It’s the holiday season. Families are reconnecting.
And after a round of storytelling, a rousing game of catch or a stint baking cookies in the kitchen, nearly every kid emerges thinking his or her grandfather is the greatest.
Biaggio Ali Walsh has one up on them. Because his grandfather really was.
“The Greatest,” that is. Or, in plainer terms, Muhammad Ali.
But to Ali Walsh, he was just Grandpa.
“Every Thanksgiving, we'd go and the whole family would get together and we'd have Thanksgiving at his house every year,” he told Bleacher Report. “We would hang out with him because he had this really big, nice chair like the massage chairs. He would just chill in there.”
“We would do magic tricks with him and watch classic movies, like old Western movies, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. We'd watch the old Dracula and stuff like that. It's moments like that that I remember the most, and I think they're awesome.”
Now 24, Ali Walsh was born nearly two decades after Ali’s final fight—a loss to Trevor Berbick in 1981—and said he’d reached elementary school before he began realizing just how famous his relative had been.
In fact, he said only a few close friends were aware of the link until he was well into his teens.
His mother, Rasheda Ali, was born during the three-time heavyweight champ’s second marriage.
“We would go to the movies with him, and we would go to restaurants. We'd go out with him,” he said. “When we'd enter the restaurant, one person would notice who came in and then the whole restaurant would stand up and start clapping. As a little kid, I would see this stuff and I would think, ‘Dang, my grandfather is very important.’ I don't know why or how, but he is.
“In third grade, I did a project on him just to get to know a little bit more and why he is who he is, and it still didn't really click. I only looked at him as my grandfather. I think when I was in high school is when I started to really see the impact that he made. Any boxing gym I would go to, he'd be on the wall. We went to the Orange Bowl when we were little kids and the whole crowd was chanting, ‘Ali, Ali, Ali.’”
Ali Walsh was 17 years old when his grandfather died in 2016, at age 74, about a year before his own graduation from Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, which preceded a two-stop college football career at the universities of California and Nevada/Las Vegas.
Not surprisingly, he was a fan of boxing and mixed martial arts and often found himself dabbling in MMA to keep weight down between football seasons. A few years later, with football behind him and grown-up job possibilities not yet clear, he chose what others might consider an obvious path:
The family business. Well, sort of.
While younger brother Nico donned trunks and is now an unbeaten middleweight seven fights into a professional ring career, Biaggio began full-scale MMA training at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas and split two amateur fights prior to signing a developmental contract with the Professional Fighters League.
“I only trained MMA to stay in shape because I didn't want to get overweight, and I was getting better at it,” he said. “I started recording my sparring and I was always looking forward to going to the gym and getting better at the stuff that I wanted to improve. I fell in love with it.”
Consequently, he’ll be skipping turkey and stuffing to get in a few extra rounds before his PFL debut—set for Friday night at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater, where he’ll meet fellow newbie Tom Graesser in a lightweight bout that’ll air on ESPN+ as part of the show’s preliminary card.
Ali Walsh said the relationship with the New York-based promotion began when his brother was approached at a boxing event and given a business card. Ali Walsh’s father, Robert, reached out and was told the company wanted to speak to Biaggio about his MMA career. A few Zoom calls later and the deal, which is designed to help him build his career and his brand while still an amateur, was done.
If all goes well, he’ll make the switch before next Thanksgiving arrives.
“I'm actually going to turn pro whenever I feel like I'm ready to turn pro,” he said.
“I don't want to feel like I'm rushed, especially in a sport like MMA. You want to take your time. You don't want to be rushed. I personally think that if I stay on the same path I'm on right now and I keep getting better and better, I think by summer to fall next year I could be ready to turn pro. I don't know, but in the meantime, I'm just only focused on getting experience and winning.”
At 5’10” and 155 pounds—about 30 pounds below his weight as a running back—Ali Walsh is smaller than both his fighting brother (6’0”, 160 pounds) and his Hall of Fame grandfather (6’3”, 220 pounds). And rather than simply playing the role of a boxer in an MMA setting, he’s trying to blend specific elements of his favorite UFC fighters like Petr Yan, Charles Oliveira, Robert Whittaker and Jose Aldo.
It’s a quartet, incidentally, who combined to win Octagonal championships in four weight classes.
He watches his grandfather, too, and gleans ideas for head movement and how to set up punches, not to mention how strong Ali was mentally. And as for what he’s picked up regarding the familial gift of gab, while not a go-to tactic, he said it does leak out from time to time.
Ali Walsh wears the traditional Ali “colors” in the form of butterfly and bee tattoos on his left and right arms and said the chatter he used to practice most often was in the form of post-fight interviews.
Still, if a video-game session gets particularly heated, all verbal bets are off.
“I must say, if I'm playing Call of Duty, I'm a loudmouth trash-talker then,” he said with a laugh.
“My grandfather did a lot of the trash talk. I'm the type of person where you give me respect, I'll show respect back. If someone does want to trash talk, I'll trash talk, I don't care.”
That goes for critics, too. Especially the ones who question his motives.
Ali Walsh is aware that he’s the latest in a long line of relatives of noteworthy ex-fighters who’ve chosen to enter the combat space themselves. In fact, his own aunt, Laila Ali, boxed professionally for eight years and once fought the daughter of Muhammad Ali’s most famous rival, Joe Frazier.
And while some later-generation participants wind up as or even more successful than their predecessors—Floyd Mayweather Jr., for one—it’s just as often dismissed as a convenient means for the younger set to make a quick dollar while basking in a spotlight created by someone else.
It’s a charge he’s heard. And one he answers with a question of his own.
“Would you not?” he said. “That's the first thing I would say. ‘If you were in my position, in this one life that you have, would you not try to take any opportunity you can to become successful?’
“‘Oh, you're just trying to cash in because you're your grandfather, this, this, that.’ Listen, I'm just like any other fighter. I'm trying to create a name for myself. Every fighter wants to create their own name and they want to make their own legacy. I'm no different than any other fighter. I'm doing the same exact thing. The only difference is my grandfather is a very famous icon. That's the only difference.
“I don't want to be 35 and think, ‘Oh, if I really tried MMA, would I have been good?’ I don't want to have these questions, so I just said, ‘You know what? I don't think that I'm too old. I'm going to just go at it.’”