It was a night of muscle. From the heavywieght combination of Muhammad Ali, the reigning boxing champion, and Don King, the top, and controversial, promoter, giving a brithday bash for Joe Louis, the past champ, not only of the ring, but of racial pride.

Then even the guests had to muscle their way through the crowd of 1,500 folks that arrived at the Raphael Towne Club, a private, predominately black club on 16th Street NW, before the long, steamy, biceps-to-biceps night was over.

WHen is was over, the winners of the crazy evening were all the men with the 17-inch necks who stood around looking cool and mean enough to be fighters even if they weren't because they were the targets of all the women, mostly dressed in slinky '40s sheaths with flower-sprouting hairdos, who took pictures, got autographs and exchange phone numbers.

Right now, it's important to note that Ali didn't show, and it really didn't matter. Ali, who is in town to defend his title against Alfredo Evangelista at the Capital Centre tonight, went to the movies on Saturday night - with his sweetheart, Veronica Porsche, just like millions of other couples. When the word spread through the three-story club that Ali wasn't coming, the people didn't get mad, but juststarted Joking that he had gone to see "Rocky," the Academy Award winner about a fighter on his way up.

In Ali's absence, his brother, Rahman - as tall, as broad, as self-absorbed, but handsomer - drew most of the attention. Dressed in a cocoa-brown three-piece suit and a navy velvet fez, Rahman Ali stood by the staircase and the ladies lined up. "Coming to a party like this would take too much out of Muhammad so he took Veronica to the movies," he said. At this point the conversation was interrupted by a mmber of the boxing entourage racing down the stairs shoutin, "Hey Baby, I'm in Room 209 at the Sheraton-Lanham."

Because all this extra action was going on. Joe Louis, who was 63, probably had one of the nicest birthdays ever. An early arriver, he shook hands in the crowd, stood at the bar like everyone else, and then sat at a table with Angelo Dundee. Ali's main trainer; Drew Dundini Brown, the assistant trainer; Jimmy Ellis, former heavyweight champ; Dick Gregory, the comedian and social activist; and Oscar Brown Jr., the singer.

"This is just fine," said Louis, who in his professional career had 54 knockouts, won by 13 decisions and was only knocked out twice, as his doleful eys scanned the crush on the dance floor. Every five seconds someone slapped a piece of paper in front of him. Sam Moore, 50, a government electronic technician from Olney, Md., pushed a blank check across the table, Louis signed it, smiling.

"There have been none more dedicated to his country than Joe Louis," said Don King, with a firm pat on Louis' shoulder, as he passed by. Recently King had ben in the news more than usual because of an investigation into alleged payoffs to the U.S. Boxing Championship tournament, which he conducted and ABC-TV bankrolled. But there were no signs of worry as King table-hopped and singed autographs.

Paying his respects to Louis was James Farmer, a civil rights strategist of the '60s, now the executive director of the Coalition of American Public Employees.

"I can't tell you what Joe Louis meant to a young kid in Marshall, Tex., in the '30s. When he won it gave me a new lease on life, as it did for millions of blacks," said Farmer. "Here was a black man beating whites, well, that was something else. He was not a racial crusader but, by being there with dignity, he showed us we could take on anybody. People talk about his illiteracy, that he would split infinitives, and his nonpolitics. That didn't matter, he exalted us all."

"Huum, I might date mysely," laughed Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.) when he was asked about Louis' place in history. "But I consider Joe Louis a patron saint. He was symbolic of our aspirations for manhood. Ali has articulated what Joe represented. Joe didn't say 'I'm the greatest,' we said it for him."

Fauntroy left long before the official ceremony took place as did the ambassadors of Trinidad, Tanzania and representatives from the Embassy of Zaire. When "Happy Birthday" was sung at 10:30, plenty of Louis' generaltion, as well as Ali's, were represented.

As Louis cut a blue and white sheet cake in front of the television cameras, Don King looked straight into the cameras, standing shoulder to shouder with Louis and said. "This man does not know the word quit. We have all been underprivileged, downtrodden and denied. I'm one of the masses, not the classes. My magic lies in my ghetto ties. And that's what I share with Joe Louis."