It was Muhammad Ali's best fight in two years, the best since he wore out Joe Frazier the last time. It was proof undeniable of his greatness, one more piece of evidence that here is an athlete whose work we should treasure, for now, in the years of his decline, he gets by on diminishing skills and surpassing courage. The football coaches would love this guy. He plays hurt.

When the 14th round ended, Ali was standing in Earnie Shavers' corner, driven there by powerful punches from a man who has knocked out 52 opponents, 19 in the first round, 27 in a row once. Both in the 13th and 14th rounds, Shaver seemed ready to do to the heavyweight champion what he'd done to worthies named Chico Froncano had Young Agabab, both rendered senseless by Shaver's anesthetic fists.

For two or three seconds after the bell rang ending the 14th round. Ali didn't move. He stood still in Shavers' corner. His face was empty. No clowning now. No jiving. Ali's face tells a thousand stories a day and now it was telling nothing and for an instant, as Ali stood there, his face empty, it seemed he wated to quit. It was too far to walk back to his corner, 20 feet away. Too, too far, and there was yet another round of pain to go.

Then he moved. The right foot first. Slowly. The knee locked, the way it does on street corner drunks whose muscles have forgotten how to work. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, hurried toward him, splashing water from a sponge on his face, and guided him to a stool where, 45 seconds later, it was time to get up for one more round, for three more minutes of hell.

And Ali couldn't get up.

Dundee slapped the champion's thighs with his palms.

"Hey, that hurts," Ali said, and Dundee was happy to hear that. In Jimmy Ellis' corner once, Dundee slapped his man's legs and Ellis said nothing, didn't feel it, and Dundee stopped the fight.

It was time for the 15th round, and Ali couldn't rise from his stool. He raised off a couple inches and stopped. Then up some more, and his knees buckled.

"I had trouble getting his behind off the stool," Dundee said today.

For more than two minutes of that last round Shavers continued the awesome attack of the two earlier rounds. Again, a knockout seemed possible.

Then it happened. Suddenly, Ali caught Shavers with a short left. It landed with about 40 seconds to go, and Shavers went limp, out on his feet, and Ali, who walked like a street-corner bum three minutes earlier, was bombing Shavers with a series of punches that left the savage challenger stumbling blindly around the ring. Only the bell ending the fight prevented a knockout.

Forget the predictions and poems and preaching. Pay no attention to the clowning and struting. We're talking here about an athlete, not a showman, and if Ali is a con man outside the ring, he is totally honest inside it with a man he respects. He keeps back nothing, using every tool at his disposal. If his skills aren't what they once were (10 years ago, Shavers would not have touched Ali, let alone hurt him, and Ali's jab would have sliced off Shaver's ears), his competitive instinct is yet fierce.

They wonder how he does it. How does he take a fearful beating from Joe Frazier and knock him out in the 14th round? How does he dance, on his toes, moving moving, in the last round to beat Ken Norton? Twice he did that number, and he did it to Earnie Shavers this time. How?

Jimmy Ellis, who has known Ali for 20 years, says, "He's a magician. It looks to me like he's got some kind of charm, some lucky charm." Norton says, "He always musters energy from somewhere." And Norton shakes his head in wonder. Dundee says, "He's got guts."

"I always say whoever wins the last round wins the fight." Ali said at this morning's press conference. "And I always come out with strength and they say, 'Where the hell did you get it from?'"

Ali gives credit to Allah and to a need to be recognized as the world champion. The title means a "necktie" and brief case and campaigns and coffee shops," he said, apparently referring to affluence, influence and fame.

"And to think that one human being can stop that, that one bald-headed acorn could stop me from practicing my religion - oh, man, this all is involved. Just three minutes.

"Movie contracts, parties, commercials, more commercials, I can keep popping off the next day - these next three minutes? Ohhhh, man."


Maybe an athlete under stress thinks of those things. Probably not. Ali can talk forever about Allah and movie contracts, but what it comes down to is that Ali - like Billy Kilmer, like John Havlicek, like Pete Rose - simply doesn't want to lose.

Nothing mysterious there.

Ali, of course, could preach for an hour on the mystic implications of a cup of coffee. By praising Allah, by talking of fame and fortune. Ali plays his perpetual con game, leaving us smiling and laughing, none the worst for it.

The unfortunate part of it is that we tend to forget what a great athlete the man is. He once was an artist, creating unmatched beauty with every stroke, and now he is a journeyman whose skills alone do not separate him from his contemporaries. But he wins.

Like Kilmer and Havlicek and Rose, he wins because he wants it more than the next guy. Only that kind come out swinging in the last round when it means the most. Only the ones with great hearts.