by Jenny Peters
It’s a tough crowd in Phoenix, but when they like you, they really, really like you.
And they showered their love onto Reba McEntire and Rita Wilson (along with Tom Hanks via telephone) during the extended live auction section of Muhammad Ali’s Celebrity Fight Night XIX held on March 23 at the J. W. Marriott Desert Ridge Resort. At the champ’s annual fundraiser that supports his Parkinson Center and a host of other charities, the deep-pocketed crowd bid $400,000 — twice — to have dinner with them at Reba’s Beverly Hills manse.
Two thousand people packed the ballroom, vying to throw money at the cause after being treated to the bluegrass pickings of Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers and witnessing the 71-year-old Ali walking across the stage, aided by wife Lonnie. That sight brought tears and cheers, especially from the fighter’s “Little Brother,” comedian Billy Crystal, who always makes this scene. Ali, who does not speak in public, watched as Crystal handed Martin his Celebrity Fight Night Award, which is, of course, shaped like a boxing ring.
“I like getting a trophy,” Martin cracked. “It’s so much better than a plaque. Think about it: so many producers in Hollywood have a trophy wife, but not one has a plaque wife!”
Jennifer Lopez brought boyfriend Casper Smart to the party; she, too, took home an award, proffered up by the not-related Mario Lopez. Billionaire businessman Dennis Washington was also honored; he’s had the same wife for almost 50 years, but Phoenix certainly has its share of trophy wives, too, and every one of them was dripping in diamonds and on display at the bash. But it was mostly the men who did the big-bucks bidding, being well-lubricated as the Moet bubbly and Belvedere vodka flowed. And Go Daddy owner (and another billionaire) Bob Parsons led the charge.
He threw down $175K to party at JLo’s next movie premiere; $500K to have dinner with Crystal, Martin and Robin Williams; and $550K to visit singer Andrea Bocelli at his Tuscan home. And the cash kept flowing from other sources, too, as a golf day with Phil Mickelson went for $325K, a Paul McCartney meet-and-greet for $70K and a private dinner with Halle Berry a trifling $50K.
Guests ranging from Joe Manganiello to Evander Holyfield were treated to a crazy mix of musical guests presented by maestro David Foster, from “American Idol” alums Haley Reinhart and Michael Johns belting out pop tunes to Tate Stevens and Billy Ray Cyrus doing country, immediately followed by Bocelli singing “Ave Maria.”
“I would have swum across the ocean to be here with Muhammad Ali,” proclaimed Bocelli, who’d flown in from Abu Dhabi that morning.
The night ended with the extravaganza that is JLo on tour: multiple costume changes, 12 backup dancers, wind machine blowing her hair back, extravagant canned music – and in one real moment, a Spanish duet with Bocelli that reminded the happy crowd of what she sounds like when she actually sings live.
All in all, $7.2 million was raised. Not bad for one single star-studded night in the desert.