Growing up as Muhammad Ali’s grandson was a mixed blessing for up-and-coming mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Biaggio Ali Walsh.
Walsh, now 25, has many fond memories of his grandfather, the legendary boxer known as “the Greatest”, even though Ali was suffering from Parkinson’s disease when Walsh was a child.
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He recalls Thanksgivings watching John Wayne or Clint Eastwood westerns, Ali doing magic tricks, drawing together, and reading books – usually about Ali, like on his legendary Rumble in the Jungle fight with George Foreman in 1974.
But while Walsh loved boxing and would hit the mitts and the bag at an uncle’s gym, and his brother Nico has become a professional boxer, he was never interested in seriously pursuing combat sports – he played American Football instead. And his grandfather never encouraged him to fight.
Nevertheless, being Ali’s grandson meant he got dragged into street brawls by people eager for bragging rights. He was even forced to box by a high-school senior at a friend’s house party when he was a 14-year-old freshman.
“We ended up boxing and I beat the p*** out of him,” Walsh told Al Jazeera with a laugh.
It’s been a steep learning curve for Walsh, predominantly a striker whose record stands at 5-1-0 and is now in training for a lightweight fight next month against Joel Lopez (3-0-0) on the undercard of the 2023 PFL World Championship in Washington, DC.
If Walsh wins, it could hasten his journey to becoming fully professional and fulfilling his dreams, which he says are not about belts but something more spiritual and altruistic.
“Getting into the sport, it’s changed my entire life; mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” he said, speaking to Al Jazeera online from Las Vegas, where he’s based.
“I’ve gotten closer to God because of the sport.”
‘I missed having a purpose’
Walsh played American Football at college and studied film. But after that didn’t work out, he got a job as an assistant strength and conditioning coach and considered getting into real estate. But nothing seemed to fit.
“I just thought, I miss being an athlete. I miss having something to strive for and miss having some kind of purpose,” he said.
Meanwhile, he was sinking into depression, drinking, and doing drugs.
“I was just kind of spiralling in this dark road,” he said. “And that’s pretty much what got me into fighting and just getting back into the light. [Training was] the only thing that excited me.”
His friends and clients were going to the Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts gym in Vegas, home to UFC fighters such as Sean Strickland, Chris Curtis, and Dan Ige.
And he had become a fan of MMA, preferring the versatile sport over the more specialised discipline of boxing.
“[MMA is] kind of like street fight. I don’t get to just punch somebody, I get to kick someone in the head and take someone down, choke someone out, you know?” he said, laughing. “I got options.”
He made his amateur debut in June 2022. But he was overcome by nerves, clenched up, forgot to breathe, and lost the fight – ending up in hospital.
His second fight, however, “was like night and day,” he said. “I was so much calmer, and then I just got better and better and better.”
That’s not to say he wasn’t nervous in his PFL debut on the undercard of the 2022 World Championship at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where his grandfather fought numerous times.
“I was about to p*** myself! It was scary,” he said.
He won that fight though, and his next three, all by first-round knockouts.
But he was still unable to afford to fully dedicate himself to learning his fighting craft and worked late as a nightclub security guard.
After his last fight in August, a second-round win knockout win over Ed Davis at Madison Square Garden, he was able to quit that job and rely on sponsorship as well as revenue from Only Fans, which he hastens to add does not involve posting racy content.
Walsh thinks that the unbeaten Lopez, who he fights on November 24, will be his toughest opponent yet. But he’s also eager to face a similarly aggressive striker.
“I feel like those kinds of fights are the most exciting. I mean, look at guys, like, [UFC star] Justin Gaethje. He’s such a fan favourite because he has bangers,” he said. “That’s really what I care about.”
Walsh says his deepening faith has also helped him become better at dealing with the nerves and the pressure that comes with fighting and being Ali’s grandson.
“In a sport like MMA, I think it’s very important to have a very strong relationship with God because you’re going in there and you don’t know if you could die,” he said.
Walsh grew up Muslim but says he didn’t know much about his religion until he started fighting and it gave him the drive to learn more and evolve as a person.
“When I read the Quran, it tells me that [material success] is not what’s really important. What’s really important is having a good relationship with God and, and doing good and stacking good deeds, being good to people,” he said.
“Like, when you die, you don’t take the Ferrari, you don’t take the house, you don’t take any of this – you take who you were as a person and what you worshipped.”
He also recalls the advice he got from his grandfather who, while renowned as a poetic trash-talker and bragger par excellence, also used his success for activism and humanitarian work.
“I would say that the biggest piece of advice that he did give me was to stay humble,” he said.
Walsh says he also wants to use his success to help others – particularly homeless people and using martial arts to help kids from underprivileged and abusive homes.
“I’m not rich yet. But if I do get rich, these are the type of things that I want to do … I don’t really care about no belt, I don’t care about my record or anything like that,” he said.
“I just want to be an exciting fighter. I think in that, I’ll be able to get the finances to help a lot of people.”