Waiting for Ali, strongman Ken Norton will defend a version of the world heavyweight boxing championship tonight against undefeated Larry Holmes.

The scheduled 15-rounder will be the feature event of a four-fight card to be televised nationally by ABC (WJLA-TV-7 in Washington) beginning at 8 p.m. EST. The Norton-Holmes bout is expected to start about 10 o'clock.

Norton is the World Boxing Council's champion, so declared when Leon Spinks reneged on an agreement to fight him after upsetting then-champion Muhammad Ali. The WBC withdrew recognition of Spinks, who by-passed Norton in favor of a Sept. 15 rematch with Ali.

"I want Ali," Norton said here this week. Presumably, his crystal ball says Ali will beat Spinks this time.

"When I beat Norton, Ali's next," said Holmes, adding almost as an afterthought, ". . . or Spinks."

Whether or not the promoters can sell Norton-Holmes as a "heavyweight championship" fight on the flimsy foundation of a ruling by an obscure organization, it yet promises to be good theater. These are two of the five or six best heavyweights available, and their styles promise action.

Holmes is a boxer, Norton a puncher. Where Holmes will try cuteness, Norton bangs away. In 27 fights, Holmes has scored 19 knockouts, but experts say he is not a big hitter. In the fashion of the young Ali, Holmes scores knockouts with accumulative punches.

"I will box Norton, box him, box him," Holmes said yesterday afternoon at a noon weigh-in in the Caesar's Palace Sports Pavilion, the fight site. "I don't try to knock anybody out, I just keep hitting 'em."

Now 29 years old, Holmes built his perfect record in relative privacy. No fighters of merit wanted to tangle with the tall (6-foot-4), strong (209 pounds) dancing fighter who once was Ali's sparring partner.

Holmes finally arrived in public view grandly. On national television 10 weeks ago, he befuddled once-fear-some Earnie Shavers, taking a unanimous decision over the man who lost to Ali only in a 15-round war.

When Spinks jilted Norton, pormoter Don King seized the moment to make the Norton-Holmes fight. For Norton, it will end a seven-month layoff following a hard-earned 15-round decision over Jimmy Young, like Holmes a polished boxer.

Of 44 fights, Norton has won 40. At 32, 6-foot-3 and 220, he is Holmes' physical match. Unlike Holmes, who moves nicely, Norton plods. He plants his right foot nearly perpendicular with his line of movement, making his advances awkward. Against Norton, a left hook is priceless - if you get a chance to throw it. Norton has knocked out 32 men, 21 in the first five rounds.

Norton doesn't seek punishment. If Norton sees Holmes can't hurt him, he'll turn into a tiger. That's why Norton fared so well in three fights with the aging Ali, whose firepower frightens no one these days.

So experts believe Holmes' should force the action. He must stay in Norton's face, beating the WBC's champion to the punch. Norton will work Holmes much as he did Ali, pursuing relentlessly until forcing him against the ropes. Then come the bombs.

These fighters have worked up some anger. When Holmes came to work out one day this week. Norton hadn't yet left the building. Holmes did what one observer called "hisAli staring act." The target was Norton, who said to Holmes, "You got a problem?"

"Yeah," Holmes said. "You." At which point, Holmes put his hands on Norton, a no-no in the boxing world, and pushed him. Norton later said, "I made a fist and was going after him." But people kept the fighters apart.

In the other TV fights tonight, WBC bantamweight champion Carlos Zarate will defend against Emilio Hernandez; Young meets Osvaldo Ocasio, and Alfredo Evangelista, the European heavyweight champion, will take on Jodie Ballard.