Muhammad Ali is still the champion of the one heavyweight division that matters most - money. Even in what might be called the Johnny Unitas phase of his career, where he plods on despite being an embarrassment to himself and others who care deeply about him, Ali remains the pivotal figure in boxing.

Leon Spinks took his title away not quite a monthago - and ever since has been trying to evade what seems to be held validcontract with the fellow more than a few neutral witnesses have regarded as the heavyweight champion since Sept. 28, 1976, Ken Norton.

That night in Yankee Stadium everyone but the man who counted - the judges - saw Norton beat Ali - and Ali managed to duck Norton from then on. Now Spinks, who seemed to beat Ali less convincingly - but before less timid judges - is giving Norton the out-of-ring Ali shuffle.

All of this leaves a remarkably foul odor, the clear conviction that the authorities in boxing are as powerful as willows in the wind. The only person with any dignity here is Norton, who tried to stop the Spinks slink by accepting a paltry $200,000 for a title shot.

Spinks, or at least the hustlers plotting his every move, said no - and that is surprising because Norton does not seem the sort of fighter anyone with more than average ability and confidence should be ducking.

Norton's performances against Ali, is says here, were more an indication of how far a once-exquisite talent had fallen rather than the ascent of a powerful new star. Unitas made some mediocre pass defenses seem superior in his decline.

If Spinks is allowed to break his $1 million contract with Norton for a $5 million bonanza against Ali, it will be an outrage. But who has the discipline not to pay decent money to watch an Ali-Spinks rematch on the only medium that outslugs television - closed-circuit television?

And who can blame Spinks for trying? Contracts are easier to break than Twinkies these days. If third basemen and linebackers can renegotiate contracts, if coaches can jump long-term agreements for greener courts and stadiums, the heavyweight champion seems entitled to repeat the greed creed: I want mine - now.

The man in control of Spinks, Bob Arum of Top Rank, has gone to special pains to assure $14 million for an Ali rematch. He did the predictable country-that-needs-recognition-as-host number - until assorted black groups made it clear they could not stomach Bophuthatswana let along prounounce it.

When last seen, the match was being set for Mauritius, an independent island nation in the Indian Ocean and presumably beyond reach of the World Boxing Council.

In all of this fuss, perhaps atheltics is ready for an agency called Rent A Country, which would book nations for aging and slippery fighters on the lam and attractions such as the World Cup, Olympics and the Super Bowl.

Arum at this very moment might be trying to create a new nation for his latest hustle, some out-of-the way acreage dredged from the sea and supported by closed-circuit television money that would go under as soon as Ali and Spinks left the ring.

And there are just enough doubters, those who insist Ali's defeat was an Ali setup, to make a rematch with Spinks attract every cent Arum commands.