First, they lower a few of the neo-naked women from the ceiling.

Then, the rest of the neo-naked women walk out from the wings, wearing rhinestone-studded G-strings and elaborate silver headdresses that look like sterling moose antlers direct from Nelson Bunker Hunt's private stock.

Followed by the women and men of the production numbers, greased and oiled and buffed like burled wood, singing, dancing, prancing through the circus, the Casbah, the Ziegfeld parade and the shipwreck, where, incidentally, the neo-naked women are pillaged and plundered in simulation, certainly not stimulation. The neo-naked women never sing or dance, but simply stand and walk and stand some more. A highly specialized talent with a limited run; inevitably their careers begin to sag.

In between are live animals and novelty acts. The lion, luded out, yawning rather than roaring; the elephant that does handstands, or pawstands as it were; the llama; the camels; the orangutan act, one of the truly great orangutan acts in the business; the three gauchos who bang drums and twirl bolos they occasionally set on fire; the juggler who spits small balls into the air and catches them in his mouth only to spit them out again and, once more into the breach, the neo-naked women. And people have the nerve to ask -- where's the new talent coming from?

And then, when this typical revue is over and you've downed the last of your pretty-maids-all-in-a-row lineup of three (for the $18.50 cover) cocktails that long since got warm and watery, you file through the casino with the colors that Tom Wolfe called "broiling magenta, congo ruby, scarlet-fever purple and hospital fruit basket orange," with the lights flashing and the bells ringing and the clangers clanging until your head feels like the inside of a castanet, and go out into the night, a night you have to search the sky for because the neon canopy of the hotel is so thick you can get a tan standing under it. And just when you feel you have reached a state of tactile supersaturation, when your eyes, ears, nose, mouth and touch are so oversensitized that one volley more, one little ding or ping would send you straight into sensory overload never-never-land, you see the fountain, the huge statue of Neptune rising, spotlighted in electric pastels, towering over his four handmaidens, each of whom is sending streams of water back into the pool through spigots in their nipples.

And this is Las Vegas.

Where bigger is better and biggest is best, where hedonism, sensualism and narcissism combine with capitalism to make everything reachable -- youth, beauty, pleasure -- all for the right price, always in advance, where you check your brains at the airport and go with the flow.

Las Vegas.

In Spanish, it means City of Excess or Chevrolet or get your ya-yas out.

Or something like that. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, it never stops. Three-hundred-sixty degrees of action and 100 degrees of heat. They say it's a dry heat so it won't get to you, but it does, and when it finally bakes your brains into cornmeal it leaves a layer of dust that settles down to coat your heart.

"See, the people here are a little more cucarachas than most," says Jack Binion, owner of the Horseshoe casino where last week a coldblooded cannon walked in and put $770,000 in $100 bills on the craps table, explaining that the way inflation was eating him alive he wanted to "either double it or dump it" and walked out one roll of the dice later -- not even his roll; some old woman's -- with a suitcase full of $1,540,000.

"Vegas is gonna draw every misfit in the country, all the lost souls, all the people who think they don't belong where they're at so they may as well come here. Partially they're right. We don't look down at problems here. It's a town full of people with problems, and if you've got problems Vegas will exploit them. It's a cold, hard town. 'You got problems? I got problems, too. F--- your problems.' You can drink yourself to death here. You can gamble your life away. You can buy narcotics, buy whores -- whatever problem you got, Vegas is gonna deal you no limit."

And the only sound that you might hear after the ambulances go is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row. The Holy Man Walks

Muhammad Ali, who used to say he transcended boxing, and then transcended sport, and then transcended nations and governments, is now transcending the world. He no longer quotes Kid Gavilan and Sugar Ray Robinson; he now quotes only Jesus and Moses and Allah. He speaks of miracles and prophecy, of being "in the world, but not of the world"; at age 38 he fights tonight to win the world heavyweight championship for a record-setting fourth time -- not for himself, but because he "is on a mission for God." Muhammad Ali, who brings his Hallelujah Chorus with him wherever he goes, is now positively extraterrestial. Muhammad Ali, who says, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and good shall come to you -- well, go on and check my life out," has this to say about Vegas: "Vegas don't mean s--- to a Holy Man. Holy Man walks his donkey right on through here, don't he? Holy Man say, 'Goin' to Hell, gambler. Goin' to Hell, prostitute.' And the Holy Man walks on through here."

Muhammad Ali is staying in Suite 301 in Caesar's Palace, a hotel named for that line of emperors, proclaimed gods on earth, washed in the blood of the grape and entertained by watching Christians eaten by lions. To get to Suite 301 one simply walks past Cleopatra's Barge, an indoor dining boat floating on water, past some giant quasi-marble statues that management probably bought at the Pompeii Fire Sale in 79 A.D. and into an elevator glittering with fool's gold named for Marcus Aurelius, a top-10 Caesar in both the AP and UPI polls.

Muhammad Ali is lying on a king-sized bed with a king-sized pillow over his stomach, having his feet rubbed by a trainer and his apple juice refilled by a sidekick, talking to a pretty young TV associate producer type, looking at himself in one of the room's three mirrors, combing his hair, smoothing his face with cream and occasionally turning his attention to a videocassette of himself delivering his lecture on The Intoxications of Life to a class at Harvard earlier this year.

Every so often, every 10 seconds or so, Muhammad Ali interrupts himself to say something like, "Listen to this, this is where I really get heavy, really heavy, they were not ready for how heavy I got," only to hear one of his entourage say back to him, "You right, champ, you heavy, that's heavy stuff you dealing with."

Swept away by the tide of his own magnificence, Muhammad Ali bathes in the glow of his inner and his outer lights. Dreams and 'Trickeration'

Don King, the man with the electroshocked porcupine haircut, in his own humble opinion the greatest promoter in the world, now promoting "a fight that could never again be duplicated in the history of mortal man"; Don King, fluent in a language containing words like "trickeration," "misconscrew" and "squirrelous," sandblasting out 300 words where three words would do, telling you how the watch was made and how much it cost when you ask him what time it is, a former policy maker and convicted felon (manslaughter -- he stomped and beat a man to death), who now sees himself as an economic "visionary" because so much of his life was devoted to the crass pursuit of gambling profit as a numbers king in Ohio; Don King, wearing gold and diamond bracelets, rings and pendants, not exactly a master of understatement, a man who, again in his humble opinion, is larger than life, a man who can put his ear to the ground and perhaps even hear the posse coming; Don King sees this fight against Larry Holmes as "the big gamble" for Muhammad Ali.

He sees it as a metaphor for romance and daring, something from a Clark Gable movie, when "the old man used to own the joint and then the son took it over, and now the old man is back to challenge his son, and they shuffle the cards and play one hand for the place, one hand to see who rules the world, so Holmes is the dealer, the banker, and Ali is the player, the two of them alone at the table, winner take all, and it's fitting that this oasis in the desert, this posh and elegant sanctuary would be the only place where the big bet comes off, the only place where you could see the hand dealt."

Don King, who says "martin Luther King took you to the mountain top and showed you the promised land, well, I'm going to take you to the bank", Don King calls Vegas "the inner conscience of America, appealing, as it does to the aggresiveness of man, his every whim and caprice."

Don King, who can wind it up and let it go with the best of them, says,"In Las Vegas, all dreams are possible. In Las Vegas, if you have the money, they treat you like royalty, and when you walk through that casino you put on a new macho, a new bravado, you put your cigar in your mouth and your chips in your hand, and you look at those chips and feel the smoothness of those chips and money becomes immaterial. Those chips you bet 'em like you are making $1,000 a week, even if you are making $200 a week, even if all you got is that $1,000 and it has taken you a year to save it, you walk up to the table and you feel the excitement in your heart and the sweat on your forehead and you say, 'bet the thousand.' It's unheard of. A man like you, you saved for a year. ''BET IT.' And suddenly you are no longer John Q. Public, no longer a working stiff, you are Howard Hughs, you are every high roller you have ever dreamed of being, and you are happy to emulate the high rollers because you are now on their high level, where the money is worthless." r

This is Don King's kind of town. Last Exit to Seattle

Money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, moneymoneymoney.

Don Usherson, public relations, MGM Grand "I think the origin of the Vegas shows came about like this. After a guy had gambled for 12 straight hours and he was ready to die, you didn't want him to leave your casino so you gave him a show with beautiful, almost naked women, and after it let out he came back to gamble some more."

Mort Golden, Chicago salesman, compulsive gambler "I had only one rule about Vegas -- you could win, but you couldn't get out of town with the money. aSo once, when I was $10,000 up, I jumped in a cab, went straight to the airport, ran up to a ticket agent and siad, 'I want the first plane to anywhere.' That's how you get to Chicago by way of Seattle."

William Ferrigno, Vegas cabbie: "I had a guy in my cab once, an Oriental guy, and he was carrying on a conversation with himself the whole way to the airport I tried to get into it, but he wouldn't let me. He just kept talking about how he knew he'd been $18,000 ahead and how he knew he should've gone upstairs to bed because he had a flight out in the morning. But he'd stayed in the casino, kept drinking, kept playing, and by dawn he'd lost the 18 grand and another 12 grand on top of that. Kept hitting himself in the forehead while he was talking. If we'd gone another five miles he'd have knocked himself cold."

James Lovelace, Vegas cabbie: "I got a $400 tip once just for driving a guy to the airport. He slipped me four black chips and said, 'No problem kid, I just won 80 grand.' But once this fare from Texas hired a cab for a week -- you can do that here as long as you keep the meter running. The fare and the cabbie went everywhere together, ate together, gambled together, bought whores together, even went down to the opening of Santa Anita in California together for a couple of days. I think the total meter was $3,500, but the fare hit a $25,000 Keno ticket and tipped the cabbie half -- twelve-five. How's that?"

Las Vegas Review-Journal, front page headline, Sept 29, 1980: Nevada SUICIDE RATE HIGHEST IN NATION.

Jack Binion: "This I swear is true. It happened in my casino. Two guys, good friends, are playing blackjack for a couple of hours. Maybe $10 a hand. They're sitting first base and second base [the first two seats to the dealer's left]. So the dealer deals a hand, and just then the guy on first base grabs his chest, turns to his friend and says, 'I think I'm having a heart attack.' Well, he wasn't kidding. He dropped off the chair and we rushed to him, laid him down, and started working on him.

"Meanwhile, the hand was dealt so no one can play because you have to go in order and here's the guy on first base laying on the ground. Now his buddy is angry because he's got 20 and he wants to play the hand. So he picks up the guy's hand -- I think it was 16 -- and holds it up so the guy on the floor can see it and asks him, 'Whaddya wanna do?'

"That's not the incredible part. The incredible part is the guy on the floor, holding his chest, maybe dying for all I know says, 'What's the dealer got up?'

"His buddy says, 'A 10.'

"The guy on the ground screams, 'Hit me.'

"Now everybody at the table keeps on playing because that hand is done and they don't have to deal the guy on the floor in anymore. And I'll be a sumbitch if his buddy doesn't keep on playing until the ambulance comes." Manicured Mysticism

Rules:

Dealer must draw to 16 and stick on 17.

Whean you get a first-row balcony seat at a revue or a favored table in the main room, you either are somebody or know somebody.

Very short, very manicured nails are essential for male dealers. You might not mind a guy with dirty fingernails breaking with a king on 14 but you'd hate like hell to see a scrunge-ball pull a 5 on 16 and beat you out of next month's rent.

Trust no one. Suspect everyone. That's why they have the "eye-in-the-sky" cameras over every table (so management can check up on dealers) and why dealers, when they finish their shifts, show you both sides of their hands and give you a peek up their sleeves.

Craps is beyond you. It is played by people with so much more money than you that it will only make you crazy. It is unfathomable mysticism. The only thing in life harder to understand than craps is John Anderson.

Hanging around is fine. Stars love hangers-on, walking-around guys. Big players love to see people watching them play. Ali has about 19 paid staffers, including trainers, business guys, a videotape guy, a barber and a man who speaks only Spanish whose job is to rub Ali with cream. Ali may also have 50 other walking-around guys. "Some say they shook his hand in 1963 and the champ told them to come to every fight," says James Anderson, a paid Ali security man. "Then, another guy might have given him an ice cream cone in 1971 and says they're close friends. We have what you might call utility men. One rubs one foot. Another rubs the other foot. But what they have in common is that they sign the champ's name on the restaurant checks."

Anything, everything, anyone, everyone is for sale. Money talks, b.s. walks.

If your name is six stories high on the marquee, no matter if no one has ever heard of you -- as in the case of Marlene Ricci at the Dunes -- you're hot.

Never start a fight. The casino security men do not like people who fight and the casino security men are all card-carrying graduates of the Killer Kowalski School for Exploratory Surgical Techniques.

No one cares about your problem.

Be cool. Frank's in town. The Champ Stands Alone

For two weeks the fighters worked out every day for the paying public.For two weeks much of that public that came to see Ali -- the magical, mystical, mythical Ali who has shaved one mustache and 40 pounds for The Last Hurrah, as it is billed -- left the gym before Larry Holmes even walked in.

Holmes would like to sell tickets. He tries. Buy he is unable. He is to Ali what King John was to Richard the Lionhearted; he remains, even though he is the champion, the opponent. Holmes often fights here, always wins here, yet he is unknown and unloved here. He is not a star. He has no flash, no splash, no jazz, no razzmatazz. He has only the crown, not the renown.

Ali sells tickets.

Ali sells magic.

Ali sells eternal hope.

Ali also sells souvenirs after each workout.

Ali is a STAR.

"This is the showplace for Ali," says Lloyd Wells, the man in Ali's camp in charge of videotape, ring announcing and pushing souvenirs. "Ali has the carnival personality, the tinsel-town personality. He reflects so well in Vegas. Vegas provides him with all the cosmetic things he needs."

The workouts promise all, show much, tell some. Ali looks lean, but not nearly so fast as he tells the crowd he is. He looks young, but not nearly so youthful as he tells the crowd he is. But he vows he will win, and the crowd, which bets with its heart and not its head, wants to believe him. Ali the three-time champ, Ali the indomitable warrior, Ali the self-proclaimed master of illusion. "When I tell you a mosquito can pull a plow -- don't ask how, hitch him up."

If you get close to his corner between rounds of shadowboxing, you can hear him breathe heavily, see him clutch to the ropes for support. Yet no one in his camp professes the slightest worry. Theirs is a collective denial of the present, a romantic gearshift into reverse and the conjuring of spirits. Down the line you will hear only a slight variation on the words of Howard Bingham, Ali's photographer, "I didn't want him to fight. I wanted him to stay retired. But he says he can do it, and his history shows he can do it, and therefore I believe he can do it."

With the end of the workout the introduction begin. Lloyd Wells ticks off the celebraties at ringside. "Today with the champ . . ." Ben Vereen. Buzz Aldrin. Natalie Cole. Ali, the chief of protocol, welcomes them, is photographed with them, then dismisses them to the wings, takes over the microphone and becomes Ali the lounge act, guaranteeing the fans a victory, charming them, seducing them, screaming about "four times" and "shock the world" and "miracle" and "greatest of all times," a record he has played so often the grooves are gone. He is George Jessel at the Knights of Columbus, introducing his mother, father, friends, Romans, countrymen, thanking each and every one for coming, and then, as he climbs out of the ring to meet the press -- where he will say the same things he has been saying for the last 20 years, changing only the names and dates -- Wells tell you where you can buy the souvenirs.

The act is timed to the split second, invariably ending with Ali's challenge to the media -- You keep writing me off, and I keep making you look like chumps. When are you going to learn that I am not like you, that I am special, that you will never see my like again? It is his closer, his "My Way."

And always, from the first song through the encore, the Hallelujah Chorus is there singing backup.

"You're right, champ."

"Of all times, champ."

"Shock the world, champ."

"Preach, champ."

In the back of the room, having heard this so many, many times before, Rahman Ali, the champ's brother, cups his hand to his face and whispers softly, a priest convincing a trembling initiate, "Be thankful you're here. This is history. You're seeing it." Far From Flatbush

Just in from Brooklyn, first time in Vegas and armed with new money, Ellen, Margaret and Ronnie hit the blackjack tables at the Dunes like it was Omaha Beach and the war was on the line.

"If my mother could only see me now," Ronnie said as she ordered still another White Russian, her third in 45 minutes, "she'd smack me right in the mouth."

Laughing.

Drinking.

Losing.

All their lives, all 26 years' worth, they had dreamed of this, getting on the plane at Kennedy, jetting to Vegas and staying up 28, 36, maybe even 48 hours straight in this lunatic Disneyland, mainlining action from a syringe the size of the Empire State Building.

Another round.

That was number four. They had been here for an hour now, well beyond tipsy, bearing down on sloshed.

Margaret had been prticularly quiet the last 15 minutes. Although Ronnie had done her best to coach her -- tell her when to stick and when to hit in a stage whisper that had all the subtlety of a moose in your bathroom -- Margaret was doing irrational things, sticking on 8, hitting on 17. Then, after hitting on 14 to get 24, and telling the dealer, "one more card, please," Margaret got up to go to the powder room and simply never come back.

Another round.

"Would you believe we've never played the game before?" Ronnie asked. She was the leader, the Bette Midler. by her fifth White Russian she was calling the dealer "Baby Doll," and once, when the dealer had an ace showing and asked if anyone wanted insurance against him having 21, she said, "Insurance? Ellen has worked for Prudential for three years."

Ellen liked that one. Oh boy, did she. A real knee-slapper if only she could have found her knees because by now Ellen was in deep trouble. Her eyes were so glazed they could have been thinly sliced and baked on a ham. She was beginning to babble to the dealer. Something about her boy cousin wanting to become a Rockette, wearing a dress around the house. She wondered if the dealer knew him. It started when the dealer said he once dated a Rockette, and, well, never mind. Ellen just wasn't focusing.

She had long since stopped listening to any of Ronnie's orders, except for drinks, and she was playing so bizarrely that even the dealer tried to help by brushing her money aside when she bet more than the $2 minimum. Three hands in a row she stuck on 8, 9, and 11, and then hit on the next hand with 19. And then she decided, just to change her luck, she would play with her eyes closed, somewhat of a mixed blessing because as soon as she closed her eyes, she passed out, her head landing softly on the felt table.

Which left Ronnie.

Ronnie looked at ellen, looked at the dealer, looked back at ellen, who really did seem quite content, almost glowing, then took a sip from her sixth White Russian and announced, "When you're hot, you're hot -- hit me, Baby Doll."

It was barely 4 in the morning and Ronnie hadn't come all this way to stop now.

As Jack Binion said, "Vegas is gonna deal you no limit. "