Jimmy Walker: Packing a Punch
Writer Lynette Carrington
Photography by Scott Baxter
There was quite a bit of chatter in 1994 when celebs and sports stars stepped into a boxing ring at then-Ritz Carlton Hotel in the Biltmore area of Phoenix. Donning ridiculously oversized boxing gloves, opponents Charles Barkley and Michael Carbajal duked it out all in the name of charity.
Celebrity Fight Night was the name, and raising funds for charity was the game. Behind this iconic event is local businessman, Jimmy Walker, who soon met boxing legend Muhammad Ali, whose name then became synonymous with the event.
Fast forward to 2018 and Celebrity Fight Night is now focused on world class entertainment, has expanded to include a sister event in Italy and has given away more than $84 million to all kinds of charities, including the lead charity, The Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. Although Muhammad Ali passed away before the 2017 event, it now carries on in his spirit.
Walker is the chairman, CEO and founder of the Celebrity Fight Night Foundation and continues to rally actors, actresses, celebrities, sports stars and musicians for various charitable causes.
A recent visit to his office revealed walls of photos reflecting the breadth of his celebrity friends—everyone from Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, Reba McEntire and David Foster to Billy Crystal, Andrea Bocelli, Kristin Chenoweth and Harrison Ford. But at his core, Walker is a man who is humble and wants to make a positive impact in people’s lives. Sometimes, those endeavors just happen to include his many celebrity friends.
Walker, a native of Carthage, IL moved to the Valley in 1955 and graduated with a degree in business from ASU. “I met my wife, Nancy at the Red Dog Discotheque in Scottsdale,” says Walker with a sweet smile. The two have now been married more than 50 years, live in North Phoenix and have three grown children and seven grandchildren.
“My first sports client was Reggie Jackson,” says Walker, who has always worked in the financial services field and has a knack with people. “He introduced me to some people and I kept it going.”
Walker’s philanthropic light bulb moment came in 1984. He got together with Nancy and their kids and discussed how blessed they had been, and together they explored ways they could give back to the community. “We came up with the idea with our kids to give away bicycles,” he explains.
The Bicycles for Kids event was born and, to date, has gifted nearly 10,000 bikes to underprivileged local children. “It’s also been with the help of our friends. We haven’t personally given 10,000 bikes, but our family organizes it every year. We organized this event out of our house for 16 years, but we’ve outgrown that, and now we are at a local church with a large property.”
The event is held annually at Christmas as a surprise for kids 6 to 10 years of age. St. Mary’s Food Bank gifts kids with a holiday turkey, and the Phoenix Suns Gorilla comes to visit, too.
Walker is also involved with St. Vincent de Paul in a few ways. Celebrity Fight Night supports the organization with donations such as a mobile water and a supplies truck that distributes items to the homeless in the downtown Phoenix area. Another notable donation was a large sport court at the St. Vincent de Paul dining room. Sports stars, celebrities and Andrea Bocelli celebrated the welcome addition to the campus, dedicated to the memory of Harlem Globetrotters’ Meadowlark Lemon a few years ago.
Founded in 2007, another program that Walker helms is Never Give Up outreach at St. Vincent de Paul that takes place each Monday at the dining room in downtown Phoenix. Five to six hundred of the Valley’s homeless gather to hear guest speakers, words of inspiration and encouragement and music as they enjoy their morning meal. Walker has called on friends such as Muhammad and Lonnie Ali, Danica Patrick, Jerry Colangelo, Al Molina, Larry Fitzgerald, Tom Shrader and Tom Van Arsdale, among many others to speak.
“When I’m in town, I go down to the dining room and it’s like my car is on auto pilot,” Walker explains. “I think I get more out of it than they do.”
The Never Give Up program is near and dear to Walker’s heart.
“If we can change one life, it’s worth it,” he says. “The idea is to encourage them to never give up. There are a lot of wonderful people on the street who have had tough, tough breaks and there are a lot of children on the street. How do they grow up and stay out of trouble? There are a lot of people down there really trying to get their lives together.”
Walker says that, in his 10 years of going to the dining room, he has never once witnessed a fight or any problems. “They are very appreciative of our program,” he adds.
In 2019, Celebrity Fight Night will celebrate its 25th year. Surely, there will be some big surprises for the event, held at JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa. For now, Walker is keeping a poker face. What he would reveal is that Muhammad Ali will be honored in a special way at the beginning of the 2019 Celebrity Fight Night Weekend.
“We’re dedicating a street at the hospital and it’s going to be called ‘Muhammad Ali Way,’” he explains of the dedication near the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.
In nearly every philanthropic endeavor, Walker knows how to rally people to a cause. “I go to Elton’s party and I go to the Oscars … I like to get acquainted with the entertainers, find out what their passion is, what their foundations are—like Carrie Underwood, she’s an animal lover and we made a donation to her foundation.”
Walker likes to connect personally and sincerely, bypassing agents to create meaningful relationships. “It’s a lot of work sometimes,” he adds.
Whether he is giving locally or giving globally, philanthropy remains central to Walker’s life. “When much is given, much is expected,” Walker says. “I get joy out of it and I intentionally try to look for things to keep me from dealing with the selfishness with my life, and I pick things to help other people.”