Top Rank Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum has always been connected with the name, Muhammad Ali, thanks to a legacy and those iconic fights at Madison Square Garden. Fifty years ago, Arum, who celebrated his 90th birthday this week, promoted Ali’s second fight back after being exiled from boxing.
December 7, 1970, Ali, dropped Oscar Bonavena three times in the 15th round at the Garden before 19,417 fans, and the fight was over. There was more to come at the Garden as the legacy of Muhammad Ali continued to make boxing history including the epic “Fight of the Century” in March, 1971 versus Joe Frazier.
Boxing has returned to the Garden after a two-year hiatus dealing with COVID-19, and tonight another Ali is in the spotlight, though, Nico Ali Walsh, grandson of Muhammad Ali, does not want to be in that spotlight.
Nico, a middleweight, highlights an undercard of Top Rank/ESPN televised fights that includes a significant main event and lightweight battle between former champions Richard Commey and Vasiliy Lomachencko. The lightweight division has been a center of attention the past three weeks with all the title implications.
Regardless of the significance, involving Lomachencko and Commey, both seeking to regain a lightweight title, a lot of the hype is about 21-year old Nico and coming off a pro debut of two wins . He opposes Reyes Sanchez (6-0, 20 KO’s) in a four rounder.
The name and connection of his grandfather of course makes for a great boxing story. In this case, though, Nico, a son from a mixed marriage, is living a dream. He fell into a boxing trap coming from a family that is connected with history and living in Las Vegas, the boxing capital of the world.
However, there is no comparison with the boxing styles. Muhammad Ali was the heavyweight who stung like a bee. Nico is a middleweight, displays that form of a technical fighter, and uses combinations with a solid punch.
“This is such a humbling experience and it’s been an honor,” he said Thursday at Chase Plaza during a final press conference with Arum and fighters on the Saturday evening boxing card.
The honor of a third career fight at the Garden is special. To know that your legendary and iconic grandfather considered Madison Square Garden his home, and now you get the opportunity at the same venue, is a dream. You ask fighters that know the history and have seen the films. They all look for this opportunity to be in the ring of an arena known as “The Mecca of Boxing.”
“It’s been a whirlwind these past couple of months and to be among these great fighters,” Nico said. “All these fighters I’ve watched before in the past. Being on the undercard of Lomachenko is amazing.”
Lomachenko sells and Ukraine fans follow him. He is their icon and many have come to New York to see him previously stop opponents at the Garden. Top Rank added Nico to add some more flavor to the boxing card, and ESPN, of course, they asked for Nico.
I asked Nico about the name, his lifestyle, and comparisons to his grandfather. He is also an amateur magician and is not shy of his other talent that came from being a fan of the famed David Blaine.
“Boxing is not what I want to be known for,” he said. “I want to be known for making a life out of boxing. Make a positive change like my grandfather. I’m 21-years old but not the average 21 year old. Never drink or smoked, I’m very boring. I’m looking to change the world and help people. That’s what I’m all about.”
His grandfather changed the complexion of boxing and the heavyweight division. Ali was a showman, and Arum has said that promoting him was a one man show. You gave Ali the forum and he got your attention.
Nico, he smiles and this early fame has not sparked an ego or changed the persona. In other words, this is Nico and not Muhammad Ali. Though, it is difficult to not ask him about being compared to a fighter known as “The Greatest of All Time.”
Nico got a walk through at the Garden Wednesday afternoon. He saw his name on the big screen that hangs above the ring. He will again wear the similar ring attire his grandfather used, and you will always see Nico gesturing to heaven in tribute.
He was informed a revamped boxing ring that will be used is the same one Muhammad Ali entered during those fights at the Garden.
“It’s going to be a great night of boxing,” Nico said. “I’m stoked. Back in the amateur days, I used to be nervous before fights. This is an honor, now I have no time to be nervous. When I got the call I would be here, I didn’t believe it.”
Believe this, Muhammad Ali will be looking from above. Knowing this, Nico can’t ignore the spotlight because there will be another stage of boxing history that will be established Saturday night in New York.
Rich Mancuso: Twitter @Ring786 Facebook.com/Rich Mancuso