Playbook Q: Liam Neeson loves boxing
October, 5, 2012
By Carlos Mejia | ESPN The Magazine
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty ImagesThe Northern Irish actor is a longtime fan -- and participant -- of the pugilistic arts.Editor's note: Welcome to the second installment of the "Playbook Q," in which we query the rooting interests of celebrities.
Liam Neeson has played Zeus, Oskar Schindler, a Jedi knight, Ra’s al Ghul and a talking lion. But today he reprises the role that has redefined him as a veritable action star: Bryan Mills in "Taken 2."
“I can’t see another one, but you never know,” says Neeson about the film becoming a trilogy. “We’ll see how 'Taken 2' does.”
An avid boxing and New York Rangers fan, Neeson talked to Playbook about his love for Muhammad Ali, playing Cus D'Amato and a very particular set of skills he’s acquired over a long career.
What team would make you happiest if it won a championship?
The Rangers. My youngest son, Daniel, is a huge Rangers fan. He’s been playing hockey since he was 5 or 6 and we got into hockey together. We go to some games in Madison Square Garden -- the Rangers did very well last season. But I hope this season is better. But with the lockout -- it’s always about the money isn’t it? It always falls back on the fans. Prices go up and in this economy, I just feel bad for the fans. I’m a celebrity. I can call somebody up at Madison Square Garden and ask for some tickets. It’s fantastic! I’ll have to do some interviews or video because you don’t get nothing for nothing. So I just feel bad for the fans.
What is your most prized piece of sports memorabilia?
I have a pair of old bag gloves from Freddie Gilroy. He was the British and European bantamweight champion in the early ’60s. He gave them to me and I used them to train. Right now, the gloves are actually touring with other boxing paraphernalia from boxing greats in the [art exhibit] "Fighting Irishmen: Celebrating Celtic Prize Fighters." The gloves still have that smell from when I was hitting the bag. I don’t use them anymore. They’re just too old. Freddie used them in his heyday so it’s probably from the late ’40s, early ’50s. I’ll never sell them.
What is your favorite sports memory as a fan or participant?
As a fan, it’s certainly when Muhammad Ali -- then Cassius Clay -- beat Sonny Liston. It was just staggering. I never got to see Ali fight in person, but I did get to meet him a couple of times. I’ve seen all of Ali’s fights, but what a genius. Liston seemed unbeatable. He demolished Floyd Patterson twice and Patterson was a fine champion -- really quick. And here’s this upstart, Cassius, just mouthing [away].
I remember we couldn’t get the fight live on radio so we had to wait the next day and read the news. And the photograph on the back page of The Belfast Telegraph was -- and I still have the page cut out and it’s all yellowed now —- Cassius standing like this [raises his arms] and he looked like a Greek god! Just unbelievable. I still get goosebumps just thinking about that photograph alone. I remember thinking, “F---! He beat Sonny Liston! Jesus Christ!”
Keystone-France/Getty ImagesThe 1964 Clay-Liston fight is Neeson's favorite sports memory.
Who was your childhood sports idol?
Muhammad Ali, definitely. He didn’t get me into boxing, though. I started boxing when I was young and I boxed until I was 17. I was OK. I had a good jab. I’m from a very small town in Ireland and the parish priest announced during mass one Sunday and said, “I want to form a boxing club. Sign your kids up on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.” Ten of us showed up, and the priest had two big pair of sparring gloves and a book: "How to Box." That’s how it started. I rarely brag, but that club is called the Old Saints Boxing Club and it became one of the best boxing clubs in Ireland within six or seven years.
If your life depended on your performance in a competitive sport, which would you choose?
It would have to be boxing. My sport growing up was always boxing. I played a lot of Gaelic games growing up. In school I played Irish football -- which is a lot like Australian football -- hurling, some basketball, soccer. I was useless in soccer. And after school I would train for boxing.
I boxed about over 40 times -— I think I won about 31 or 32 times. That’s OK. There were some fights that I won that I didn’t deserve to win. The decision went against the other guy -- it was a hometown crowd, you know. There were a couple of those and I even told my opponent afterwards, “You won that fight.” I love the training aspect of boxing. I still do it. I just love hitting that bag.
Which modern athlete do you despise most?
Allsport Hulton/ArchiveNeeson wants to play D'Amato.
The modern heavyweight boxing division. I just think back to the old heavyweights: Ali, Frazier, Ken Norton and Foreman. These brilliant heavyweights would have decimated this crop of guys. Even the Klitschkos. I admired them. But they’re stiff. They’re not pleasing. There seems to be a different mentality from the Ali era. Nowadays it’s all about the buck, especially in boxing.
The heavyweight division is just embarrassing actually and I’m not the only guy who thinks that, too. The boys to watch now are the guys in Pacquiao’s division. The middleweights and the bantamweights and the featherweights -- and it never used to be that. I think it’s like that now because heavyweights are plunkers.
If you could play the role of any sports icon throughout time, who would you want to play?
Cus D’Amato. He trained Floyd Paterson and Mike Tyson. D’Amato was a character. He always seemed to be quietly there, always giving the right advice to his protégés. I just always noticed something -- and again, I was a kid watching this on TV -- but in Paterson’s corner, D’Amato seemed to have great dignity and wisdom. They say Tyson went off the rails when D’Amato died because D’Amato treated him almost like a son. I look nothing like Cus D’Amato, but his aura appealed to me.