Hollywood superstar Liam Neeson has revealed boxing great Muhammad Ali once tried to “pull” his then girlfriend, fellow actress Helen Mirren, in front of his eyes, but instead of going toe-to-toe with the ring legend he thought: “Wow — how cool is that!”
Co Antrim-born Neeson — a huge boxing fan who was himself an accomplished amateur fighter — said Ali flirted with Mirren at a celebrity bash in London's Dorchester Hotel in the early 1980s, but although he thought he should have been annoyed he didn't want to give any cheek to his hero, nicknamed The Louisville Lip.
The Oscar-nominated actor revealed that although he has met some of the top stars in the movie world it does not compare with the joy he gets when chatting with former boxers like Ali.
It has also emerged just how good a boxer Neeson was. He started at the age of nine and boxed well into his teens, winning 30 out of 40 fights and in the process lifting five Down & Connor titles and three Ulster championships.
Neeson is club president of All Saints and his boxing tales have been recalled in a recently published book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the club.
In a foreword to All Saints — 50 Golden Years by sports writer Denis O'Hara — Neeson tells of how he met some of the greatest boxers in the world, but the one meeting which stood out was with Ali 30 years ago.
Neeson said: “Emblazoned also on my mind was meeting Ali in London in the early 1980s.
“He was promoting a movie called, Freedom Road, and myself and my lady friend, Helen Mirren, were invited with some British celebrities to meet The Greatest in his hotel.
“When he shook my hand my knees literally went weak and, feeling shy and intimidated, and also knowing I could never be in his company again, I blurted out: 'I love you, Muhammad'.
“He signed his name for my dad and proceeded to flirt with Helen in such an overt way that I guess I should have been annoyed. But all I could think was, 'Wow, Muhammad Ali is trying to pull my girl. How cool is that!'.”
In 2002 when he got an OBE from the Queen, Neeson recalled his Ali meeting when he said: “I've not been so nervous since I met Muhammad Ali.”
Neeson says he has been able to take in several high-profile fight nights in America featuring some of boxing's biggest names.
“I also enjoy watching boxing and have attended many championship fights.
“I saw Evander Holyfield outpoint George Foreman in Atlantic City. Tears streamed down my face that night as I watched the legendary Archie Moore (in Foreman's corner) lifting the ring ropes to ease the exit of Muhammad Ali after he was introduced to the audience.
“Ali had beaten Moore in four rounds in the early ‘60s and here he was sick and shuffling, being aided by an elder ex-opponent.
“The nobility and dignity of that gesture will stay with me forever,” said Neeson.
Recalling his own days in the boxing ring, Neeson said: “I wasn't a great amateur boxer but I was quite good. I won the title for the Down & Connor five times, and was Ulster Champion three times. I won 30 of 40 fights.
“I had the honour of boxing on cards with the great Jim McCourt, Charlie Nash, Mickey Tohill, Gerry Hamill and the writer/director Terry George. I was also fortunate enough to get to know Freddy Gilroy, the British and Empire Bantamweight champion when he retired after his classic thriller with Johnny Caldwell in Belfast in the early ‘60s.
“He gave me a pair of bag gloves which he trained with in his early days, which I then used myself. I enjoyed the training aspect of boxing. It's given me a lifelong appreciation for physical fitness. I've got a heavy bag in my gym and I hit four or five times a week.”
All Saints – 50 Golden Years is available from: Glendun Publishing, Cushendun, Co Antrim. Call 0282 1761 381 or visit www.glendunpublishing.com
Liam Neeson says he is starstruck by fighters, not actors. The former amateur boxer says: |“I have met and worked with many movie stars over the years yet it still doesn't compare with the joy I have experienced in meeting former fighters such as Terry Downes, Henry Cooper, Barry McGuigan, Oscar De La Hoya, Gerry Cooney, Emile Griffith, John Duddy and, of course, Muhammad Ali.”