Muhammad Ali grandsons carving path in combat sports despite concerns

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Muhammad Ali was The Greatest, but two of his grandsons are carving out unique paths of their own in combat sports.

Biaggio Ali Walsh, 25, will make his pro debut in mixed martial arts Saturday in Saudi Arabia. A week later, Nico Ali Walsh, 23, will be in New York for his 11th bout as a pro boxer. Nico, who made his pro debut in 2021, is 9-1 with one no contest and five knockouts.

Rasheda Ali, mother of the two boys, this week found herself thinking of her famous father, who died in 2016.

“He would be so proud of the boys,’’ she said during a phone interview from Saudia Arabia. “He would probably be with us right now.’’

At the same time, Rasheda Ali acknowledged concerns that her sons might suffer brain trauma widely thought to have contributed to father’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease over three decades.

“There are a lot of people in my circles who are in the neurocognitive world, one in particular who is, like, please tell your kids not to box,’’ Rasheda Ali said. “And some parents snub their nose at the dismay of me allowing my kids to fight.’’

“I love the word allowing,’’ she added, “because my kids are not kids anymore. Even if I had something to say about it, they’re adults and they can make their decisions.’’

The grandsons and Poppy

Growing up, Biaggio said, he and his younger brother grew close to their grandfather even as the man they called Poppy struggled with increasingly slurred speech.

“Our way of communicating with him was magic because he loved magic,’’ Biaggio said. “Coloring and drawing. Like that was our way of communicating with him.’’

There’s no evidence Muhammad Ali would have discouraged his grandsons from fighting professionally, according to Nico. (There are 15 total grandchildren, according to Rasheda, but her sons are the only ones in combat sports.)

“Right before my first amateur fight, I was like, I don’t know Poppy,’’ Nico said of the bout in 2015. “Do you think I should quit?

“I was looking for him to give me permission and he just didn’t give it to me. Since then, I made a promise to myself that I was just never going to quit.’’

Rasheda Ali recalled her father did not attend that fight because he wasn’t doing well. “You can’t really make plans with Parkinson’s,’’ she said.

Biaggio, who played three years of college football before taking up MMA, said he’s aware of the potential dangers but also said, “Honestly, I think MMA’s a little safer than football. You know in football there’s no weight classes. I’m 5-10, I was 180 pounds and the people I had to get past were frickin’ 6-9, pushing 400 pounds and they could run at me as fast as they can and hit me as hard as they want.’’

A mother’s precautions

Ultimately, Rasheda Ali said, she knew she would not be able to stop her sons from entering combat sports.

She also mused, “If my grandmother, Mama Bird, told my father you couldn’t box, then it would be a different world.’’

“I just decided where I was going to allow them to enjoy and pursue their passion and try to be as responsible and try to inform them and educate them as much as I could about the condition and just pray and rest of the time,’’ Rasheda said. “Because I’m always praying. Anytime they go into a ring, even before Biaggio stepped into a cage, I was worried about CTE and other conditions that kind of accompany high-impact sports like football.’’

As a precaution, Biaggio and Nico were not allowed to participate in high-impact sports until they entered high school. And before that, Rasheda Ali said, both of them underwent neurological testing to determine their baseline for concussions.

“I tried my best, but Nico’s eyes light up when he goes into a boxing ring, especially since my dad bamboozled him into continuing a career,’’ she said. “Biaggio, I just want to see him happy.’’

How MMA rescued Biaggio Ali Walsh

There was no talk of combat sports for Biaggio when, as a junior running back at Bishop Gorman High School in 2015, won Gatorade Player of the Year for Nevada. He later accepted a scholarship to California and in 2017 headed to Berkeley.

After redshirting his freshman year, he found himself stuck on the bench.

“I wasn’t getting any opportunities,’’ Biaggio said. “Instead they would come to me for media and have me do interviews for news outlets and all types of stuff. It was a mental battle. I’m sitting there doing these interview and I’m thinking in my head, do you guys know that I’m not playing?

“I almost felt like I was just being used and it just took a mental toll on me.’’

Biaggio transferred to UNLV but he played in just one game that next season and quit.

“When I was done with football, I kind of went down a little dark road,’’ he said. “Living in Vegas, it was super easy to go out and have all this access to alcohol and drugs, all types of stuff.’’

Taking up MMA to get back in shape, Biaggio said he fell in love with the sport and got back on track.  He is 6-1 as an amateur and has won each fight thanks to his fists. On Saturday, he will make his pro debut at an event pitting fighters from the Professional Fighters League and Bellator MMA.

On his move up from the amateur ranks, Biaggio said, ‘I can elbow now and I can knee to the face. …I’m just super excited to be part of this journey.’’

This post appeared first on USA TODAY