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A Closer Look at Top Rank’s Newest Signee Nico Ali Walsh

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On March 29, 1966, Bob Arum promoted his first fight, a 15-round contest between Muhammad Ali and George Chuvalo at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Fifty-five years later, the indefatigable Arum is still going strong and this past Thursday, June 24, he announced that his company, Top Rank, had brought a new aspirant into the fold, Nico Ali Walsh, a 20-year-old middleweight who will make his pro debut on August 14 against an opponent to be named on a show whose other pieces have not yet fallen into place.

A new signing by Top Rank normally isn’t newsworthy beyond the sphere of boxing, but news of this signing was splashed all over the internet. That’s because Nico Ali Walsh arrives at Top Rank with a ready-made back story. He is the grandson of the aforementioned Muhammad Ali, rest his soul, who was once the most famous man on the planet.

Nico has an older brother, Biaggio Ali Walsh, who once seemed destined for a career in the National Football League. Biaggio averaged 11.5 yards per rushing attempt during his three years with national high school football powerhouse Las Vegas Bishop Gorman. Biaggio was named the Gatorade Nevada High School Football Player of the Year as a junior and may have repeated as a senior if not for the ankle injury that caused him to miss several games.

Owing to injuries and other factors, Biaggio washed out as a collegian. He redshirted his first year at the University of California and then appeared in 10 games as a back-up the next season before returning home to play for his old high school coach who had taken the head coaching job at UNLV.

Biaggio gave up football before using up all of his eligibility. He is pursuing a career as an actor and model. And Nico, two years younger, has now supplanted him as the most notable athlete in the family.

Rasheda Ali Walsh, Nico’s mom, was the second-oldest of Ali’s nine children, arriving two-and-a-half minutes before her twin sister Jamillah. Rasheda’s mom, the former Belinda Boyd, married Ali when she was 17. The marriage lasted nine years, during which Ali fathered two children out of wedlock and took up with Veronica Porsche, the woman who would become his third wife. Laila Ali, the most well-known of Muhammad Ali’s children, is Rasheda’s half-sister.

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, Rasheda and her husband Robert Walsh, a former Marine, met in 1991 at a restaurant at a beach resort in Florida where she was working as a hostess and he was the executive chef. They reportedly dated for a year before Rasheda revealed that she was Muhammad Ali’s daughter.

Robert Walsh was born on Chicago’s South Side and Rasheda was raised in the Chicago suburb of Flossmoor. They eventually returned to the Chicago area where Robert worked at several upscale Chicago restaurants before opening his own place in the ‘burbs, Biaggio’s Italian Restaurant. Walsh is Italian on his mother’s side. Biaggio was his grandfather’s name. An enticing job offer from Bally’s, a mid-Strip casino resort, brought Robert and Rasheda to Las Vegas.

Periodically Muhammad Ali would come into Biaggio’s and amuse the other patrons in the restaurant with card tricks. Whatever difficulties her parents had, they did not poison Rasheda’s relationship with her famous father. To the contrary, she has been devoted to preserving his legacy as a great humanitarian and, in common with her older sister Maryum, has become a spokesperson in the fight to find a cure for the disease that ravaged him. Rasheda even wrote a book on the subject, a book for parents to read to children who have questions about the illness. The title is “I’ll Hold Your Hand So You Won’t Fall: A Child’s Guide to Parkinson’s Disease.”

Growing up, Rasheda Ali Walsh had designs on a career in the theater. Marriage and motherhood pointed her in a different direction, but those plans weren’t completely abandoned. She has worked as a production assistant on various TV shows and appeared on VH1’s “Love and Hip Hop: New York.”

Rasheda, who owns a degree in mass communications from the University of Illinois, is big on education. The photo that accompanies this story was taken when Nico was named to the Dean’s List at UNLV. A business major, he is on course to graduate in the spring of 2022.

How does she feel about her youngest child pursuing a career in boxing? In a 2016 interview, when Nico was new to the sport, she conceded she wasn’t too happy about it: “I know Nico is pursuing his passion. As much as I don’t want him to do it, I don’t want to be that parent who says you can’t pursue your dream.”

Nico Ali Walsh will undoubtedly make great headway as a boxer. Top Rank matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad “Abdul” Goodman are at the top of the food chain when it comes to “moving” a fighter. Nico will have the benefit of training under Kronk crackerjack SugarHill Steward who did a masterful job of preparing Tyson Fury for his second encounter with Deontay Wilder. But eventually there will come that moment of truth; a crossroads fight with an opponent considered his equal or better, and then it’s all on him.

Beyond that, while being the grandson of a man as famous as Muhammad Ali can certainly open some doors, it can also be a burden. Can he handle the fame that will come his way, or the derision that will descend upon him from cowardly internet trolls if he proves to be nothing special?

Time will tell. We wish him well.

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Denny and Crocker Win in Birmingham: Catterall vs Prograis a Go for Aug. 24

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Matchroom was at Resorts World in Birmingham, England today with a card topped by an EBU European middleweight title fight between Tyler Denny and Felix Cash. Denny was the defending champion and had home field advantage, but Cash, undefeated heading in (16-0, 10 KOs) went to post a consensus 9/4 favorite.

A member of the Irish Traveler community, Cash was making his first start in 18 months. As noted by Tris Dixon, he had a number of distractions during his hiatus, including a bitter divorce. Tonight, he looked rusty and he never did get the chance to establish a rhythm.  In the second round, he suffered a cut on his right eyelid from what was ruled an accidental clash of heads. The cut deepened, and in round five the referee stopped the action and had the ringside physician inspect the wound. On his advice, the bout was stopped.

Owing to the derivation of the cut, the bout went to the scorecards. Tyler Denny was ahead on all three cards: 49-46 and 49-47 twice.

Denny, who improved to 19-2-3, won his second straight inside the distance, an oddity as every one of his first 17 wins went to the scorecards.

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, Belfast welterweight Lewis Crocker advanced to 21-0 (11) with a unanimous but unpopular 10-round decision over Wolverhampton’s Conah Walker (13-3-1). The judges had it 95-94 and 96-93 twice. There were no knockdowns, but Walker had a point deducted in round nine for low blows.

The crowd’s dissatisfaction with the decision (Walker was clearly the busier fighter) was tempered by the fact they got to see a doozy of a fight. At times, notably in the last two rounds, the action was furious.

A rematch is in order, but all indications are that Crocker’s next fight will come against Paddy Donovan who was in attendance. A Top Rank signee from Limerick, Ireland, Donovan is 14-0 as a pro after a decorated amateur career.

Before the main event, Matchroom honcho Eddie Hearn announced that he had come to terms with Jack Catterall and Regis Prograis who will lock horns on Aug. 24 at the new Co-Op Live arena in Manchester, England. In his last assignment, Catterall comprehensively out-pointed former unified 140-pound world champion Josh Taylor while avenging the lone “L” on his record, a highly controversial setback to Taylor two years earlier in Glasgow. Regis Prograis, a two-time world title-holder at 140, has had only bad showing, but that came in his last start when he was thoroughly outclassed by Devin Haney.

Photo credit: Mark Robinson / Matchroom

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Results from Las Vegas where Rafael Espinoza Retained his WBO Title in Grand Style

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Top Rank made its first foray to the newest Las Vegas Strip resort, the Fontainebleu, tonight. Topping the bill was an all-Mexican featherweight title fight between Guadalajara’s Rafael Espinoza and Oaxaca’s Sergio Chirino. The lanky Espinoza, at six-foot-one the tallest featherweight world title-holder in history, was making the first defense of the title he won with a shocking upset of Robeisy Ramirez and tonight he looked sensational.

Espinoza, who advanced his record to 25-0 with his 21st KO, had his countryman on the canvas in the very first round, the result of a counter left uppercut. Chirino wasn’t badly hurt, but it quickly became apparent that he was out-gunned. In round three, Espinoza sent him to the canvas again with a four-punch combo climaxed by a short left to the liver, and Chirino would be down once again in the following round, hunched down from a series of punches that caught only air. At this juncture, referee Raul Caiz Jr wisely stepped in and stopped the fight. The official time was 2:45 of round four. Chirino, who came in riding a 13-fight winning streak, declined to 22-2.

Espinoza is expected to have a rematch with Ramirez, provided that Robeisy gets past his Mexican opponent later this month in a match that, on paper, looks like an easy win for the Cuban southpaw. In their first meeting, the unheralded Espinoza was a massive underdog. Based on his showing tonight, he looks no worse than “pick-‘em” in the sequel.

Co-Feature

In a 10-round junior lightweight fight, North Las Vegas native Andres Cortes scored a unanimous decision over former world title challenger Abraham Nova. The scores favored the local fighter by scores of 96-94 and 97-93 twice.

Cortes had the crowd in his corner, but the reaction when the verdict was announced was one of surprise. Nova, who was credited with throwing and landing more punches, was in better condition and seemingly had the best of it in the late rounds. It was the twenty-second win without a loss for Cortes. Nova (23-3), a class act,  was diplomatic in defeat.

Also

In a true crossroads fight (a “pink slip” fight in the words of ESPN commentator Mark Kriegel),Troy Isley, a former Olympian and stablemate of Terence Crawford, out-worked Javier Martinez to win a unanimous 10-round decision. The judges had it 96-92-and 97-91 twice.

The middleweights were well-acquainted, having split four fights at the amateur level. Isley, from Alexandria, VA, improved to 13-0 (5) Martinez, born in Milwaukee to immigrants from Mexico, was 10-0-1 heading in. Both fighters lost a point for low blows after repeated warnings from referee Tony Weeks.

Other Bouts of Note

In an 8-round bantamweight fight that turned zesty after a slow start, Floyd Mayweather Jr protégé Floyd “Cashflow” Diaz improved to 12-0 (3) with a unanimous decision over Tijuana’s Francisco Pedroza (18-12-2). The judges had it 78-73 across the board. Diaz was making his second start under the tutelage of Brian “Bomac” McIntyre. Pedroza lost a point in round six for hitting on the break.

Steven Navarro, a hot prospect from a prominent SoCal boxing family, won his second pro fight with a 6-round shutout over rugged but outclassed Juan Pablo Meza (7-4), a 33-year-old Chilean.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

Over the years, some of the world’s best boxers have been Filipino. Long before Manny Pacquiao there was Pancho Villa (Francisco Villaruel Guilledo) who became a national hero at the age of twenty-one when he captured the world flyweight title with a one-sided beat-down of Jimmy Wilde in 1923, knocking the legendary Welshman into retirement. But one thing is missing from the Pinoy boxing catalog, an Olympic gold medal. There have been eight medalists in all, four silver and four bronze, but the coveted gold has proved elusive.

Eumir Marcial came close in Tokyo. He advanced to the semi-finals in the middleweight competition where he lost a razor-thin decision to his Ukrainian opponent. Two of the judges favored him, but that was one short of what was needed.

“It took a long time for me to get over it, but I came to accept that God had a different plan for me,” says Marcial who gets another crack at it next month. He survived the qualifying tournaments and is headed to Paris where he will carry the flag of the Philippines into the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad.

Eumir (you-meer) Marcial grew up in Zamboanga City in the southern region of the archipelago, a two-day trip to Manila by ferry. He was introduced to boxing by his father Eulalio Marcial who besides being a farmer and a jitney driver is also the head coach of the Zamboanga City (amateur) boxing team.

Eulalio’s son is a big wheel in his native habitat, one of the more urbanized areas of the Philippines. This past October, when Eumir returned to Zamboanga City with his silver medal from the Asian Games in China, a motorcade awaited him at the airport and he was whisked to City Hall where he was feted in a ceremony organized by civic leaders.

In Las Vegas, where he was been training for the Olympics, he’s anonymous. No one genuflects when he walks into the DLX Gym in the company of his attractive wife Princess. He’s just another face in the crowd and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Marcial had one pro fight under his belt before the Tokyo Games. In December of 2020, he won a 4-round decision over a 3-1 opponent from Idaho on a card in Los Angeles. Not quite two months before that fight, while training at Freddie Roach’s gym, Marcial, who has two sisters, received the devastating news that his only brother Eliver had died in the Philippines of a sudden heart attack at age 39. Despite the age difference, the two were extremely close.

Marcial has had four more pro fights since then, advancing his record to 5-0 (3 KOs). In two of those fights, he had anxious moments.

In his second pro fight, he was knocked down three times in the first two frames, but gathered his wits about him and stopped his opponent in round four. In his next outing, a 6-rounder on the undercard of a Showtime PPV, he fought through a bad gash over his right eye, the result of an accidental head butt.

“I learned a lot from those fights,” says Marcial, “and they will make me a better Olympian than I was in 2021.”

Marcial spent nearly 10 years in the Philippines Air Force, but as somewhat of a civilian employee, spending little time around aircraft. He attracted a lot of attention after winning the AIBA world junior championship as a 15-year-old bantamweight in Kazakhstan in 2011. The Air Force seized on his growing fame to make him a recruiting specialist.

The word icon is over-used, but not when applied to Manny Pacquiao who overcame abject poverty to become an international superstar. “He was an inspiration to me,” says Marcial who references “PacMan” as Sir Manny or Senator Manny when he speaks about him.

The two would become well-acquainted. Pacquiao co-promoted Marcial’s last pro fight in Manila which was nationally televised in the Philippines and billed as a homecoming for Eumir who hadn’t fought in a Manila ring in five years. (He knocked out his Thai opponent in the fourth round.)

Marcial recalls some advice that Pacquiao gave him: “He said to me, ‘the higher you get, the more humble you should be.’”

Humbleness comes natural to the affable Marcial who is unstinting in his praise of those who have helped him along on his journey. “I would not have gotten through the qualifying tournament for the Paris games if not for my coach Kay Koroma,” he says.

Nowadays, whenever a Filipino boxer appears for a photo-op, Sean Gibbons is certain to be standing close by. Gibbons, who has homes in Las Vegas and the Philippines, has had an amazing ride since the days when he plied the Oklahoma and Midwest circuits, driving hundreds of miles each month to small shows in the sticks, transporting carloads of journeymen boxers with him. “[Sean Gibbons] helps us with accommodations, rental cars, whatever we need, and I am so grateful to him,” says Marcial of the man (pictured above on the left) who wears many hats but is perhaps best described as a facilitator.

Making matters more daunting for Marcial going forward, his weight class was eliminated when the governing body of the Olympics added a new weight category for women, subtracting one from the men. A middleweight (165-pound ceiling) in Tokyo, he will perform as a light heavyweight (176-pound ceiling) in Paris.

Eumir Marcial will return to the pro ranks regardless of what happens in France, but lassoing that elusive Olympic gold medal would likely bring him more joy than anything he may accomplish at the next level.

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