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Gordon: Muhammad Ali’s grandson turns from football to MMA

Biaggio Ali Walsh possesses his legendary grandfather’s fighting spirit, but he never considered boxing. Not beyond the impromptu beatings he and younger brother, Nico, would administer to the heavy bag at Muhammad Ali’s farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Certainly not now.

“I liked MMA,” Ali Walsh said last week inside Xtreme Couture MMA, where he’s trained the last two years. “It’s very technical. You’ve got to learn multiple arts. The idea for the judo guy against the boxer, the wrestler versus the jiu-jitsu guy — I really fell in love with the idea. … It was never a thought to box.”

Formerly a running back at Bishop Gorman, California and UNLV, Ali Walsh, 24, is training as a mixed martial artist — channeling his fighting spirit inside the octagon instead of the squared circle.

He debuts on Friday at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater in New York with the Professional Fighters League, a mixed martial arts organization founded in 2017 with which he signed an amateur contract in September.

He’s 1-1 in the unpaid ranks and plans to turn professional next year. His objective is clear.

“I just want to keep that tradition for fighting that runs in the family,” said Ali Walsh, who sports a butterfly tattoo on his left arm and a bee on his right. “Maybe it gets passed down, maybe it doesn’t. But I know me and my brother are going to get the job done.”

Too old for MMA?

He was the best running back in Las Vegas, blending speed and skill en route to three national championships with the Gaels. But football wasn’t exactly Ali Walsh’s labor of love. He says he “kind of fell in love with it just because I was very successful at it.”

But a collegiate career was more a means to a scholarship than a childhood dream.

“There wasn’t a passion there. It’s hard to explain,” says Ali Walsh, who still was named Nevada’s Gatorade Football Player of the Year in 2015. Plus, the coaching staff to which he committed at California was dismissed before he arrived — rendering him “almost invisible.”

He was an afterthought with the Golden Bears, carrying four times for nine yards during the two years he lived in Berkeley. The inactivity triggered a transfer to UNLV, where he’d spend the 2019 season, his last as a college football player.

Amid the uncertainty in the ensuing offseason, Ali Walsh maintained his conditioning by training as a mixed martial artist while working as an assistant strength and conditioning coach at a local performance center — and “going out, trying stupid stuff” during his free time.

“I just remember standing there, thinking to myself ‘Why am I a coach? I’m 22 years old, I miss being an athlete,’” he recalled. “I would even Google ‘Is 22 years old too old for MMA?”

No, he would conclude, it’s not.

‘This kid has potential’

So Ali Walsh committed to the craft, training twice a day around a schedule that still includes film classes at UNLV. Film remains a passion he shared with his grandfather, who loved Western and horror flicks — and Nico, a middleweight boxing prospect promoted by Top Rank.

Fighting does, too.

PFL president Ray Sefo has high hopes for Ali Walsh, whom he called a “perfect fit” for the company’s Challenger Series designed to develop younger fighters.

“He and I got on the pads a couple times and I was like ‘Oh, this kid has potential,’” Sefo said. “He’s fast, very athletic and he’s so eager to learn. Understandable, given that his grandfather is one of the greatest ever.”

Ali Walsh is also pursuing greatness, “but in the grand scheme of things, I want to be a positive impact on people’s lives. I want to be able to preach martial arts and the benefits of it and the confidence people can gain from martial arts and the discipline and the respect that comes with it as well.”

Indeed, he possesses Ali’s fighting spirit.

And more importantly, his human spirit, too.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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