Muhammad Ali rattled Sonny Liston's mind with weigh-in hysteria. For George Foreman, Ali unveiled rope-a-dope. In perhaps the final act of a career now more sad than heroic, Ali might well consider how Leon Spinks recoils at such items and decorates his head and chest with traffic signs.

If he is fit and keeps his wits, Spinks will embarras Ali. But that remains in doubt, because what we have is a champion undergoing on-the-job training, a man uncomfortable, both inside and outside the ring, with his sudden and partly-accidental assension.

The loud and near-constant beat to which the non-paper, or World Boxing Association, champ dances invites him to, "Boogie 'till you can't boogie no more." It goes quiet only when Sprinks is inside the ring preparing for his ninth professional fight.

Spinks insists he needs to spar, than rarely spars. When the music stops, Spinks listens to the man he hired to teach him technique before his victory over Ali seven months ago in Las Vegas, George Benton.

"I knew Ali very well and there's thing in Ali's style that Spinks could overcome," Benton said. "When he rope-a-dopes, I told Leon to beat him on the arms. When he lays against the ropes, I told Leon to hit him in the ribs and on the hip bone.

"I told him not to let Ali rest. By the 11th or 12th round, we should see some results. Leon's a strong kid with a big heart. That was in his favor, plus Ali is not the fighter he was a few years back.

"This should be a carbon copy of the last fight. Except I think you can look for Ali to do more in the early rounds. But age (Ali will be 37 in four months) is not going to allow Ali to do anything as often or as long as he did before."

Even Ali's mouth has slowed dramatically, although he, more than the champion, is assuming most of the promotional burden for Friday's match. If anyone wanted the perfect contrast for the mouthy Ali, he would grab Leon Spinx.

Nearly every other athlete in every other sport would lose a verbal bout with Ali. And rather than expose his dreadful way with words Spinks avoids interviews whenever possible, especially with the mass of reporters Ali once worked to attract.

Still, in his own fashion, Spinks manages, to make some points.

"I just want to go out and hold onto what I have," he says. "If I don't do it, I don't. If I do it, I do. I like Ali. We're both crazy."

How could he surprise Ali?

"Same way I surprised him the first time."

His reaction to the names Ali called him?

"They're no worse than anyone else has called me."

Ali has criticized Spinks for "dancing too much." In fact, that is excellent exercise, and Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, admits, "Spinks is in great shape. But his body's kinda built funy. He has very small hands and wrists and huge arms. He's built more like a track runner.

"But this is what's gonna lick Spinks," Dundee added, his finger tapping his temple. "The old noodle will be the key. Muhammad will fight a smart, calculating fight. He's up. He wants to win the title a third time, 'cause nobody else has done it.

"If a guy like Spinks can overcome his best effort, it'll be a helluva fight.

So many Ali watchers believe his last burst of extended grace and stamina was in Manila against Joe Frazier nearly three years ago, that in fact Spinks can work a form of rope-a-dope on Ali without fear of anything resembling a knockout punch.

Indeed, that Spinks became heavyweight champion on a split decision after so little pro experience tells us less about his talents than it does about the decline of Ali. The only mystery here is whether the cunning, instincts and bravado of a proud man too long in the ring can defeat a youngster with some promise.

But the sporting world cares deeply.

Because Ali is so glib, or at least by the usual athletic standards, Spinks appears even more of a mental lightweight than he is. Dundee offers an example of Ali as art connoisseur.

"We'd been in England and he bought a painting for $1,500," he said. "We'd stashed it up front in a 747 on the way home. It was a helluva buy, and I noticed it up at camp. He'd just run a rail through it and into the wall."