Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, was one of the most significant and celebrated heavyweight boxers in history. Often regarded as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, Ali was known not only for his boxing prowess but also for his charisma, outspokenness, and social activism. In the words of his grandson Biaggio Ali Walsh, ‘It’s what he did outside the ring that matters’.

Even though his boxing career spanned from 1960 to 1981, his mammoth legacy continues to live in the hearts of countless fans around the globe. But what does it take to carry the weight of such a legacy on one’s shoulders? “When I was a little kid, he was just grandpa to me. It’s only when I got older that I started to really understand the impact that he made,” says Ali Walsh, son of Rasheda Ali. “Sometimes, I would hold his hand and think to myself, ‘He knocked out George Foreman with these hands, but he’s my Poppy!”

Growing up, the world of sports was second nature to him, however, his foray into the world of combat sports was off to a rocky start. With an unsuccessful football stint during high school, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) became a chance discovery for the young athlete. Battling addictions and the dreadful uncertainty of not knowing his life’s purpose, he almost decided to give up sports completely. “There was so much expected of me. And what’s the point if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing?”

Discovering MMA and training for it renewed his spirit, the 25-year-old admits. And now, life comes full circle for him as he prepares to make his much-awaited professional MMA debut in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Saturday, February 24. “I wish I could share this moment with my grandfather,” he sighs. “Especially making my fight debut in a place like Saudi Arabia… it would mean a lot to him,” he adds, gearing up for the big day at the Kingdom Arena in the Saudi Capital.

The lightweight fighter will be up against Argentina’s Emmanuel Palacio for 'PFL Champions vs Bellator Champions', also marking the inaugural fight for Professional Fighters League (PFL) Mena and a first-of-its-kind sporting event in the country.

In a conversation with Khaleej Times, the MMA fighter talks about his formative years, growing up with a ‘heavyweight’ name, the pressures that come with it, and how he deals with fear.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Hailing from a renowned family, was there pressure to take up sports?

I always loved sports; I was very athletic, super fast, but I was more interested in football. I worked my tail off but I never really got the opportunity. There’s always politics involved when it comes to sports like soccer, baseball. So when football didn’t work out for me, I didn’t know what to do. I went to a dark place because I felt like there was so much expected of me, being Muhammad Ali’s grandson. I did really well in high school, and there was so much promised to me in college. When it didn’t materialise, I started questioning what my purpose was. I got distracted and turned to addictions but I was just numbing the anger that I had deep down inside of not knowing what my purpose was. A lot of people go through this.

The reason I’m fighting is so that I can help people who are like me or worse, to give them that light bulb, to give them that path. The reason I fight is so that I can help inspire people like that to think, not just about martial arts, but about what they love doing. Never will I be fighting for a belt or money.

How did you realise that MMA was your calling?

Growing up, people would randomly come up to me and say, “Oh, you’re Ali’s grandson. Can you fight?” I’ve gotten into a couple of fights where someone wanted to box me but those were the only times I really fought or had any kind of combat-like experience. Of course, we were all boxing fans growing up. When football didn’t work out for me, that’s when I stumbled upon MMA and everything changed. Once I started training for MMA, I adopted a healthier lifestyle, I loved the way I was living, I wouldn’t be living like this if I wasn’t fighting. I was eating healthier, going to the gym every day but most importantly, I had a goal in mind. Besides, I just loved the fact that there are multiple martial arts that could play a part in a fight, similar to a street fight. You can elbow, you can use your knees, kick, all the different types of techniques.

At what age did you grasp the fact that he was not just your grandfather but the Muhammad Ali?

When I was a little kid, he was just grandpa to me. It’s only when I get older, I started to really understand the impact that he made. Around age 10, I was doing a school project and we had to write about a famous figure so I chose to write about him. That’s when I first realised that he was potentially the greatest fighter that ever lived. Sometimes, I would hold his hand and think to myself, ‘He knocked out George Foreman with these hands, but he’s my Poppy’ (laughs). I always look at YouTube videos of his fight because I didn't get to see that side of him. When I grew up with him, he had Parkinson's Disease, and it obviously got worse over the years. But I wish I could go back in time and see him in his element.

Was it hard to see your grandfather go through the challenges of Parkinson's Disease?

At first, he was insecure about having Parkinson's disease. He didn't feel comfortable with people knowing that he had Parkinson's; he didn't want people to make fun of him. But when he made the appearance at the 1996 Olympics, that was his first time actually coming out to the public with Parkinson's disease. Everyone saw him carrying the torch while he was shaking, and it became widely known that Muhammad Ali had Parkinson's. Even before that, it wasn't that he wanted to hide it, he was very strong in his faith and understood that everything happens for a reason, according to the will of God. But he was only hesitant because he didn't want people to feel sorry for him.

What’s your relationship with fear?

When it comes to fear, I revert back to my faith. It’s normal to get nervous before a fight, especially when you’re risking your life. But I try to get myself to a place where I’m actually ready to die the night that I fight. So I try to get myself mentally to that level. I always tell myself this, “I do my best, and God does the rest.” Whatever happens is God’s planning, and divine planning is better than human planning.

How are you feeling leading up to your professional fighting debut, that too, in Saudi Arabia?

Of course, I get nervous before every fight, and it’s probably going to continue or get worse. But I feel confident. It’s good to be a little nervous because it keeps you sharp. But I’m very excited, it’s my first time in Riyadh. I’m super excited to make my debut in a Muslim country; being able to fight in front of my brothers and sisters. I know what my grandfather meant to the people of the Middle East. So, I’m beyond thrilled to make my debut here. I couldn’t have imagined this for myself. As I said, divine planning is better than human planning.

How do you wish to take your grandfather’s legacy forward?

I want to help people the way he did. How he inspired Saudi fighter Hattan Alsaif to start fighting, that’s a beautiful story. That right there is inspiration. It’s about the love he gave back to the people, which still remains. The way he treated people; he was called the people's champ for a reason, standing up for what he believed was right. Nobody will ever reach the level that my grandfather got to. I won't even scratch the surface. But the only thing I can do is try, and in trying, I think I can help a lot of people.


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