Muhammad Ali dead at 74; legacy lives on in Phoenix

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.”

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Originally established in 1997, the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix 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, Ali 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.

Even with Ali’s health deteriorating in the final years of his life, Walker said the former champion made sure he was at the Fight Night event every year, the last of which came on April 9.

“In the beginning, when he’d come to our event, he was more engaged verbally, giving awards out and everything,” Walker told Cronkite News on Saturday. “But just the presence of his being in the room, he did not really have to say anything, because someone would say, ‘That’s Muhammad Ali over there.’ That was the thrill of the whole evening and the whole week perhaps.”

Ali 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 most recent Fight Night at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix.

According to the Celebrity Fight Night web site, the event has raised more than $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.

-Celebrity Fight Night Founder Jimmy Walker shares his memories of Muhammad Ali. (Video by Lindsey Wisniewski and Matt Faye/Cronkite News)

“His goal was that we’d find a cure for Parkinson’s disease,” Walker said. “He wants us to keep this thing going, and we are, so the spirit’s going to live on for sure.”

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.’’