Out of the side of his mouth, "I have come to thrive on the prestige level, so I have to do things to keep it up. I know I've retired three times, but I got to keep campaigning, man. I love to watch the way people react to me. I love being the most well-known man on earth, in the world - more recognizable than the pope, than Carter, than anyone. I get off on people admiring me. Me, a Negro in white America. I tell myself, 'Go head on, Mr. Ali, you most famous man in the world.'"

So this dude with huge shoulders and big, knobby-knuckled hands is standing with his back turned to Juanita Johnson at a backyard party in Bethesda, and when he turns around she gasps, actually seems to suck up all the air in the area, then starts digging her fingernails into her escort while shaking him until he can't take any more.

"Be cool, baby," he tells her. After all this is one of those kinds of affairs, a fund-raiser for Yvonne Brathwaite Burke's bid for attorney general of California, under a tent in the backyard of lawyer Robert Martin.

Instead of taking his advice, however, Johnson fakes a faint into her embarrassed friends arms. "Oh, God," she croons, "is that HIM?"

Muhammed Ali, looking like a baby-faced giant with gray haid and "love handles" on his waistline, posing for pictures with that sly smile and half-moon-shaped eyes. He is not fazed, and pays her no mind - until she bursts through the crowd and nestles up against his front to get into a picture with him.

When the cameras stop clicking, the woman starts talking to herself. "My heels are stuck. I can't move." Now Ali rolls his eyes skyward. He knows what's about to happen.

"Hey, Ali," someone yells from the throng of admirers. "The lady's stuck. Help her out." Ali places his oak-like arms around her small satin-covered chest and mechanically lifts her from the turf. When he puts heels back in immediately digs her heels back in. "Could you do it one more time," she says.

"One more time," Ali says. "Everybody always says "just one more time." He laughs, "I guess I should know. Oaky little Spinks. One more time."

"Yeah," say the crowd.

Out of the side of his mouth, "Sometimes I wake up and say, 'Why, as old as you are, do you do it?' I ask myself that. I don't enjoy it any more. It's all business now. I had to give the American government $28 million in taxes. Do that sound like fun?"

He was mobbed in Manila, chased into a temple there by maniacal fans, crooned at in Zaire, and lunged at outside the Capital Centre in Landover by a naked woman who wanted to offer herself to him in the name of victory . . . part of the ceaseless carnival confronting the best-known man in the world.

A man who came to dine with kings, and delighted at the sight of his picture hung on the walls of mud huts throughout Africa by tribesmen who had no idea what he did for a living.

All across American kids are "floating like butterflies, stinging like bees," Ali-shuffling their way through dreamland. He has been cocky, confident and on occasion most arrogant, but unlike most men he has on other occasions wept publicly when moved by the sight of poverty and suffering in a world that had bestowed over $56 million on him to knock people out. And tonight this man-who-would-be-king is sparring with his minichs out of the side of his mouth.

All is in his element this night, right among fans where he has been for most of his 15 years as a professional fighter.

"Where is he? I ain't met him yet," asks Little Mr. Dynomite, the 10-year-old, Michael Jackson-style entertainer for the evening, almost in tears. His real name is Anthony Wright.

"I really like the way he can use those hands, sing like a butterbee, I mean a fly," says the tiny singer.

"You're a fan, you say," Ali asks after being introduced to Mr. Dynomite some time later. "Yes sir," the young ster replied.

"You ain't as dumb as you look, boy," Ali tells him. And Mr. Dynomite hangs his head in a blush.

Out of the side of his mouth, "I know I can beat him. It's too many people who follow me who would give up on life unless they see me make a comeback. I get letters from these kids, really trying to make it and somehow I've become a part of them. If I make it, they can make it too. Do you know what kind of burden that is for me? Do you know how hard it is for me to keep it up?"

He pauses, and while people continue to barrage him with questions and ask for autographs, Ali seems to go blank, staring out far beyond the crowd, then trying to catch up and answer each question as best he can remember it.

"You can talk that crap. Hell, that little dude beat me. I got to make a comeback. I want to be the champ, again. I mean, officially the champ. See, right now, just this minute, there is someone out there who can say they beat me. I don't like that I can't stand it."

The crowd presses fourth, and Ali whispers to his wife, Veronica, to begin heading for the doorway, and he'll join her there. "I'll take care of her for you," quips host Martin.

"I'll kill you, man," Ali says.

"Okay, put up your dukes," Martin says. Ali rolls his eyes again. And just as he obliges by putting up his dukes, Martin reaches into his pocket and puts on a pair of bifocals.

Out of the side of his mouth, "Now you look at (Little Mr. Dynomite). He wants to e the greatest in his field. Once he gets to be the greatest, that's when it gets hard. Cause you got to stay the greatest if it's gonna mean something. That's why I got to get the title back. Because of history, man. History is not kind to people, and the only way it will be kind to me is for me to retire The Champ."