PHOENIX — Former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali died Friday evening at the age of 74, but his impact on the Phoenix community will live on for years to come.
“One of his greatest gifts to the world was opening up the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center there in Phoenix and also creating the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky,” Ali’s daughter Rasheda Ali-Walsh told Cronkite News in April at the annual Celebrity Fight Night charity event. “And I know those two establishments, two impacts on the community, have not only served him well but also his community.”
The Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center opened in 2009 at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. The center serves as a leading resource for those with movement disorders. Ali was not only a founder of the center, but also a patient.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, sparking his support for Parkinson’s research and inspiring others to join him. In 1997, he teamed up with Arizona businessman Jimmy Walker to serve as the featured guest for the Fight Night event, a role he continued to serve in until his death.
He put Celebrity Fight Night in the national spotlight, drawing high-profile celebrities from the worlds of sports and entertainment including Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Robert De Niro, Carrie Underwood and Billy Crystal.
“With Muhammad Ali’s platform, he’s able to bring such a magnificent crowd of people together to support the cause and to help magnify his effort times 100, times 1,000,” actor Quinton Aaron, star of “The Blind Side,” told Cronkite News at the 2016 event at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix.
According to the Celebrity Fight Night web site, the event has raised $118 million in its 22 years, including the three years before Ali became involved. Walker said 100 percent of the proceeds now go directly to the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.
“A lot of credit goes to Muhammad Ali because of the respect that people have for him,” Walker said at the Fight Night event. “It’s a very important center for him, where he gets treatment, too.”
The People’s Champion, as Ali became known during his boxing career, moved to Phoenix full-time in 2005, buying a home south of Camelback Golf Club in Paradise Valley. Despite struggling with several medical complications in the last several years, Ali made himself visible in the Phoenix community, appearing courtside at Suns games and at other sporting events.
Ali finished his boxing career with a 56-5 record and 37 knockouts. He’s the only three-time heavyweight champion in boxing history, but Ali-Walsh said in April it’s what her father did outside the ring that should be remembered most
“He’s been a civil-rights activist, a human-rights activist, a Parkinson’s disease advocate, a humanitarian, a father, a brother, a husband, an ambassador of peace,” she said. “My dad has done it all.’’