Liam Neeson Remembers Muhammad Ali With Tales Of School-Age Fandom

Liam Neeson speaks on stage during 2015 New York Film Critics Circle Awards in New York City, January 2016.

Actor Liam Neeson has added his voice to the flurry of solemn, affectionate, and poignant remembrances from public figures in the wake of Muhammad Ali’s death at the age of 74 on June 3. A former amateur boxer, Liam Neeson gave an exclusive interview to Irish Central on Sunday to discuss how much the late boxing legend influenced him when he was growing up in his native Northern Ireland.

“He was my hero from when I was a young amateur boxer and schoolboy, back in Ireland. I’ll never forget hearing that he had beaten the unbeatable Sonny Liston. It was 1964 and it was a cold, wet February in Ballymena. As I walked to school that morning, my feet didn’t seem to touch the ground: my mind was an excited blur, because somehow the world had changed with that victory.”

Liam Neeson told the publication that he idolized Muhammad Ali when he was a child, and had the opportunity to meet him in person twice. He stated that the first time they met was in 1981 when Neeson was around the age of 29, and Muhammad Ali was about to participate in his very last fight. With “knees shaking,” Neeson says he overcame speechlessness to say, “Muhammad, I love you,” to which Ali responded with a hug and an autograph for Neeson’s father — Bernard “Barney” Neeson, a primary school caretaker in Liam Neeson’s hometown of Ballymena in Northern Ireland.

Liam Neeson has recounted this anecdote before, adding that actress Helen Mirren was his date and that he was so infatuated with Muhammad Ali that he thought it was “cool” when Ali started seriously flirting with Mirren.

Liam Neeson went on to describe his second meeting with Muhammad Ali in 2011, after Ali’s Parkinson’s disease had advanced to the point where he could no longer speak.

“I met [Muhammad Ali] again in 2011. He was unable to speak with his advanced Parkinson’s. I put my hand over his and whispered, ‘I love you.’ His wife said to me, ‘He knows who you are.’ I have met and known quite a few movie stars — male and female — over the years. None can compare with Ali’s charisma. He was a giant of humanity. As a people, we are all in bereavement.”

Muhammad Ali fought Parkinson’s disease from the age of 42 according to Irish Central. It is thought that head trauma significantly increases one’s risk of developing this neurological disorder, therefore it is heavily suspected that Muhammad Ali’s legendary career as a boxer caused him to suffer with it.

Muhammad Ali is also known for having been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and he lost several of his prime boxing years while the court system determined whether he should be allowed to avoid the military draft. After having been convicted of a felony and stripped of his boxing license and titles, the Supreme Court overturned Muhammad Ali’s conviction in 1971.

Liam Neeson’s 2011 meeting with Muhammad Ali was due to the fact that Ali was guest of honor at the American Ireland Fund dinner in New York City, according to Irish Central — which reports that this honored spot made reference to Muhammad Ali’s Irish heritage through his great-grandfather, Abe Grady from Clare.

Kieran McLoughlin, CEO of the American Ireland Fund, also spoke to Irish Central about that special dinner honoring Muhammad Ali in 2011, attended by a still-starstruck Liam Neeson.

“The Ireland Funds were privileged to present Muhammad Ali with our Humanitarian Award at our New York Gala in 2011. While he will always be remembered for his extraordinary skills in the ring, his philanthropic work and indeed the discovery of his Irish lineage were just as extraordinary. He electrified that evening in New York and affected deeply our 1,000 guests. It is with great sadness that we mark the passing of this legendary man.”

Liam Neeson, 63, has received nominations for the Academy Award, the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA. He has enjoyed a Renaissance in his film career by starring in several action movies in the past decade, most notably the Taken franchise.

[Image courtesy of Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images]