LAS VEGAS — Nico Ali Walsh wasn't supposed to make his pro boxing debut wearing the iconic white and black-trimmed boxing trunks made by his famous grandfather — three-time champion of the world Muhammad Ali.
"It was destiny," the 21-year-old fighter told me Tuesday. Ali Walsh said he planned to sport a fresh pair of white shorts with his name stitched across the belt, custom-made by his sponsor, Everlast.
His trainer, Sugar Hill Steward, told him to bring his only extra pair of white boxing shorts — the trunks made for his grandfather — as a fight-night backup.
"And the night before the fight, I found out my custom shorts wouldn't be ready. … So, it was fate that I wore my grandfather's [trunks]," Ali Walsh said. "I'm never wearing them again."
The story of his grandpa's shorts was a preferred anecdote in national news stories about the middleweight's debut fight in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Find out what's happening in Chicago with free, real-time updates from Patch.
Your email address
But during our chat, Ali Walsh told me about another sentimental piece of his wardrobe connected to his journey as a fighter that people outside Chicago probably wouldn't understand.
"When I'm around the house, I'm always, almost exclusively, wearing a Leo [High School] Boxing tank top," the University of Nevada Las Vegas student said.
Ali Walsh was just a kid when he first trained at the Catholic high school's boxing gym on Chicago's South Side.
The grandson of "The Greatest" said he still remembers prepping for amateur bouts under the tutelage of his uncle, Mike "Pickle" Joyce — a former pro boxer turned coach whom Ali playfully slapped in the face and asked, "Can the white boy fight?" when they first met in the '80s, decades before he became the champ's son-in-law.
"I always thought it was the coolest thing that a high school had a boxing gym. I had never heard of that before," Ali Walsh said. "I know all about Leo High School because my uncle works there. I love what that they're teaching kids how to box, love it."
The night before the ESPN broadcast of his pro boxing debut, Ali Walsh lounged with family in a Leo Boxing tank top. He slipped on a Leo Boxing T-shirt on the next night after besting Jordan Weeks in a first-round technical knockout.
Nico Ali Walsh sports a Leo Boxing tank top. (Photo provided)
"I'm a big advocate for remembering your roots. Even though I grew up in Las Vegas, I was born in Chicago. My family is in Chicago," Ali Walsh said. "There's no way to get around it — my roots are in Chicago, and that's important to me."
Ali Walsh said he plans to travel to Chicago later this week to visit Leo High to donate a portion of his first-fight winnings, and Everlast boxing gloves and uniforms, to the South Side high school.
"I know I'm not on the level of [boxer Floyd] Mayweather in terms of [fight compensation]. But I'm going to be donating a portion of my purse to the Leo Boxing program," Ali Walsh said.
"Me donating to Leo, that's the kind of stuff my grandfather would do."
For much of his life, Muhammad Ali quietly helped keep boxing alive at parks in rough-and-tumble parts of Chicago. After Muhammad Ali died in 2016, the former Chicago Park District President Ed Kelly let loose with the 44-year-old secret that Ali donated a truckload of new heavy bags, speed bags, headgear and boxing gloves to set up "boxing training centers" in Bessemer Park in the South Chicago neighborhood.
"[Ali] heard conversations about how I didn't have the equipment, but I promised to get it," Kelly told me in 2016. "He knew I didn't have enough [equipment], so he did it on his own. … He made me promise not to tell anyone, especially the press."
Leo High School President Dan McGrath called Ali Walsh's donation an "almost storybook" gift that keeps his grandfather's legacy of philanthropy alive.
Nico Ali Walsh trained at Leo High School's boxing gym as a boy. (Photo provided)
"God love him, for it," McGrath said. "Boxing is a terrific after-school program for us. With COVID, last year was kind of lost. But with an infusion of a little cash and some equipment, it will be great to get more kids involved."
Ali Walsh said helping kids at the Chicago high school is an important part of furthering his grandfather's legacy that transcends any dreams of financial success or a 50-0 record in the ring.
"My eyes are not set on any belt or championships. I'm happy to take it one fight at a time and make an impact outside of boxing," he said. "Me being able to do things like donate to Leo High School is what continuing the Ali legacy is. It's not about going undefeated. Not in my mind, at least."
Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, wrote and produced the Peabody Award-winning series "Time: The Kalief Browder Story." He was a producer, writer and narrator for the "Chicagoland" docuseries on CNN and a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary "16 Shots."