Prizefighting is a sweet science and a mean craft. Its practitioners nearly always end badly. Think of Joe Louis, a gray, discarded bomber, his life as yellowed as old newsprint, being wheelchaired into Vegas charity benefits. Twenty years ago, when Sugar Ray Robinson was going down, not yet out of the ring, a New York reporter called up A.J. Liebling, arguably the greatest boxing scribe of them all, and said:

"Do you think Sugar Ray should retire?"

"How old are you?" said Liebling.

"Thirty," the reporter said.

"You have a job," Liebling said. "But maybe when you reach Robinson's age you'll have trouble making a buck, too. What right do you have to tell anyone how he should make his living? What else can Robinson do? What else does he know? Can he teach at a college? Can he broadcast on radio? Can he be an accountant? The only way he knows to make a living is fighting. A reporter reports. A printer prints. A fighter fights."

Of them all, Muhammad Ali was going to be different. For one thing, he was more handsome than most. He wouldn't end up like all the rest. He said it at the beginning, and he said it in the middle, and he tried to say it at the end. Other people said it, too. "The Champ is the greatest. The Champ don't take nothing," bawled an inmate at Lorton Reformatory one day in 1967, after the most famous man on earth had floated through. Ali had been barred by his country from fighting then, but the Champ wasn't taking nothing.

Once, monarchs laid treasures on him like Kleenex. Once, he got down on the floor with Brezhnev and played with the Soviet president's grandkids. Once, he held up Howard Cosell's toupee for all the world to see. In two decades as a pro he made $60 million with his fists. At 17 he was a Golden Gloves champ. At 18 he had the Olympic gold medal. Cassius, the son of a Louisville sign painter, had conquered Rome, and only the world was next. Probably never before in history was one man on his way to being exposed to so much media hype and glare.

Three years ago, in 1979, his face yet pretty but his gut now badly showing, he could still boast: "I'm gonna be the first black man to go out Champion. Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Leon Spinks--none of them could do it. But I'm getting out clean."

He didn't, though. He didn't get out at all. He left boxing but he couldn't get out of that wider ring: fame, and the need to have it. And now, at 40, like an Elvis impersonator, like a Brown Bomber going down, Muhammad Ali is learning how self-parody becomes the price of style.

The lip was going, all right, but like a record at the wrong speed, like a movie out of sync. Everything seemed one beat off. The asphalt baked. Automatic cameras clicked like snakes. Mothers held up squalling babies. Two cops parted the ropes of a tacky miniature ring and a sleepy hulk in a blue suit climbed through. Muhammad Ali was opening a photo store in a shopping center in Virginia Beach, Va.

"I told you he'd come in a limo," a kid said.

"Put your hands together and clap," said somebody in the welcoming delegation.

"We're going to cut the ribbon and officially open the Fotek Film Factory," said somebody else.

"I been fighting 28 years and ain't I still pretty?" the fighter said rotely into a cushioned mike. It was a little more than a whisper and it had a raspy edge. The jaw muscles barely moved. The mouth looked puffy, and the lips looked spread thin and tight across the gums. And the eyes that once burned bright as agates now wandered, who knows where, maybe back to Louisville and Central High and Mt. Zion Baptist Church on the Dixie Highway.

Muhammad Ali is a "businessman" now. And Allah's messenger. Two weekends ago he came to Virginia Beach to promote a hotel and condo interest with a Saudi Arabian sheik, Tarek al Fassi. The sheik's name, not the Champ's, was on the hotel marquee. Ali brought his third wife, Veronica, and his two little girls, and the children's British nanny, and his secretary, and a couple of aides. Later Herbert Muhammad, his longtime manager and Muslim counselor, and Angelo Dundee, his friend and old trainer, would show up. It was an entourage, all right, though not the size of the herd of old. He can't afford that anymore.

On Saturday night there was a black-tie party with an orchestra. On Saturday afternoon Muhammad Ali played a shopping center.

This is what his schedule said: 2:15: Meet police escort. 2:30: Arrive with police escort. 2:45: Ribbon cutting, Fotek Film Factory. 2:50: Balloons released. 3:00: Ali signs autographs and poses for photographers. 4:20: Ali tours shopping center. 4:46: Remainder of balloons released.

Five hundred people, tops, with cameras and kids and ballpoints, came out into the swelter of a Saturday afternoon to see him. "Take a cheap shot at the Champ," was the promotion the photo store had run in the papers. After the ribbon-cutting (they had him slice through the bunting with an absurd eight-foot scissors), one of the Champ's people helped him jam on a pair of red boxing gloves. He was still in his blue suit. Didn't bother to take off his coat or loosen his tie. Now, in grim parody of former genius, he would go one round with any comer.

The first comer was a kid in shorts and a T-shirt, maybe 12. They lifted him through the barber-pole-colored ropes of the make-believe ring. The kid laced on his bright red gloves, licked his thumb. He feinted and danced in circles. An old used-up fighter stood flat-footed in the sun.

"Hey, you serious?" said the Champ.

"Don't hurt my son," yelled the boy's mother.

Next up was a somewhat larger comer with the number 24 on his back. He had been heckling from ringside.

"I want that crazy nigger," said the Champ, and the crowd roared. People want desperately to believe. Whatever lightens the load. Something in him seemed to stir to life, but it flickered and died.

The last opponent on the shopping center card was known locally as "Mr. Tank." By then maybe a quarter of the crowd had wandered off. Mr. Tank didn't lace up but began immediately to feign slaps at the Champ. The Champ came out of the ring to run down his challenger. For what seemed like an hour, but was only a degrading minute, the two went up and down the steaming pavement, in and out of the crowd, nearly over to Carvel's Ice Cream and the Chinese restaurant, Mr. Tank and the Champ, miming punches in the parking lot of the Hilltop North Shopping Center. For a minute it looked serious. But, nah.

"Nah, I was just fooling around with the Champ," said Mr. Tank afterward, heaving.

At the end they passed out ballpoints. "Hey, it's a souvenir," the Champ's attorney said. Emblazoned on the ballpoint was: "Stolen from Muhammad Ali at Fotek Film Factory."

Muhammad Ali's second greatest gift was always talk. Even that seems gone, or going. While lesser men hoarded speech, Ali spent talk like a sailor on shore leave, sending out doggerel on a drunken spree, spoiling and thumb-licking for a fight. The late English literary critic, Kenneth Tynan, once said something like that of the late Irish drunkard and poetic genius, Brendan Behan. Well, Muhammad Ali, who never drank or smoked or stayed up very late, was all the world's Borstal Boy. Norman Mailer once called him America's greatest wit, and this of someone who flunked the Army's mental aptitude tests.

Now he seems not so much incapable of his old jive and shuffle as bored of it. It will ignite and then strangely subside. Has he grown weary of that which he created? Is there no psychic energy left to propel him?

Maybe the problem is scarier than that. A couple of years ago the London Sunday Times reported that an unidentified neurologist, listening to voice tapes, became convinced Ali has suffered brain damage. There was a marked deterioration in his speech over the years, the brain specialist said.

"Only Allah knows about my brain," Ali retorted.

The cauliflower netherworld of punch-drunk fighters is something ring rats and boxing aficionados don't much like to face up to. Critics say boxing isn't the sweet science; it's license to maim. A couple of years ago the Royal College of Surgeons in London released a study showing that 17 percent of the fighters in the British Registry of Boxing showed signs of extensive brain damage.

Muhammad Ali was once grace incarnate in a square ring. He made us take in our breath in appreciation of what the human body is capable of. And now there are times when he sounds as though he's doing Don Corleone impressions. A man who once danced like Fred Astaire now seems to move as though through mayonnaise. You can't miss the slurring of words.

In 1977, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali's longtime ring physician, quit his corner. He had seen urology lab reports. He was convinced of kidney damage. Neither Ali nor the entourage that had now layered on like fungi would listen.

In 1980, when the controversy about his health had flared up again, Ali entered the Mayo Clinic and got what he announced was a clean bill of health. Then he went out and fought Larry Holmes, his old sparring partner, and looked pathetic. In 10 rounds he could barely land a solid punch. He didn't come out for the 11th.

When you can't fill coliseums, or thrill 'em in Manila, or cause drama in the Bahama, you play shopping centers in Virginia Beach, Va.

A while ago Pacheco wrote an article in The New York Times explaining what happens to too many old boxers: the scarring on their heads from repetitive beatings begins to pull in, involute, just as a cut on an arm or a kneecap will in time shrink and whiten over. Only instead of skin, Pacheco explained, brain tissue is contracting.

Angelo Dundee, friend of 24 years:

"He's a great guy, he's my buddy. Sure, we talk all the time, I call him up, he calls me up. When I come into a room he hugs me and pats me on the butt. I say, 'Hey, let go, Champ, I'll rape ya.' I know him since he was 16. That was even before Rome and the Olympics. He came and looked me up. I had Willie Pastrano, and I had brought Willie to Louisville for a fight, and here's this kid amateur Golden Glover named Clay calling me up. He says he wants me to manage him someday. He says he's gonna be the Champ. He always wanted to box with the guys I used for sparring. I know his whole family. His wife, Veronica, isn't she a lovely chick? Sonji, his first, she was lovely. I knew Belinda, too. One thing about the Champ, he always had great taste in women. How's his health? Terrific. He's in terrific shape. He's alert, don't worry about it. Just get him on the right subject, he's like this, boom boom, he's a kid again. It's just when he's not interested in something he looks like he's going to go to sleep on you."

"Cassius never lets his gold medal out of his sight. He even sleeps with it," Time magazine reported in 1960. His name was still Cassius Clay then and he was about to turn pro. Soon the Louisville Sponsoring Group (11 millionaires, 10 of whom initially chipped in a grand apiece) would be syndicating his career. Time magazine was right: Cassius ate with his medal, and wouldn't stop sleeping with it, even though, as he said later in his autobiography, the sharp edges cut his back when he rolled over. Nothing would ever make him part with his medal, not even when the "gold" began to wear off, leaving a dull-looking lead base.

Later he pitched it in the Ohio River. He didn't exactly know why.

Like a ventriloquist, the lips are barely moving. Maybe he's not on the right subject. The talk is all guttural and sleepy. No boom boom. The handshake a minute ago was limp.

After midnight on a Friday evening. The Champ has just left a Virginia Beach restaurant. He sits asprawl in a cat-gray limo. The engine makes a silky purr. The phone glows green. "Call your wife on it," he says wearily.

This limo is long as a boat and has wire-spoke wheels. There is a TV and a video recorder and a bar in it. (Later, the guy driving it will tell you it is the biggest car in the state. Cost $50,000.) It seems a car exactly right for the man, or what the man once was. But tonight the man seems all wrong for the car.

"Now that I'm out of boxing, everybody wants to know, 'What's he going to do?' Well, I don't intend to be like any of these old beat-up ex-champs, hanging around championship fights, taking bows. I've got business deals. I'm investing in an oil refinery in the Sudan. I got money coming in from all angles. We got an interest in a hotel right here in Virginia Beach, 600 rooms. Hey, Richard, how much this Pavilion Tower gonna cost--forty million?"

"That's two towers. Uh, $44 million," says attorney Richard Hirschfeld, across the limo's dark.

"And on the spiritual side I got lots of plans, too. Lots of plans. My major goal is helping Wallace Muhammad, Islamic leader, pull all racial images out of statues and pictures in religion. Wonder if you white people had to grow up all your life with a black Jesus hanging on a cross? Wonder if all the apostles at the Last Supper were black? How would that make you feel, growing up with all those pictures? This is my evangelistic work. I even talked to the pope about it. There is nothing I could take up as great as this. Read Exodus, chapter 20, verse four. Powerful, powerful."

"You know what he's referring to?" says Hirschfeld.

"Powerful, powerful."

"Exodus 20 says there shall be no graven images," explains Hirschfeld.

"I got tapes. They're going to shake the world. Powerful, powerful. Hey, Richard, you want to hear these tapes?"

"I heard one of them 15 times already, Muhammad."

"You gotta hear these tapes. Powerful, powerful."

Graven images: The picture seems to shade and weaken each time you look.

A day and a half later and Allah's messenger is sitting alone in the parlor of his hotel suite. It is early morning. Veronica is packing in the bedroom. She is going home to Los Angeles today. Meg, the British nanny, has the kids down the hall. They run in and out of a room, playing tag.

He has on a light blue shirt, slippers, black tux pants from the night before. Beside him is a huge valise of religious books and an outsized portable stereo. The stereo is blasting music with religious messages. He keeps fooling with the volume, up and down.

Now he is thumbing through some folded-over looseleaf. They are spiritual lectures he has copied out in his own hand. One is titled "Tragedy of Life." Another "The Purpose of Life."

Marge, his secretary, comes in. Very carefully she says:

"This is the private telephone number of Dr. Wilson, the president of Norfolk State University, where you're going to speak on Tuesday. He says that when you're ready to leave here, if you'll call him, he'll have a private car come for you and take you to the Omni right near the airport."

He studies the note. There is a long silence.

"Where are we?"

"Virginia Beach."

"Is he going to pay?"

"I imagine."

"Can he come today?"

"Well, I think Richard and Herbert want to go over some things with you today."

"Oh."

"Now don't lose it."

He folds the paper carefully, puts it in the pocket of his shirt, turns up his music. Allah's messenger seems lost.