Raised in the Northern Ireland town of Ballymena, actor Liam Neeson credits a lot of his success to the discipline and work ethic he acquired as an amateur boxer in the 1960s.
Still an avid follower of the sport, Neeson visited ESPN's Bristol, Conn., headquarters on Wednesday to promote his new film "Taken 2," which opens in theaters on Oct. 5. He also took time out to talk about what goes into filming a fight scene, his opinions on boxing today and what it was like meeting his idol, Muhammad Ali.
What do you remember most about your days as an amateur boxer in Northern Ireland?
I started when I was 9 and I fought until I was about 16 or 17. I was juvenile champion of Northern Ireland three times and Irish runner-up a couple of times in my weight division. I was OK, I was competent. I was a jabber, I had a good jab. I had about 40 fights and I won about maybe 30.
Is there one bout from your fighting days that stands out the most when you look back?
It was maybe close to my last fight. I must have been 16. I actually won the fight, but I came out of the ring and I had obviously got a concussion because my trainer said to go downstairs and take my clothes off and stuff, and I couldn't figure out what downstairs meant. It kind of freaked me out a bit. It lasted for about three minutes or so. I remember thinking, I've got to get out of this. It's not comfortable anymore.
In the 1990 movie "Crossing The Line" (a.k.a. "The Big Man"), you played an out-of-work miner who supports his family through illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches. How much did you enjoy that role given your background, and how similar was the boxing style of the fictional Danny Scoular to your own?
The film was based on a wonderful book by William McIlvanney, whose brother Hugh is probably Britain's greatest sportswriter, and he writes incredibly well with boxing, too. I read the book and was very much in shape in those days. My one tiny regret was trying to make my guy seem as if he had never boxed before. I tried to make him look awkward, and I wish I had just done what I was trained to do. We had a pretty epic fight scene and the guy that I fought against was the ex-light heavyweight boxing champion from Scotland, Rab Affleck. It was supposed to be raw, as these illegal fights do happen -- I'm sure it's the same as in this country. But it was great fun to do and great to train.
Are there any boxing roles in the future that you would still be interested in doing as an actor?
I'm 60 years of age, man. I can't, really. Spike Lee was interested a few years ago in me playing Max Schmeling because he wanted to tell the Joe Louis story. I hope he does at some point. Even then, that was 10 years ago. I said to Spike, "You've got to get somebody younger."
You play Bryan Mills in the "Taken" series and have been a part of some great action scenes. How would you describe Mills' fighting style compared to those in some of the other roles you've played?
Because of some of the guys I've trained with -- I'm out there with ex-Special Forces guys -- it's not just pure karate or pure judo, it's a mixture of stuff. In the second movie, my fight choreographer Alain Figlarz used to be in Special Forces and he knew some real dirty moves.
How much do you enjoy getting in shape for the action scenes in these movies? Is it comparable to preparing for a fight in boxing?
Kind of, but I -- together with my stunt coordinator and my buddy Mark Vanselow, who is my stunt double, and all of the stunt guys -- we just train every night and it's great fun. We make it light-hearted. They start off very, very slow and you are basically learning a dance. What Alain did, when we were up to speed in these fights, there were sections where he would blindfold us because we felt so confident with each other. Nowadays when you shoot it, the adrenaline is pumping a little bit. But we never get hurt besides little cuts or scratches.
How closely do you follow boxing today?
I try to. I watch "Friday Night Fights" and some HBO stuff that comes out for the big events. I'm disgusted with the heavyweight division. It's not like Ali's time, you know?
Do you think Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko get too much respect or too little historically?
I think they get too much respect. I admire them, but they are stiff. They are big, stiff guys. I think it would be interesting to see them against someone like a Joe Frazier or even someone like Ken Norton. There were just hungrier fighters in those days. But I do admire them. I think they're good, but I don't think they are ever going to be on boxing's greatest list.
How much do you enjoy getting to sit ringside for the big fights?
I do like it. But I have to admit: I get invited to a lot of boxing matches and I brought my oldest son to one a couple of years ago, to Madison Square Garden, and I just wanted him to experience what it was like. But all the time you are trying to see, and the cameraman are almost in the ring. It's almost better to watch it at home. But that atmosphere is electric. Miguel Cotto fought [Joshua Clottey] and I remember it was a bad decision [Cotto won by split decision in June 2009]. My son, Danny, was convinced that [Clottey] had won. I was sitting beside [former super middleweight champ Joe] Calzaghe and his girlfriend, and we kind of both looked at each other like, "What!" We felt the other guy should have won. Even my son, Danny, was like, "That's disgusting. That's an outrage."
Was there a specific fight that you attended live that stands out above the rest?
I particularly loved George Foreman and Evander Holyfield [April 1991, in Atlantic City]. Boy, you could hear those punches. George could hit. And Evander was such a great boxer. He absorbed some punishment from George. But there was one reason why I remember that fight, especially. The great Archie Moore was in George's corner. So Muhammad Ali was at a distance from the ring -- and I still get goosebumps just thinking about this -- and the crowd started chanting, "Ali! Ali!" And he was very slow. Now, this was nearly 20 years ago. And Ali got to the ring and everybody went wild. But as he was leaving the ring, there was Archie Moore. And as Cassius Clay, [Ali] had knocked out Archie Moore [Nov. 1962, in Los Angeles]. He stuffed him in four rounds. But Archie held the ropes for Muhammad to get out. And I just ... I lost it.
Did you ever get the chance to meet Muhammad Ali?
I did. I met him in 1980. He had maybe two fights left. He had done a film with Kris Kristofferson called "Freedom Road," which wasn't the best or the greatest cinematic art you have ever seen. But [Ali] was in London promoting it, and my girlfriend at the time knew one of the producers, and the producers invited her -- and subsequently myself -- to have an audience with Muhammad Ali up in a suite. So we went up and there were a few other British celebrities there at the time. They came in and we all shake hands. My knees were literally [shaking]. I was totally starstruck. I mumbled something to him and I said, "Would you ever sign this to my dad?" And I had a small piece of paper in my hand. He said, "Sure, what's your dad's name?" I told him, "Barney." And he said to turn around and he wrote on my back, "To Barney, Muhammad Ali." I remember going home to Ireland and seeing my dad. I didn't say anything, I just said, "Here, Dad." And he reached for his glasses and looked and he just started crying. Tears were rolling down his face. I started crying. It was great. I saw [Ali] about a year ago, and of course his disease has developed, but I put my hand on him and I said, "Muhammad, I met you at the Dorcester 30 years ago, you wouldn't remember." And he just ... I got a little squeeze on my hand. Just a little squeeze. And his wife and daughter were there and they said, "I think he remembers." And I said, "He wouldn't remember me. I was nobody." But the fact that he squeezed my hand, it was amazing. There will be nobody like him. He was my idol.
Which boxers do you enjoying watching today?
[Manny] Pacquiao is still amazing. He's getting a little bit older, but in the championship rounds from 9 to 12 he just gets stronger and stronger and stronger. That's the sign of a great champion. I think Floyd Mayweather Jr. is terrific. I think he's scared of Pacquaio, though. I don't think it's about money. I don't mean he is scared, like terrified of his life, but I think he thinks he can see in Pacquiao someone that could beat him.
If they announced tomorrow that the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight was going to happen, what would be your reaction?
Oh, I would absolutely flip my seat. I would pay any amount of money to be at that fight.