A chat with Biaggio Ali-Walsh, Cal recruit and grandson of Muhammad Ali

Tuesday January 31st, 2017

When Cal finalizes its recruiting class Wednesday, it’ll feature one of the most creative names in college football, with one of the most impressive lineages. Biaggio Ali-Walsh, a 5’ 10”, 186-pound running back, is a three-star recruit out of Las Vegas’s Bishop Gorman High. He’s also Muhammad Ali’s grandson.

Ali-Walsh is the son of Ali’s daughter Rasheda Ali and Robert Walsh. He formed a close bond with his grandfather as a child and inherited his competitive spirit and work ethic. Still, he never fell in love with boxing, and his breakneck speed (Ali-Walsh runs a 4.41 40-yard dash) made him a star running back on a Bishop Gorman team that’s won 54 consecutive games. In the 2016 Class 4A Nevada State Championship, which the Gaels won 84–8, Ali-Walsh finished with 113 yards and two touchdowns, capping his high school career with a flourish.

He spoke over the phone with Sports Illustrated last week while on his way to a tour of Alcatraz.

Sports Illustrated: So, I have to ask: Where did the name come from? You're the first Biaggio I've ever heard of.

Biaggio Ali-Walsh: My great-grandfather on my dad's side, his name was Biaggio, and he's from Sicily. It's a very Italian name. Sometimes it gets mispronounced. Often, actually. They say Bellagio, like the hotel.

SI: How did you pick football as your sport when so many of your family members [grandfather; aunt, Laila Ali; and brother, Nico Ali-Walsh] are in the boxing world?

BA: I was in the second grade, and [I got a football card] at school. I never knew what football really was. [The card] was of Brian Urlacher. One day I turned on the TV, and the Bears were playing, and I'm like, "Oh, that's the guy on my card." That's when I knew what football was. All my friends were playing flag [football], and I got into flag, and it was fun. In seventh grade, I tried out tackle for the first time, and I didn't play that much. Eighth grade, I took a year off. But freshman year came around, and in high school I wanted to start it up again, and I guess it worked out from there.

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SI: Did you ever get into boxing?

BA: Yeah, my brother is a boxer. Me and my brother would train in boxing when we were really young with our uncle, and Nico found a passion for it. But I didn't feel what he felt. I was 9, Nico was 7 or 8.

SI: Were you always a running back?

BA: In flag I was a receiver, and my first year of tackle I was a defensive end. So freshman year was my first time playing running back. I think it was my speed [that caused coaches to move me over]. I think it was my vision, too. I could catch some screens and stuff; I never really went out for long passes. So really, it was my speed.

SI: So with your speed, did you ever run track?

BA: Everyone always asks if I've ever run track or if I'm going to. I've never run track. Right now I'm kind of training with some track stuff, but I'm not like officially running track. It's speed training for football, but a lot of it is what you need to know in track to get faster. It's track basics: hurdle drills, bettering my form in running, pushing the sled. I'm working with a trainer in the same gym that Nico boxes in, a private gym. Lorenzo Fertitta [a Las Vegas entrepreneur, casino executive and sports promoter] has a private gym under Red Rock [a casino resort on the west side of Las Vegas], and you have to know him to [work out] there. It's super high-security. It's pretty cool.

Josh Holmberg/Icon Sportswire via AP

SI: Just from looking at your Instagram and Twitter, it seems like you and your grandfather were really close. What was your relationship like with him?

BA: Great. Every Thanksgiving and every time we got the chance, we'd drive out to Arizona or fly to Michigan and spend time with him. He loved magic tricks, so Nico would bring his magic kit, and we would show him cool tricks. He loved it. [A couple] Thanksgivings, he came over to Vegas.

SI: I know he made it to your 2014 state championship game, a 70–28 win. Was that the only high school game of yours he was able to attend?

BA: That was the only high school game on varsity he made it to. My freshman year, he came, and we were going to play a team, and they forfeited. We scrimmaged against each other. So he was still able to watch me play.

[At the state championship], I remember I was on the sideline about to go in, and I looked to the side. Snoop Dogg [whose son, Cordell Broadus, played at Bishop Gorman], he's always in the stands. For this game, he was in the top right corner of the stands. And I looked to my right, and at the bottom of the stands, I see a huge crowd. And Snoop's not where he was standing before. I'm like, okay, Snoop's with someone. And I looked, and I saw my mom with her dad, and I'm like, wow. It was a huge crowd. It kind of put some pressure on my back.

SI: You dedicated your season to your grandfather this fall after he passed away in June. What did that gesture mean to you?

BA: It wasn't just the season itself that I wanted to dedicate; it was the hard work and overcoming my [ankle and shoulder] injuries, too. 

SI: Your grandfather was known for being an activist and voicing his opinions on matters beyond sports. Do you want to follow in his footsteps in that respect? I know on some of your social media posts, your views go beyond football.

BA: For sure. I don't want to just be looked at as an athlete. I want to be looked at like my grandfather was, as a spokesperson, talking about life, what's right from wrong. I want to not just be looked at as an athlete, but as a person, too. I want to [highlight] what's more important in life, not just what [we're all] caught up in right now.

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SI: Going to school at Cal I'm sure there will be no shortage of causes to take part in and perspectives to learn about. What about the school and the football team there really appealed to you?

BA: I wasn't expecting what I got [when I visited]. I'd heard a lot about the area, how nice the Bay Area is, and how nice San Francisco is. I wanted to know how Berkeley was and how the school was, and I was very surprised with how [great] the education is and how the people are the school itself. It's not even just the football. It's the history behind it and what's come out of the school.

SI: After you committed to Cal, you exchanged some text messages with Marshawn Lynch. What was that like?

BA: He's really cool. We text all the time. We're like friends now. He's super cool. He gives me advice. He always tells me to run people over more. I told him, okay, I'm going to start working on that now. When I'm out in Berkeley, I'll text him and tell him I'm out in Berkeley, to let me know if he's in town. I haven't met him yet. We FaceTime and we text, but he's been pretty busy lately. 

SI: You also have a modeling career, in addition to football. How did you get into that?

BA: When I was about 5 years old, I was with Ford Chicago. When we moved to Vegas, things just didn't work out. So I was done with [modeling]. Then, I think it was in March of last year, I got a [Twitter direct message] from an agent with Wilhelmina Models. He said that he was from Wilhelmina, and he was interested in signing me as a model. I didn't know what Wilhelmina was. So I researched it, and it turned out it was a huge agency, so I went to my parents, and we tried to get things going. But then [it was a hard spring for my family], so we kind of put it on pause. But we wanted something positive after that, so we went along and signed with Wilhelmina, and since then it's gone really well.

I went to New York for the first time [in September] with a very famous photographer. His name was Bruce Weber. I shot with him, and it was just a great experience. I plan to [model] while I'm in college. I think [the agency is] going to work around my schedule, hopefully, so it'll make it a lot easier for me. I'm putting football and my education before it, of course.

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