Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali went on national television yesterday to appeal for a rematch with Leon Spinks, who beat him 17 days ago for the heavyweight boxing crown.

"I'm truly the No. 1 contender in the eyes of the world," declared Ali. "I'm deserving. The world is waiting for it. It's tradition - the first defense goes against the ex-champion. Leon Spinks should fight me."

Ali made his statement at a news conference that was televised as part of the CBS Sports Spectacular.

"There's been a lot of talk going on about who Leon Spinks, the new champion, should defend his title against, myself or Ken Norton," said Ali, beginning the new conference with a prepared statement.

"I'm not asking them to do more than I did myself," said Ali. "I fought Sonny Liston and immediately gave him a rematch to prove it was no fluke. It's only fair to give him a chance, since he gave me the chance. Leon Spinks should do the same.

"Mr. Ken Norton says he deserves the first shot, but I'm truly the No. 1 contender in the eyes of the people of the world. My mail is 10 to 1 in favor of Leon Spinks and myself getting together again.

"Mr. Norton is crying, saying he's being deprived. Twice my title was taken away unjustly. I didn't complain. So why is Ken Norton complaining? Who is more deserving of a shot at the world championship - Ken Norton or Muhammad Ali"

Top Rank promoter Bob Arum and Norton's manager, Bob Biron, were scheduled to complete negotiations for a Spinks-Norton bout in May at a meeting in San Diego Tuesday.

Spinks, 24, won title in his eighth pro Feb. 15. If he fights Norton in May Spinks will receive slightly more than $1 million. Spinks would split a $10 million purse if Ali is his opponent in May and then get close to $4 million if he wins and fights Norton in September.

Arum has a $1.55 million contract with CBS-TV for Spinks' first title defence in May if his opponent is anyone but Ali. Arum had offered Norton $200.000 for the fight to comply with a World Boxing Council ruling that the top-ranked Norton be given first shot at Spinks' title. Arum had hoped Norton would turn down the offer and clear the way for the Ali-Spinks rematch. For stepping aside, Norton would be offered $500,000 to fight another contender and then an additional $500,000 or more to meet Spinks, if he won, in the fall.

But Norton, anxious for another chance at the championship after losing two previous bids against George Foreman and Ali, accepted the $200,000 offer. If Spinks fights Norton in May, Ali will have to wait until the fall, or possibly even next year, to fight the winner.

"I don't know whether anything has been signed," said Ali. "I don't know about that. All I know is that I am the No. 1 contender in the eyes of the world."

Before the news conference, there had been speculation that Ali might call an end to his career. The New York Times, in yesterday's editions, said Ali would announce his retirement before the national television audience.

When asked about this, Ali said, "I've retired twice and unretired the next day. Don't say nothing until you hear from me."

Ali said he was setting no time limit for a rematch with Spinks.

"It's up to the people," he said. "I'm relying on all I've done for boxing to get back in. I know that. Everything that has happened, the television and the big purses, is because of me.

"I'm deserving. The world is waaiting for it."

Ali concluded by discussing the posibility of becoming the first person ever win the heavyweight championship three times.

"To win the title back for the third time," he said, "I'd be leaving with a record thatwould never be broken."