Muhammad Ali Openly Flirted With Helen Mirren as Her Then-Boyfriend Liam Neeson Looked On
When the athlete dubbed “The Greatest” hits on your girlfriend, there isn’t much you can do about it — even if you’re Hollywood badass Liam Neeson. As a talented boxer in his own right, the Taken star once watched in awe as Muhammad Ali flirted with his then-girlfriend Helen Mirren.
Not only was Neeson not offended but he even asked for Ali’s autograph and declared his love for the legendary boxing champ.
Liam Neeson was a boxer before he was an actor
The start of Neeson’s boxing career could almost be from a Hollywood script. Per the Irish Times, a priest from Neeson’s parish announced during mass that he was starting a boxing club and a 9-year-old Neeson jumped at the chance. Before long, the future star was winning amateur fights and contemplating a pro boxing career. Neeson estimates he won about 30 total bouts before quitting at the age of 16 following a concussion.
Even though Neeson ultimately veered toward acting, boxing has remained a passion throughout his life. Until 2016, he even served as the president of the All Saints boxing club — the very organization in Ballymena (Northern Island) where Neeson cut his teeth as a boxer.
More than just a place to learn how to fight, All Saints was a way to find focus and elevation for kids in rough living conditions. After a photo of a young Neeson surfaced next to All Saints founder Father Darragh, well-known local Eugene Diamond tweeted out some background on Neeson’s boxing club.
Diamond, who ran a popular Ballymena newsstand when Neeson was boxing, said, “The priest who set up the club Father Darragh did so to take young boys of[f] the streets and give them ambitions in life.”
Neeson thought it was ‘cool’ Muhammad Ali was hitting on his then-girlfriend Helen Mirren
Even though Neeson ended up in Hollywood, boxers tend to impress Neeson more. “I have met and worked with many movie stars over the years,” Neeson wrote in a foreword for a book on the All Saints club, as relayed by the Belfast Telegraph. “[Y]et 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.”
Neeson also recalled a time when he was simply stunned at meeting up with Ali in the early ’80s. Ali was at a famous London hotel promoting a TV movie called Freedom Road, an NBC miniseries Ali starred in. When it seemed like Ali was clearly hitting on Mirren right in front of him, Neeson was anything but offended.
Remembering the moment, the Ice Road actor said, “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!’” Later, Neeson says he told Ali, “I love you, Muhammad.”
Neeson’s respect for Ali has existed for decades after the encounter. In 1991, Neeson remembers seeing Ali appearing as a special guest for a fight between George Foreman and Evander Holyfield. As an ailing Ali left the ring, an old opponent, Archie Moore, lifted the ropes and helped Ali make his exit — nearly three decades after Ali beat Moore in the ring. “The nobility and dignity of that gesture will stay with me forever,” said Neeson.
The surprising reason Neeson and Helen Mirren broke up
While dating for a handful of years, Neeson and Mirren didn’t exactly have your typical celebrity relationship. After meeting Mirren during the production of Excalibur, Neeson was having a hard time getting his career going at the same time that Mirren’s career was thriving, reports InStyle. Although Mirren helped Neeson land an agent and improve his career prospects, ultimately Mirren felt like she hindered his progress.
As she told The New York Times, “It was difficult for him to be under my shadow,” later adding she “had a sense from Liam that it was time for him to come out from under my wing.” But Neeson and Mirren ultimately parted on great terms. “He handled it with great elegance and grace,” she said. “We loved each other. It was difficult to let him go.”
While Mirren’s career continued to flourish, Neeson’s own career began to take off in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Mirren went on to marry director Taylor Hackford. Neeson dated both Julia Roberts and Brooke Shields before settling down with fellow actor Natasha Richardson. Neeson wed Richardson in 1994. They had two sons before she died tragically in a skiing accident in 2009.
Although Neeson has shown plenty of acting range, the hard-nosed action roles still come naturally to the nearly 70-year-old actor thanks to his boxing roots (he turns 70 on June 7). Per IMDb, the Taken star has a series of new tough-guy roles lined up in the coming years.