'This is in my blood': Biaggio Ali Walsh, grandson of Muhammad Ali, set for pro MMA debut

American fighter tells The National about his memories of 'The Greatest', the pressure of the name and fighting under the PFL banner in Saudi Arabia

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Considering his famous grandfather’s faith and connection to the kingdom, Biaggio Ali Walsh recognises the additional significance that comes with making his professional MMA debut in Saudi Arabia this week.

“Absolutely,” the American tells The National. “What are the odds that if somebody would've told my grandfather in his thirties, ‘Hey, you're going to have a grandson, he's going to fight in a new sport called mixed martial arts, and he's going to fight in Saudi Arabia'?

“You would've never guessed stuff like this. What God has written out is the best plan of all. It's crazy, but it means the world to me. And it's just, I don't know, it just feels like the beginning of a good story.”

Ali Walsh’s grandfather has arguably the greatest story of them all. Certainly, one of the most chronicled.

As the surname suggests, and the chosen vocation alludes to, Biaggio is two generations removed from Muhammad Ali, the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion and, for many, the pre-eminent personality in sports history. Ali Walsh’s mother is Rasheda Ali, one of “The Greatest’s” nine children.

Speaking from his bedroom in the Las Vegas base he shares with younger brother Nico, himself a pro boxer, and a couple days out from his first trip to the Gulf, Ali Walsh acknowledges the extra sentiment attached to this weekend.

Six and one as an amateur – he rides a six-bout winning streak having dropped his first fight – the lightweight competes on Saturday night in Riyadh, his pro debut also marking the Professional Fighters League’s inaugural outing in Saudi Arabia.

The background of my grandfather and the respect that he gets in the Middle East, and to be able to fight out there, I'm super excited.
Biaggio Ali Walsh

There, at Kingdom Arena in the capital, Ali Walsh will face Argentina’s Emmanuel Palacio on the much-anticipated “PFL Champions vs Bellator Champions” card.

Given his grandfather became synonymous with fighting in less-traditional boxing backyards – Saudi, granted, is fast becoming a hub for big-time combat sports – this week’s setting for his pro bow feels almost as if it was meant to be.

“Oh yeah; it's just a feather in the hat,” Ali Walsh says. “It means everything. The background of my grandfather and the respect that he gets in the Middle East, and to be able to fight out there, I'm super excited.

“We actually found out when we were in Africa for my brother's fight [in December]. So just to be able to travel all over the world and meet people and fight out there, be able to do the sport that I love, it’s super cool. I wouldn't want any other job.”

Maybe, with that luminous lineage, his path was already marked out. It’s not only their famous grandfather, or the now-professional brothers in combat sport. Aunt Laila Ali retired undefeated from boxing having held all the major belts at super-middleweight, and the IWBF light-heavyweight crown.

“It might just be in our blood,” Ali Walsh confirms. “Maybe it's in our genetics to want to fight.”

Of course, fighting, or more pertinently boxing, was a central component throughout his upbringing. Ali Walsh, 25, remembers watching “almost every single Manny Pacquiao fight” growing up, tuning in also whenever Miguel Cotto or Floyd Mayweather Jr were inside the ring.

“That’s my childhood basically,” Ali Walsh says. “Anytime there was a boxing card, we would have a fight night at the house.”

His grandfather featured prominently then, too. The family would travel to Ali’s residence in Michigan for Thanksgiving or other celebrations, but time together became more frequent when the former boxing star relocated to Phoenix, not far from Vegas.

“I have memories from my entire life up until he passed away [in 2016, aged 74, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease],” Ali Walsh says,

“Since I was super little, to early teens, to high school. There's a countless amount of memories.

“Obviously, he had Parkinson's and it got worse and worse over the years. When I was a lot younger, he could speak a little bit clearer as opposed to when he got older. But a ton of memories. It was clutch to be able to have him live so close to us.”

Understandably, boxing represented an obvious bond; even when Ali’s speech became ever-more slurred as Parkinson’s took tighter hold, depriving one of sport’s great orators of what was perhaps his most potent weapon.

“We used to watch some of his old fights,” Ali Walsh says. “Sometimes he'd be reading a book and, of course, it’s a book about himself and it's his fights and everything.

“We would watch movies as well. Some of our favourite ways to communicate with him was through magic. He loved magic.

“So that was kind of how we communicated with him, through activities like magic, watching a movie, an old fight, drawing. He loved to draw.

“One of the common things he would draw is a little [boxing] ring with two stick figures and then do a bunch of dots around it until it covered the whole napkin, or piece of paper or whatever. The ring with the audience.”

In view of his family tree, they have been more eyes on Ali Walsh right the way through his athletic development, first as he played American football at college level until his introduction to, and swift affinity with, MMA. With that, predictably, comes perhaps unparalleled pressure.

“Absolutely,” Ali Walsh says. “I'm only human. In anything that I do, there's going to be pressure just because of who I'm related to. If I was playing tennis, they would talk about ‘Muhammad Ali's really good, tennis-player grandson’.

“But there's more pressure because I'm in a combat sport. So I definitely have a ton of pressure. Dealing with the pressure is what's most important, though; I think certain things in my life have happened to prepare me for this kind of pressure.

“Like in high school, when my people found out who I was related to, MaxPreps [high school sports magazine] came out with something, and then it just blew up. So the media poured in and the interviews and everything started when I was really young in high school, and same thing in college.

“I didn't get as much when I wasn't playing football in college, but I still had media going on. So all of that stuff before when I was playing football just prepared me for this next chapter in my life to be able to deal with the pressure. I think it's only going to get worse and worse and worse.”

Ali Walsh delivers the last line with a laugh, but he aware of the burden of expectation. It helps, for sure, to have Nico as a sounding board and someone to kind of share the load.

Nico may be two years Biaggio’s junior, but he graduated to pro boxing in 2021. Competing as a middleweight, he is 8-1 since, with one no contest.

“He's actually inspired me a ton,” Biaggio says. “Seeing him start boxing when he was 15 and seeing him stay consistent and just be at where he is today.

“Now we're the two Ali Walsh brothers that fight, and their grandfather is this iconic figure. It's just crazy how everything's happening the way it is.”

It has brought Ali Walsh to Riyadh this week, where he makes the transition from amateur to pro. The decision was made off the back of his most recent fight, last November, when he connected with a powerful hook to “knock out cold” Joel Galarza Lopez in the second round at the 2023 PFL World Championship in Washington.

It marked Ali Walsh’s fifth successive win since joining the PFL. All five have been finishes. None have gone beyond Round 2.

The switch to pro should be seamless, he figures, since he has risen from his second fight taking place “in a warehouse or a barn” in southern Utah to, in the very next bout, competing at Madison Square Garden.

Clearly, the PFL has provided a pretty perfect platform.

“Oh man, it means the world to me, literally,” Ali Walsh says. “Just because they see potential in me. That says a lot to me. And not only that, being Ali's grandson too, it is a great story as well, and it could bring a lot of eyes.

“But that wouldn't matter if I wasn't performing, or I was 0 and five or something. At first, I was very hesitant signing with the PFL. I was at Starbucks with my coach and one of my teammates, and I remember telling them, ‘Yeah, PFL is thinking about signing me. I haven't even won yet, and they want to sign me’.

“So I was super hesitant. But I said, ‘You know what? Anyone who wouldn't take this opportunity would be stupid; this is an opportunity of a lifetime'. So I took that opportunity, and I'm just trying to take more advantage and work my butt off and perform well in the cage.”

Ali Walsh hopes to do that this weekend. He describes the card as “awesome” – it includes four champion-versus-champion bouts, headlined by 2023 PFL heavyweight champion Renan Ferreira against Bellator counterpart Ryan Bader.

He says, as well, that it's an “honour” to be able to compete on the same bill as Yoel Romero, the long-time UFC middleweight title challenger.

“I can't even really put it into words how grateful I feel,” Ali Walsh says, puffing out his cheeks. “I can't find a word. It's weird.”

That it all plays out in Saudi only increases the magnitude.

“I'm a practising Muslim as well, and to be able to go to a Muslim country and fight as a pro on a card like this, it means everything," Ali Walsh says. "I'm super grateful.

“At the end of the day, I always tell myself the fight's just a fight, whether it's here, there or anywhere. And I tell myself this to obviously calm my nerves and stuff, because every fighter gets nervous before fights.

“But yeah, man, it means the world. I don't know how else to put it. My mum's been to Saudi – she went to Jeddah a couple of times – and she loves it.

“I was actually hoping to someday day fight in the Middle East, and it just so happens to be in my first pro fight and first fight this year. It feels like it’s meant to be.”

Updated: February 21, 2024, 3:56 AM