DO NOT mourn for Muhammad Ali -- he is still daring; he is still poetry; he is still defiance; he is still an incomparable man who rose to dance above the brutality of poverty and racial repression as well as the brutality of his own sport, boxing. None of that fades in the face of the former champion's complete defeat at the hands of one of his former sparring partners, Larry Holmes. Oh, the irony that today's greatest heavyweight should be only a former sparring partner, a minor associate, of The Greatest.

We hope the defeat itself will signal an end, however sad, to his years as a fighter. Another attempt at a comeback -- to claim the heavyweight crown for the fourth time -- would be dramatic, in the Ali-style, now that just about everyone has counted him out as a contender. But such a comeback would risk too much.Thursday night Mr. Ali took too many punches -- sharp jabs -- from the powerful fists of Mr. Holmes. He should not leave the ring permanently injured or dead. His fame does not rest on his ability in the ring anymore.

Mr. Ali is a rare person. His bravado does not grate. It is a source of laughter. His rebelliousness is not anti-society so much as affirmation of the individual's claim and right to fit no mold. There are other twists in the story. How can a fighter be pretty? How can a heavyweight dance for so long in the ring like a lightweight? How can an uneducated man be so glib? The man is magic. For some black people, he is a special hero: a man who has not let white society dictate the terms of his success. None of that is one bit diminished by this week's defeat in the ring.