News April 2014

Actors Who Boxed: Part 2 featuring Liam Neeson and Victor McLaglen


By Michael J Jones

Following last year’s ‘Actors Who Boxed’ article Livefight brings you five more names from the movies who were once talented fighters.

Liam Neeson

Born in Ballymena, Northern Ireland on June 7th 1952, Liam Neeson was a highly-talented amateur fighter after making his first ring appearance at just 11-years-old. The strapping youngster would become a three-time Northern Ireland champion with many tipping him to go on to pro glory but it wasn’t to be for the Irishman.

At age 15 Neeson featured in a three-round bout with an English opponent and proceeded to take a beating. Bravely he managed to last the distance but suffered a black-out moments after leaving the ring. It convinced the teenager that his boxing days were numbered and he never laced up his gloves again.

The 6’4” Neeson at first tried to make his name as a teacher but by the mid 70’s had caught the acting bug. The Irishman worked tirelessly through the late 70’s and 80’s and, though he had some solid success, it was his unforgettable role in the Spielberg epic ‘Schindler’s List’ in 1993 that cemented him as a star on the world stage.

Since then Neeson’s resume has gone from strength to strength both on the big screen and in the theatre. A versatile performer, the softly-spoken Irish star has made a habit in recent years for taking on mostly action roles such as in thrillers ‘Taken’ and ‘The A-Team’.

The former boxer was made an OBE in 2000 and still works at a frenetic pace even today at the age of 62. In 2009, Natasha Richardson was fatally injured in a skiing accident leaving Neeson a widow following their 15-year marriage.

Back in 1990, Neeson starred as a bare-knuckle boxer in ‘The Big Man’ opposite Scottish former pro Rab Affleck. Unknown to most viewers was the fact that both were very good fighters in their younger years. Affleck was a top-rated light-heavyweight contender in the 70’s who fought Bunny Johnson for the British title.

John Diehl

In the middle part of the 1980’s one of the most popular TV stars of the day decided to become a professional boxer at the age of 35. John Diehl starred for three series of the hugely successful cop show ‘Miami Vice’ as Detective Larry Zito alongside Don Johnson.

In one boxing-themed episode, Diehl took a shine to boxing and, bored with the nine-month a year shooting schedule of ‘Vice’, decided to make his pro debut despite having never previously boxed.

The Ohio-born actor made his pro bow on December 21 1985 against a fighter named Deboe Pickering. The scheduled four-rounder took place at the Convention Center, Miami Beach with many of Diehl’s co-stars attending ringside.

The 6ft Diehl at least took his new role seriously enough to train hard at the famous 5th Street Gym in Florida. In the fight, the debutant started quickly and soon ended matters in the very first round. It gave Pickering his sixth straight defeat and maybe the winner a false hope.

Five months later Diehl would engage in his second and last fight in LA. Opponent Eugene Holly would take a clear decision over four rounds. To put the defeat into perspective, Holly would retire a short time later with a 1-21 record. Every one of his defeats would come inside-schedule; 20 inside of just two rounds.

However Diehl, who always insisted he would never have wanted a full career in boxing, took the hint that his boxing days were over and, sensibly, never fought again.

Diehl would finish his stint on Miami Vice in 1987 to pursue other projects and he has proven a solid and dependable actor all the way through his lengthy career.

He would have his first acting role in TV movie ‘A Rumor of War’ in 1980 and has featured in around 100 movies since including ‘The Client’, ‘A Time to Kill’ and war epic ‘Pearl Harbour’.

Diehl is now 63-years-old, still busy on various projects and married to singer and long-time wife Julie Christensen.

Victor McLaglen

At the age of 64 and with his health rapidly fading, Victor McLaglen would land one of his most memorable movie roles in the John Ford masterpiece ‘The Quiet Man’. Playing the roguish Irishman Squire ‘Red’ Will Danaher, McLaglen put in a stirring performance which many considered overshadowed main star John Wayne.

The 1952 movie would pick up two Oscars with McLaglen receiving a nomination for best Supporting actor. The movie, also starring Maureen O’Hara, would tell the story of Sean Thornton, a retired boxer with a tragic past, who returns to the small Irish village where he was born.

He soon falls for a feisty local girl (played by O’Hara) but is hounded by the bullying presence of her older brother Will Danaher. For McLaglen, it would showcase him to a new-era audience though he had been a respected actor for over thirty years previously.

Victor Andrew de Bier Everleigh McLaglen was born in Tunbridge Wells, England on December 10 1886. An energetic and adventurous youth, the burly McLaglen would leave his birth place of England to reside in South Africa. After several job roles, the impressively-built Victor would start his boxing career in the circus and other travelling shows, offering audience men a prize if they lasted a round with him.

In 1908 at the age of 22, McLaglen would make his boxing debut in Washington, beating Emil Schock over twenty rounds (yes you did read that right). The novice heavyweight fought with mixed success but just a year into his career fought a reigning world heavyweight champion.

Fighting in Vancouver, Canada, McLaglen would face the “Galveston Giant” Jack Johnson over six rounds. Both men had ties to Canada; McLaglen had lived there for many years while Johnson had just dethroned Tommy Burns (who was Canadian).

The fight proved, as one would imagine, very one-sided. Being an exhibition there was no scorecards though it is said Johnson hurt McLaglen early with an uppercut to the solar plexus and proceeded to pepper the brave future actor at will.

Said McLaglen years later; “He never knocked me down but sure beat the be-Jesus out of me.”

Two years later the English-man, fighting under the name ‘Paul Romano’* also boxed an exhibition with Jess Willard who would beat Johnson a few years later. For the remaining few years of his boxing career McLaglen would fight sporadically. His last bout was a seventh-round knockout loss to one Arthur Townley in London.

He would exit with a record of 11-6-1 (10) at the age of 34.

*McLaglen also boxed under the name ‘Sharkey’ McLaglen.

The same year he would leave the ring (1920) he would start his acting career and proved a fine connoisseur of the big screen in the silent-movie era. McLaglen would win an Oscar for best actor in 1935 for his lead in another John Ford movie ‘The Informer’.

Following his celebrated role in ‘The Quiet Man’ McLaglen kept working in the movie industry for his remaining years. Shortly after filming an episode of ‘Rawhide’, directed incidently by his son, McLaglen would suffer a massive heart attack. He died on November 7th 1959.

After being born in England and living in South Africa, McLaglen would become a US citizen in the 30’s. Despite often landing roles as Irishmen, McLaglen was actually from Scottish ancestry.

Gary Stretch

Any UK boxing fan who followed the sport in the late 80’s and early 90’s would be fully aware of Gary Stretch. With his handsome features and chiselled physique, Stretch proved to be a crowd favourite for the female boxing fans but could fight too.

As an amateur, the then-unknown Stretch would lay out ‘Boy’ George Collins in just one round. It was a huge shock at the time as Collins was 67-0 and aiming to break a world record entering the bout.

The St Helens’ southpaw would turn pro in 1985. Despite the pretty-boy features, the middleweight prospect showed he could bang too as he left a trail of destruction while climbing the domestic ranks.

The 6’1” puncher would claim the Central Area title before out-pointing Gary Cooper to win the British crown in 1988. The following year Stretch would knockout Dereck Wormald in just one round in defence of his Brit crown; many years later Wormald would give Ritchie Woodhall a stern test when past his best.

After winning the WBC Intercontinental title in October 89’ Stretch set his sights on the world stage though had to wait over a year for his chance.

In April 1991, the St Helens’ contender faced 26-0 Chris Eubank for the WBO middleweight title at the Olympia Grand Hall, Kensington. The Barry Hearn-promoted bill was labelled “Beauty vs The Best” for obvious reasons.

The fight came for Eubank in between his classic fights against Nigel Benn and Michael Watson; to put it in layman’s terms; Eubank was at the peak of his powers though Stretch impressively rose to the occasion.

Using his height and reach to good effect, Stretch piled up the points behind his southpaw right jab and after five rounds was ahead on all the judges’ score-cards. One only gave the champion a single round. The scores would prove academic though as “Simply the Best” started the sixth aggressively.

At the beginning of what would prove the final round, Stretch was deducted a point for pushing Eubank to the canvas. Just seconds later a clean right-hand would collide with his jaw and send him into full retreat. The challenger was dropped heavily in the corner but bravely clambered to his feet only to be knocked out of the ring with a final right.

Following his second defeat (Stretch was stopped early in his career on cuts) Stretch drifted away from the sport. Two more victories would see him retire with a 23-2 (14) record and just a few years later a chance encounter in the US would set him on a new journey.

While on holiday in New York, the retired boxer witnessed an attempted robbery while leaving the gym. After confronting the two muggers they fled the crime-scene where upon Gary asked the female victim if she was ok. The lady turned out to be renowned acting coach Janet Alhanti who asked the hero if he’d ever thought about acting.

In the years since, Stretch has featured in a number of movies most notably with the role of ‘Cleitus’ in Greek epic ‘Alexander’ alongside Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie.

The former fighter also had a meaty role in the 2010 gangster thriller ‘The Heavy’ this time starring opposite Vinnie Jones and Dracula legend Christopher Lee.

Still busy in the movie industry to this day at the age of 45, Stretch counts several movie stars as his close friends and seems to genuinely enjoy his new career as a movie star.

Rocky Pepeli

Contrary to popular belief, Mike Tyson wasn’t the most exciting heavyweight of the 80’s. Iowa puncher Rocky Pepeli was the real-life Rocky Balboa; aggressive, tenacious and with scant regard for defence, Pepeli would have been a huge star in this day-and-age of YouTube and social media.

The young Pepeli was a gifted amateur who boxed some 300 bouts. He would win many accolades in the unpaid code including the 1980 Silver Gloves and Junior Olympics as well as the 82’ Golden Gloves. The talented puncher won so many trophies and medals in his career towards the end he would give his opponent his prize as all his trophy cabinets were bursting full.

The 6’3” slugger would face Mike Tyson on two occasions when both were teenage amateur boxers; Pepeli would win the first on points before getting stopped on a cut in their return bout.

While his former amateur rival was an undisputed world champion, Pepeli would make his own pro debut in 1987 and already it was obvious what kind of fighter the Iowa man would be; all six of his first half-dozen contests would end in the very first round (four wins).

After relocating to Los Angeles, Pepeli would win a series of bouts to get to the cusp of being a bonafide contender but was still vulnerable. Often he’d have to climb off the canvas several times against men he was supposed to steam-roll with ease. Rocky once said “I was never blessed with grace and poise but rather with heart and determination.”

Entering the 90’s Rocky was always a win away from the big time but it proved frustratingly tough to cross the barrier into world class. Shortly after Bert Cooper’s unforgettable wars with Evander Holyfield and Michael Moorer, “Smokin” Bert would stop Pepeli in eight after the underdog had forged a solid points lead.

A year later Rocky would face former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes only for the bout to be controversially halted after the fourth. Holmes, who the previous year had widely out-scored Ray Mercer before dropping a decision to Holyfield, tried to keep his rugged opponent off-balance with his famous jab but found Pepeli in great shape and fiercely determined.

Little known to the former champion was the fact that Pepeli’s Grandfather, who was also a former fighter, was at home losing his battle with cancer. Rocky swore to beat Holmes for his ailing Grandpa but the fight would end prematurely.

The bout was halted after Rocky sustained a cut eye though Holmes was ahead he had looked far from comfortable during the bad-tempered clash and rumour has it Holmes would steadfastly refuse a rematch.

Pepeli fought sporadically towards the end of his career, finally walking away in 1998 following a knockout loss to future contender Kirk Johnson. He left with a record on 19-11-1 (18).

During his boxing career the heavyweight contender was asked to appear as a fighter in the 1992 movie ‘Midnight Sting’ alongside James Woods and Louis Gossett Jr. While the movie hardly set the box office alight it gave the former boxer a taste of acting and he has taken several roles since.

Whilst also making money in real estate, Rocky, now 49-years-old, has continued to add to his acting resume with appearances in movies such as ‘The Mooring’ and, alongside John Diehl, in the forthcoming drama ‘Serpent in the Bottle’.

Newsletters Signup