Jimmy Walker, Gateway to the Stars

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Posted By on March 1, 2017

Fight Night Founder’s Famed Schmoozing Has Helped Raise Millions to Help Fight Parkinson’s

By Mike Saucier

Celebrity Fight Night founder Jimmy Walker is in a league by himself when it comes to schmoozing — you don’t get A-list celebrities to show up for your event year after year by fluke. It’s an impressive list — Jennifer Lopez, Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Halle Berry, Carrie Underwood, to name a handful. How does he get them to say “yes”?

His secret is really no secret to anyone who has known Walker and Celebrity Fight Night, now in its 23rd year: It’s all for the cause.

“It’s the fact that making people happy brings back happiness’” Walker said during an interview at his Phoenix office. “I know I could do a lot more but it’s the joy of giving. Making that contact — it’s a challenge — and I really love challenges. I am comfortable in those situations. The end result can be a positive for our charity.”

The charity is, of course, the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. Since its inception, Celebrity Fight Night has raised more than $127 million primarily to benefit the center. On March 18, Walker, celebrities and guests will celebrate and honor the life of Ali at Celebrity Fight Night at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix.“The passion I have for this certainly comes from seeing that we’ve raised a lot of money and helped a lot of people at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center,” Walker said. “We’re providing people who couldn’t afford their medication for Parkinson’s disease so it’s the old philosophy, ‘If you want to be happy, find a way to make other people happy.’ So thanks to a lot of generous donors we’ve really got an event that’s as much national as local.”

For Walker, the event is a passion, fun and entertainment. “You meet some wonderful people,” he said. “But it’s very challenging. It’s a commitment. We want to keep raising the bar and we want to improve upon it every year and we’ve seen where we’ve gotten some real good results.”

His wife, Nancy Walker, said she never imagined before Fight Night that she would be rubbing elbows with A-list musicians, athletes and Hollywood actors.

But she never doubted that her husband could get all these bold-face names to embrace the cause.

(CLICK HERE to read the sidebar story, “Jimmy’s Best Fight Night Highlights”)

“He really is very amazing,” she said. “When he first started this he said this is a charity event that’s one year at a time. Because when you have something for the first time you have no idea that’s it’s necessarily going to be something that continues on for this many years and become what it is.  And we just appreciate the support from so many people that have helped make this what it is.”

Guests pay between $1,500 and $5,000 for Celebrity Fight Night tickets. This year, ticket holders will get to see a lot of stars — from hometown heroes Larry Fitzgerald and Carson Palmer to actor Harrison Ford. Billy Crystal, Sharon Stone and Larry King will present a special tribute to Ali. Ali’s wife, Lonnie Ali, and daughter, Laila Ali, will attend. Actor Dennis Quaid, country stars Reba McIntyre and Brooks & Dunn, singer Smokey Robinson, Beach Boys co-founder Mike Love, and singer Brian McKnight will also be there.

The celebrities keep coming back because they truly enjoy the evening, Jimmy Walker said.

“I say this very humbly — many of them say it’s their favorite event,” he said.

Nancy said, “I’ve sat next to so many celebrities through the years and they’ve all been amazing and so supportive and so willing, and wanting to be there and to help.“

The high wattage of the celebrity lineup has been a staple since the first Fight Night event, which featured Charles Barkley, who played for the Phoenix Suns at the time; Dan Majerle, the former Suns star, and boxing champion Michael Carbajal, who sparred with Barkley in the ring with oversized boxing gloves.

“It’s certainly an event here locally that’s the only one of its kind,” said Nancy Walker.

She and her husband make the celebrities get the star treatment. They may fly into Phoenix on private jets donated by the owners in support of the event. They get a driver who is available to them all day and night. They stay in some of the best rooms in some of the area’s best hotels.

Muhammad Ali was always the big draw to Fight Night, Nancy said. “People loved Muhammad Ali — and Muhammad Ali loved people, and he made that completely understood,” she said.

But Nancy also has other fond memories and favorite moments, such as Kevin Costner’s acceptance speech for an award he received at one of the events and the support of a local celebrity of sorts, GoDaddy.com founder and philanthropist Bob Parsons.

Parsons, she said, “really, really loved Muhammad and really wanted to see the Parkinson Center become bigger and better and really able to make a difference with this disease.”

The Walkers want the legacy to continue because they want to see the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center continue to grow and improve.

“When I recognize and realize what has been accomplished at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, we’re extremely thankful to have had this opportunity and to give back in this way,” Nancy said.

The process of getting to the big night — to showtime — starts with Jimmy. Many people are timid when a celebrity comes around. Not Jimmy.

“We all know everyone puts on their pants the same way,” he said. “But they are some of the most wonderful people but at the same time, as you would expect, they have some big voids and insecurities in their lives — we all have some of them. None of us have it all together…there’s always something.”

Jimmy’s ties to the celebrity world can be traced back to his days at Arizona State University, where he played basketball. Jimmy’s best friend was Reggie Jackson. Jackson, of course, would go on to become one of the most recognized figures in sports when he played for the New York Yankees.

He meets them “at different events,” — “Clive Davis’s party,” “the pre-Grammy party at the Beverly Hilton,” “Elton John’s dinner party for the Oscars,” he said. “I get with them and I like to get acquainted with them.”

Very rarely do the celebrities receive a fee for attending the event. Instead, Jimmy makes donations to causes of their choice. Last year, Carrie Underwood’s appearance resulted in a donation to an animals’ rights’ foundation. Jennifer Lopez wanted to help women who get abused.

This year’s Celebrity Fight Night will honor Dr. Robert Spetzler, a world-renowned neurosurgeon who is retiring in July. Dr. Spetzler will receive an award onstage from Ali’s wife Lonnie as a thank you for all the help he has given to Barrow Neurological and the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.

Speaking this year will be former baseball player and Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015.

More than 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s disease — a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement.

“My experience with Parkinson’s patients when they get diagnosed — I have a lot of people coming to me because they know my involvement with Muhammad Ali and the Parkinson Center — is that most of them like to keep it under the table for awhile,” Jimmy said. “As much a six months to a year until the tremors just start going and they realize that it’s better to get it out on the table. Quite a few people come to me and I want to help them.”

Planning for and executing a big event like Celebrity Fight Night obviously takes a team. Executive Director Sean Currie shoulders a lot of the load. Nancy makes sure they’re scrutinizing the expenses and determines the menu and the look of the room, among other things.

For Jimmy, “the biggest challenge is time,” he said. “Just everything I’m doing but there’s a lot of people doing a lot more than me. I do get up very early in the morning. I go to bed early at night but I get up early in the morning and I don’t even consider it to be work — it’s just a passion that I have. But the biggest challenge is just trying to get everything on the plate accomplished.”

He gives plenty of time, of course, to his three children and seven grandchildren. He also runs his own business, an insurance company.

In 2007, Jimmy founded a program for the homeless at St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix called Never Give Up, which serves 500 to 600 men and women every Monday. He’s there every Monday, if he’s not traveling. On Tuesdays, he leads a men’s and women’s Bible study. For 33 years, he has organized a Christmas party for low-income children, who receive bicycles — he has given away 7,000 of them — and gifts from friends of his who “chip in,” he said.

Jimmy also organizes Celebrity Fight Night in Italy, in September. This year’s will feature Andrea Bocelli and Elton John, and it will take place in the Colosseum in Rome.

“I don’t look at myself as a philanthropist because I’m not a wealthy man,” he said. “A philanthropist in my opinion is someone who gives large amounts of money. I give quite a bit of time. That’s what I’m able to give.”

This year’s Celebrity Fight Night in Phoenix will have a different feel without its inspiration, Ali, who died last June.

At his funeral service in Louisville, Ky., Nancy said one thing everybody was talking about was his big heart.

“They all said that he had such a big heart and no matter who they were, what they accomplished in life, it didn’t matter to him. He treated everybody the same,” she said. “He had a real heart for what you may consider the underprivileged or those that weren’t celebrities, or anyone he came in contact with — he’d just want to stop and spend time with them.”

That, she said, has been and will remain the spirit behind Fight Night.

 

Mike Saucier

About Mike Saucier

Mike Saucier is the Editor of Frontdoors Media. He can be reached at editor@frontdoorsmedia.com.

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