Chairman, CEO, and Founder of the Celebrity Fight Night Foundation, Jimmy Walker may very well be the most humble of unsung heroes on the Valley’s philanthropy scene. The first Celebrity Fight Night in 1994 featured Charles Barkley and raised $100,000. Fast forward 23 years, and the event has evolved into one of the largest grossing charity events in the country, raising $127 million since its inception.
Celebrity Fight Night XXIII: Celebrating Ali will take place March 18, 2017 at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort in Spa in Phoenix. Harrison Ford will be the special honoree for the evening. This year’s sponsors include Porsche, USA Today, The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation, Patron Tequila, GoDaddy, M Group Scenic Studios and GO Media Companies. To better understand how far this annual fundraising event has progressed, we sat down with Jimmy Walker to learn about its evolution.
In 1994, Walker started the annual event in an earnest and fun manner. “I called Charles Barkley, because I considered that he owned the city at that time,” states Walker with a small laugh. “He was just amazing with the Phoenix Suns. I said to Charles, who I had known for quite a few years prior, ‘Why don’t we do a charity together? Why don’t you put on large gloves and fight Michael Carbajal in the ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton?’ Next thing I knew, Dan Majerle joined him, and the proceeds that year went to five-time world boxing champion, Michael Carbajal’s Ninth Street Gym.”
The following year, the boxing theme continued with Barkley serving as a referee, instead of doing the boxing. Walker says, “We had Phil Mickelson boxing Billy Mayfair. We had Alice Cooper as a referee and Mini-Me (Verne Troyer) fighting Joe Montana. Mini-Me said he wanted a good challenge and Evander Holyfield came in and fought Mini-Me. Then Sugar Ray Leonard got involved, and Tommy Lasorda."
“We did the boxing at the Ritz-Carlton for a few years and it really got to the point where, if this was going to continue as this one year event called ‘Fight Night,’ that we needed to change the venue. And that’s when we went to entertainment,” Walker explains. “Our first entertainer was Kenny Rogers.” Rogers sang and Barry Manilow showed up as a surprise, climbed into the ring and sang to a small crowd of several hundred people. As the event continued to grow in popularity and size, it moved to the Arizona Biltmore and then to J.W. Marriott Desert Ridge, where the event is held now.
A Celebration of Ali’s Life
This year will be different, as “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali passed away in 2016. Walker says, “The noticeable change this year will be when people walk in the room, instead of it looking like the normal stage, it’s going to be a boxing ring. We’re going to have quite a few large pictures around the ballroom of celebrities with Muhammad Ali. It’s truly a celebration of his life. Like Reba said, ‘It’s going to be very upbeat and very positive.’”
Bill Crystal will be a very big part of this year’s event. Walker states, “Billy was very close to Muhammad Ali. Muhammad used to call Billy ‘his little brother.’” Some of the special friends and celebrities planning to pay tribute in-person so far include Lonnie Ali, Harrison Ford, David Foster, Reba McEntire, Sharon Stone, Brooks & Dunn, Colbie Caillat, Larry Fitzgerald, Carson Palmer, Brian McKnight, Dennis Quaid, Smokey Robinson, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, Evander Holyfield, Larry King, Melissa Peterman, Verne Troyer, Nancy Lieberman, Earnie Shavers, Billy Blanks, Bo Derek, John Corbin and many more surprise guests will be making a special appearance. John Travolta is also holding a dinner with Sharon Stone to benefit the event, too. Reba McEntire will be back to emcee the event as she has done for more than a decade, and David Foster will also be back as the entertainment director for the event.
It will be different because Muhammad Ali will not be there in person, although he certainly will be in spirit. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1983 and fought the tough opponent until his death. One of the major beneficiaries of Celebrity Fight Night is the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute.
In addition to the primary beneficiary, Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute, there are some other causes that benefit, too. “Our board has appreciated the work of David Foster. The David Foster Foundation provides for organ transplants for children and that’s very special to us,” says Walker.
“We like to give to St. Vincent de Paul, to help the homeless. We have a program we started nine years ago. Every Monday morning I attend if I’m in Phoenix, and I speak and I get a guest speaker. We reach 500-700 homeless people every Monday. Celebrity Fight Night has provided six or seven plasma TV screens. We have a water truck down there and different things. We try to lift their spirits and be of help to them.” Additionally, Reba McEntire is associated with several drug rehab locations and domestic violence shelters that have also received assistance from Celebrity Fight Night.
"We miss Muhammad more every day. He was our friend, our hero and because of his contributions and time over the years, Celebrity Fight Night has been able to raise more than $20 million for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute and many other wonderful causes during its 23 year history,” says Walker. “That is why we want to dedicate this special evening to celebrating The Champ.”
Individual tickets for Celebrity Fight Night start at $1,500-$5,000. To purchase tickets or get more information please visit www.celebrityfightnight.org or call (602) 956-1121.
About Jimmy Walker
Jimmy Walker is the President of Jimmy Walker, Ltd, which is an estate planning and executive compensation firm. Jimmy is affiliated with Partners Financial which is a wholly owned subsidiary of National Financial Partners (NFP). Learn more about Jimmy Walker and his various endeavors at http://jimmywalkerltd.com/.