year in 2015. Once he turned professional, the middleweight began working with SugarHill Steward, another legendary trainer who most notably has trained the current heavyweight champion of the world, Tyson Fury.
While Ali Walsh surrounded himself with the right people at the start of his career, nobody could prevent the whirlwind of comments, comparisons and pressure that came from being an “Ali” in boxing.
“You have to embrace it, because everyone’s going to continue to bring him up,” Ali Walsh said. “It’s not up to me. It will always happen even if I wasn’t boxing, people were bringing him up before boxing. So you got to embrace it.”
In his first professional fight, Ali Walsh finished Jordan Weeks with a brutal barrage of punches less than two minutes into the first round, doing so in a pair of his grandfather’s white Everlast shorts passed down to him. Most viewed the shorts as Ali Walsh paying homage to his grandfather, but it was more of an accident.
“That was actually a total mistake. It’s kind of similar to this situation I’m in right now. I had shorts that were supposed to be made for me, but they weren’t here in time,” Ali Walsh said. “So just in case, I brought my grandfather’s shorts, just in case. I wasn’t expecting to wear them. And it happened that my shorts were not delivered on time, so I had to wear my grandfather’s shorts. I didn’t wear them for long because it was a first-round stoppage, which is great, but definitely brought me some luck.”
Ali Walsh may have looked like his grandfather in his first fight, but he has been able to separate himself from comparisons with his own unique style.
As proven by his 71% KO rate, Ali Walsh is an aggressive fighter and isn’t afraid to stay in the pocket and trade shots, usually getting the better of the exchange. He has also shown thunderous power in his short career, with four of his five KOs coming within the first two rounds.
The great Ali’s style is impossible to replicate, and his grandson doesn’t try inside the ring. Outside the ring, it’s a different story.
“We’re not very similar in style. I’d like to have footwork like him. We have more similarities when it comes to how we are as a person not as a fighter,” Ali Walsh said. “I want to be the kind of guy that he was … no one can (match Ali’s persona) you know, but I’m trying my best.”
Ali Walsh will continue to blaze his own trail when he takes on Ayala.
Ayala, a Phoenix native, has a record of 9-2-1 and plenty of experience fighting in the Valley with 10 of his 12 fights taking place in his hometown. He said a weight was lifted off his shoulders when promoting the fight’s location and looks forward to the extra attention that will come with fighting Ali Walsh.
“I look at this like it’s just my next fight on my road. The ‘Ali’ last name is definitely a plus,” Ayala said. “It’s the fight of my life. In boxing, anything can change with just one fight. Regardless, it is a great last name, but I make things so that it has less pressure on me.”
Ali Walsh has spent his whole career fighting on stacked cards in large venues like Madison Square Garden and doesn’t expect the atmosphere on Friday to faze him.
“That’s not going to play an effect at all because this is like a second home to me. I got dozens of people coming too so that will not play into it,” Ali Walsh said. “My first fight was on ESPN – it was, you know, crazy pressure. And so everything now is less pressure, so I’m prepared for anything.”
Preparation was key ahead of his last fight as Ali Walsh went the distance for the first time since stepping up to six-round fights. He defeated Billy Wagner by unanimous decision in front of thousands in the Hulu Theater at MSG, proving to both the fans and himself that he’s more than a knockout artist.
“If all my fights were KOs I would be worried, because you know, when you hear about fighters who continue to knock people out, they normally can’t go the distance and they have trouble going to the later rounds,” Ali Walsh said. “Last fight I felt amazing all six rounds. I was ready to go another six. So that gave me a ton of confidence.”
Racking up knockouts, especially early in a fighter’s career, can also increase the pressure as fans begin to expect a highlight-reel KO every fight, which is unattainable for even the best of fighters. By going the distance in his last fight, Ali Walsh not only relieved some of the pressure, but he also gave fans a greater taste of his style.
Ali Walsh said there are facets of his game fans haven’t seen, simply because early KOs or defensive opponents prevent him from showing his full range.
“I’m trying to show more this fight. You see it in the gym, but because my fights have been so short I haven’t been able to show it and last fight, you know,” Ali Walsh said. “I was trying to work on certain things, but I’m excited. I’m excited to show it. I need time, I like when there’s time when I go a few rounds. It’s fun.”
Whether the fight ends early or goes the distance, plenty of fans are expected to attend Friday’s bout to see the next chapter in Ali Walsh’s story.
If Ali Walsh can secure an eighth straight win, Top Rank Promotions says it plans to prepare him for a future title shot.
“(In the future) I think we’re just gonna raise the opposition, increase the number of rounds, steady fights and eventually, God willing, he’ll compete for a world title,” said Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, who also promoted many of Muhammad Ali’s fights.
While no one can ever live up to the legacy of Muhammad Ali, one of the world’s greatest athletes, Ali Walsh isn’t even trying. He hopes to make a name for himself, forging his own path in the sport his grandfather gave so much.