PHOENIX — The first Celebrity Fight Night since the passing of “The Greatest,” legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, was a bittersweet, emotional affair.
There was sadness for some who attended the event at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort and Spa. But there also was hope that continuing the work of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute will lead to a cure.
“We need to honor him and continue to,” said former NFL kicker Nick Lowery, who was choked up with emotion as he spoke. “There is somebody that can’t be forgotten. We can’t allow that to happen.”
Singer and actress Reba McEntire served as master of ceremonies at the event and said the search for a cure will continue to be inspired by Ali.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement and can cause tremors. According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, about 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year.
Ali was diagnosed in 1984 when he was 42 years old, just three years after he retired from the ring. He passed away in June.
“We need to continue fighting to find a cure for Parkinson’s,” McEntire said. “(Ali) is sure with us. He’s up there cheering us on and saying ‘you guys can do it. Even though I’m not there in body, I’m there in spirit.’ ”
The Celebrity Fight Night Foundation dinner, which took place at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort and Spa, has raised more than $127 million in the 23 years since Valley philanthropist and Ali friend Jimmy Walker launched the event. Walker was not available to comment on this year’s event.
Walker and Ali, started the charity event in 1994, when it raised about $100,000. Since then, it has become one of the largest grossing charity events in the country. Every year celebrities and professional athletes from all over come to take part in a night of live auctions and musical performances.
This year the list included boxer Earnie Shavers and musicians Brooks & Dunn, Sam Moore, Brian McKnight and David Foster, to name a few. The event honored actor Harrison Ford and fashion designer Stefano Ricci.
“There is a great positive energy around,” Ricci said. “When you see people smiling this way, I know there is a lot of good behind (it).”
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald believes that the foundation’s work will continue as strong as ever.
“There might be more done tonight than has ever been,” Fitzgerald said. “We have a job to continue pushing it forward.”