Like any blastoff, a world heavyweight championship fight must have its countdown.

Even if it is just the countdown to a quick knockout, boxing still brings its gaudy circus full of paradoxes to town a fortnight in advance for 10 days of ritual excess.

Where but under the Boxing Big Top do glamour and squalor, excitement and abject boredom brush elbows so constantly and seem so much at ease with each other?

Where but in the wake of Muhammad Ali, a self-proclaimed teacher of Muslin clean living and simplicity, can be found such a train worshipers dressed in the many-colored costumes of despair?

For the last fortnight Washington has been under seige by the army that follows a heavyweight title fight.

Hurry, hurry. Step right up. Here they are: the pug and the prophet, the bodyguard and the sparing partner, the President's daughter and Glayds Knight.

Ten, nine, eight, seven . . .

Ali's challenger, Alfredo Evangelista, was the first of the troop to arrive (May 5) and the first to be arrested (May 6).

On his initial morning of Washington training, Evalgelista and his entire entourage decided to run down the middle of Rte. 450 at 4 a.m. for a five-mile workout.

Since no one in Evangelista's jogging pack spoke fluent English, the Prince George's County police hauled the whole gang to the station house before their identities could be confirmed.

The fight camp's mood of barely contained insanity was established the next day when a New York columnist reported that Evangelista had cataracts on both eyes.

"This fight is hanging by a thred anyway," said one fight official. "Everybody thinks (promotor Don) King is some kind of fraud and that the fight will never happen.

"Now people are writing that Evangelista is a blind dwarf."

A doctor, drew a walk off Satchel Paige.

Kabakoff's attire, which seemed perfectly normal, included: T-shirt under unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, two diamond pinky rings, a gold religious necklace, a money clip with photos of Burt Reynolds and Doc Severenson on either side, and a two-day growth of beard.

Kabakoff accosted Alfredo Escalera, the world champion who will fight his junior lightweight, Carlos Becerril, and crowed, "Hey, Escalera. I'll tell you how to fight my boy. Stay in a crouch. Then you won't have so far to fall."

The public crowds the fight headquarters every day creating a constant scene out of Day of The Locust. But for the fighters it is all old hat.

"When we get up to run at 4 a.m.," says Ali sparring partner Max (Bear) Smith, "people are waiting to run with Ali. They are around him all day.

"But we have to realize that the people who admire us are little people. Ali never forgets. He doesn't look down on them just because they look up to him.

"Somehow they drain his energy. He can relax completely in an instant. It's like he puts his spirit beside his body, outside him. He is the world's energy reserve champion."

In the gym Ali's training methods are conventional, yet unorthodox.

"He does what ever he feel like," says Angelo DUndee.

The stalpes of every boxer are there: heavy bags, speed bags, sparing partners, shadow boxing. Ali moves between his training stations [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the spirit moves him - three minutes on the heavy bag, four rounds of sparring, two graceful rounds of "sliding and gliding" around the ring, flicking jabs and combinations to delight the crowd of $1-a-head devotees.

"Sparring is easy," says Dundee, watching the champion pary punches, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] on the ropes and generally loaf as 215-pound Jodie Ballard wacks at Ali's arms and sides. "Working with the bags, jumping rope. Continuous movement - that's what's tough."

"I spiced his workouts with idle [WORD ILLEGIBLE] with his fans, insulting his gentle hecklers and showing off a well-worn collection of racial and sexual [WORD ILLEGIBLE] worthy of a tacky Las Vegas warmup comedian.

Evangelista, by contrast, was uniformly ignored by both public and press. His longest interview of the 10 days lasted barely five minutes. He sparred little, but worked endlessly on stamina drills and heavy body punching.

"Alfredo answers questions quickly and without thought so he will not appear stupid to Americans," said Evangelista's doctor-psychiatrist, Edward Mafaz, who aced as translator. "But a day later he will come to me and say, 'you know that question you asked me? This is what I really think.'"

"I'll try not to think about the future," said Evangelista. "I try to live in each momnet, discover how it feels that second. I know the attention I am getting now is ephemeral. I am the center of a cyclone, but that will pass soon.

"I am here to learn what my limits are. This is a chance to make money, but it is also a chance to learn about myself."

When Ali and Evangelista were together, Ali screamed repeatedly, "I shall destroy." Evangelista smiled, "I am trying to find a stillness inside myself," he said.

Friday, the pace of the boxing circus' life picked up dramatically.

"'Bout three days before the fight it always starts to get rolling," said Dundee. "The celebrities from boxing contenders like Jimmy Young to singers like Gladys Knight and the Pips, start showing up. The press from around the world arrives. Yes, and the hookers start filling up the place."

Lost in the Baghdad bazarre shuffle is Congressman Eddie Beard of Rhode Island, chairman of the "blue-collar caucus." Beard, an ex-pro middleweight wants to spar a round with Ali. He has brought his aides and a photographer. He even had his faded old ring gear in an ancient tote bag. But he got the class A runaround.

A politician is an innocent in this setting. A little double talk, some soft soap and a couple of winks behind his back and the good congressman was heading back to the Hill, his three-hour lunch a loss.

"That's funny," said an onlooker, "When Amy Carter was here, they found a way to get her sitting in Ali's lap."

Saturday afternoon. Reggae music shook the lobby of athe Sheraton. The Big Party was only hours away.

"The only people who won't be there," said Ali's sparring partner, Bear Smith, "are the fighters. We eat one meal a day and get to bed by 9 a.m."

Style was of the essence here. Wealth did not really matter. The talk was so thick with lies that few could get at the truth about anyone, or wishes to.

Even beauty was secondary. It is not what you have or how you look that mattered. It was how you carried off your act. It was pure style, pure illusion, pure acting - a congregation of folk, each saying, "I am somebody."

SUnday: the countdown has reached one.

Ali's bodyguard, Pat Patterson, was making plans. "Ali definitely attracts the nuts," said Patterson, a Chicago vice squad detective assigned by that city to protect Ali. "But Ali's so gentle with them that after two minutes they're not nuts anymore.

"My biggest problem is that Ali is too nice. Anybody can walk up to him, even in his hotel room, and waste his time, ask him for money. I can't make him lie down and rest."

The only time Patterson can get down to the thorough business of bodyguarding a "people's champion" is on fight night.

"I've had the same 10 policemen - five from Chicago and five from New Jersey - lead Ali to and from the ring for years. I could get 1,000 who would be glad to pay their way here to help, but I've got the 10 I want."

Patterson also has 20 hand-picked members of the Islamic defense group called "The Baap" who circulate in the crowd as a precautionary measure.

"There will be regular security police from the Capital Centre and maybe some Secret Service if some of the big dignitaries come," said Patterson. "But my people and Ali's people know the street. We get the word on what's coming down first. Your security is only as good as your information. It's not a matter of numbers. And our information is pretty good."

The preparations have been made, the training finished. The countdown now is in hours, not days.

Evangelista admits he is both worried and scared. But not of Ali. His wife, back in Spain, is expecting their first child before the end of the week.

"She has promised to wait to have the baby until I get back," the lattern-jawed boxer said, "but I'm afraid she will get so excited when I beat Ali that I will become world champion and a father on the same night."