Every wet leftie has been paying tribute to Muhammad Ali over the past 72 hours. Which is kind of weird considering Ali embodied everything they loathe. Male bravado, urban swagger, cockiness, masculinity by the bucketload: the things that made Ali great are the things his right-on mourners normally agitate and commentate against. Their hailing of Ali is as mad as a bunch of zebras turning up to the funeral of a lion.
Nothing rattles today’s liberal-leftists more than the idea of the powerful bloke. Especially cocksure poor ones who are mouthy and — oh my God — use their muscle to get ahead in life. Indeed, this week’s New Statesman is devoted to the problem of masculinity. It’s a rare day when you pick up a copy of the Guardian and are not confronted by articles about the awfulness of male antics, of ‘the culture of masculinity’, of those ‘masculine traits and behaviours’ that are ‘dangerous to society’. Those traits made Ali.
There are now loads of trendy campaigns aimed at taming males. From the execrable Movember, which is about breaking down masculine ‘taboos and barriers’ in order to get blokes gabbing about their health, to the Campaign Against Living Miserably, which bemoans the fact that men desire to be ‘in control at all times’, do-gooders devote massive energy to the moral emasculation of the overly mannish. In schools, experts wring their hands over the ‘varied, often troubling, masculinities of boys’ and ask what can be done about them. If any of these boys somehow manage to maintain their masculinity, they can expect to have it shamed out of them at university, where, with the glowing approval of feminists and the leftish press, student unions have declared war on ‘lad culture’ — defined as a ‘pack mentality’, often ‘residing in activities such as sport’, and usually including ‘banter’.
They could be describing Ali: the ultimate lad, who in his prime was ‘masculine traits’ made flesh, and who was of course world famous for his banter. Which was sometimes offensive. He called Joe Frazier a ‘gorilla’. Late 1960s / early 1970s Ali — Ali at his greatest — would likely be barred from 21st-century British university campuses. He’d be No Platformed for his dangerous masculinity, for uttering unacceptable ideas, for being racist against a fellow black man.
For the Twitterati that normally mocks everything blokeish now to say ‘Ali was my hero’ is just a bit much. Ali’s life, certainly his early life, was a struggle against everything these people represent. Against the idea that men should be meek, that male power is something to be ashamed of, that boxing is wicked and warped. Let’s not forget that boxing is your average Guardianistas’ least favourite sport. In their ideal world — where masculine traits have been tempered, lads have been remade as obedient health-obsessed saddos, and boxing has been turned from a gloriously brutish spectacle into a safe pursuit with headgear and softer gloves — Ali would be an impossibility. Or a criminal. Or an aberration at least. They praise Ali while striving to create a world in which the likes of Ali would be outlaws.
These swagger-suspicious thinkers are now misremembering Ali. They’re posthumously taming him. Even the celebration of his political stances against the Vietnam War and the repression of black people is another way of deflecting attention from the thing that made him what he was: his pounding of other men’s heads for sport. We’re being invited to focus less on his fights than on his dabbling in the political realm. Remember ‘not the rumbles, [but] the reverberations’ of his radical comments, says America’s leading left-wing mag The Nation. But it’s the rumbles his fans recall. It’s the rumbles that made him a hero everywhere from poor black America to Africa to those pokey Irish pubs where my dad and his mates watched his fights. The PC cheerleaders of Ali love a faded black-and-white image of him next to something he said about Vietnam, but they still profoundly fear what he embodied in the ring: male power, working-class force, muscular history-making, stylised masculinity.
Will there be another Ali, people ask? If there is, his first, most important struggle will have to be against these phoney Ali fans; against the new elites who demonise boys, neuter lads, and prefer men to be soft and introspective rather than arrogant enough to think they can take on the world out there, like Ali did.