Jimmy Ellis once asked Muhammad Ali how he could believe that Muslim stuff. Did Ali really believe, as he said he did, that a spaceship circled the world and would haul in all good Muslims come the final day? And Ali said to Ellis: That's a silly question coming from somebody who believes a man, buried three days, flew to heaven with angels. After that, Ellis and Ali never talked about religion again.

No one knows if Ali has any friends. Admirers and isolaters, syncophants and hangers-on - he has them all; indeed, he needs them all, for their presence is certification of his greatness and that, more than anything, more than the money, keeps him in the ring. But when you ask around and look for Ali's friends and say you wonder who he talks to when he's not doing The Act, no one knows. Maybe Jimmy Ellis, they say. Ellis and Ali grew aup together, they say. Try Jimmy, he's a good guy.

Ellis sings in the choir at his Baptist church in Louisville and he has five kids and he has been an honest fighter for almost 20 years, good enough to be a middleweight contender and, with Ali in exile, good enough to win a tournmaent for the heavyweight championship. He's 36 now and hasn't had a fight in two years and probably is done. It's safer, and a guy makes more money, working as Ali's sparring partner.

You may have read about Ellis the other day. The wire services put out a story from Ali's training camp that Ellis had knocked the champion down, not once but twice. And Ali's neck was said to be injured.

Only innocents in Dubuque believed the story's insistence that Ellis truly decked Ali, that it as not another of Ali's ticket-selling stunts. For cynics, proof of the story's illegitimacy came in the report that Ellis had done the samage with an uppercut. The uppercut happens to be the only potent weapon owned by Ali's championship opponent Thursday night. Earnie Shavers.

They talked that one time, at the dinner table, about the eternally circling spaceship. Ellis says, and other than that, it's only business, him and the champ. It's been a curious connection. Ali and Ellis, for as brash and bizarre as the one is, the other is quiet and simple and decent.

When Ellis was going broke in Louisville, getting no fights and laying sidewalks to feed his family. Ali made him part of his entourage, paying him to spar. Then when Ali was forced to give up the championship by people who didn't like his refusal to go into the Army, Ellis became the champion.

In his second title defense, Ellis was knocked out in the fourth round by Joe Frazier. For a while after that, Ellis was a contender, even los ing on a 12th-round knockout by Ali. Now, a shell of a fighter he once was, Ellis is back sparring with Ali.

Ali can be mercilessly cruel and extraordinarily kind. Ellis was nobody in 1966. So whenever a contender shouted for a fight with the champion, Ali said: Fight Jimmy Ellis first, then we'll see. A fighter named Johnny Persol did just that - and Ellis knocked him out in the first round, a victory that a year later earned Ellis a spot in the tournament for Ali's championship.

In Ellis' decline, Ali has always been there to help. He agreed last month to endorse a soft drink if the company gave Ellis a franchise in Louisville, and he pays Ellis about $1,000 a week for sparring.

"I hit him with some good shots," Ellis said today when someone asked if he really knocked Ali down.

Shots good enough to knock the heavyweight champion off his feet?

Ellis smiled, "I don't know what happened in his mind."

Come on, Jimmy. In camp, you're wearing pillows for gloves and he's wearing headgear.

"I just throw the shots," Ellis said, "and if he goes down, I don't know why."

Earnie Shavers has knocked out 52 men.One of them was Jimmy Ellis, who went out in the first round four years ago.

"I had him with his eyes glazed and I jumped on him," Ellis said. "I had him - and I'm the one that got knocked out. I don't go down easy and he came in with one punch that did it. The uppercut."

So Shavers has a chance against Ali?

"Every heavyweight has a chance. Shavers is a deadly puncher. He's a threat every second."

Will Ali try to keep a safe distance from Shavers early?

"I don't think Ali will stay away. He'll go after Shavers. Ali is a much better puncher now than what he was in the past. He stands still more and throws punches. But Shavers can be dangerous the first five, six rounds."

Not that Ellis thinks Shavers is capable of knocking out the champion.

"Ali can take a punch. George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton - all the hard punches, he stayed with them."

For Ellis, the end has come. He'll sell the soft drink and he'll spar and he'll rasse his children. When will his old rival retire?

"He won't get beat by these - but he might get beat by time."

Ellis doesn't want that to happen.

"I'd like to see him retire while he still holds the championship. No black heavyweight champion ever retired without getting beat out of the title."

Some people believe Ali will quit only if he's embarrassed in that ring, that he'll keep on going until somebody knocks him out.

"I hope not, I hope not," Ellis said.