It took a strike of nearly two weeks this month for teachers here to get a 7 percent pay raise. Now a doctoral degree and five years experience yields a princely $14,098 a year. Tonight, two mediocre fighters will get a total of $6.5 million to scramble each other's mind in the Superdome. The American way of life charges forward.

Muhammad Ali left his skills in Manila three years ago, yet he remains the dominant athletic figure in the world. His ability to rise to a specific challenge - this time to become the first man to win the heavyweight championship three times - should not be taken lightly.

But the view here is that Leon Spinks will win. And I hope he does - by whatever margin it takes to get Ali out of the ring forever. After 50 pro fights in 18 years, it is a dangerous place for him.

Those of us with affection for Ali, who realize his enormous impact on all of sport for a generation, hope with a passion he was serious with that Wednesday "promise" to retire, regardless of his fate tonight.

We have heard that too often before. Victory might well tempt him right WBC champ Larry Holmes, and a loss would have him eager to win back the title a fourth time. ("Imagine," we can hear him say, "me, the prettiest and the greatest, goin' for four when nobody ever before even got three.")

Probably, Ali will leave only after somebody knocks him senseless. And although he hardly is a fighter of distinction, Spinks might as well be the man. Why this match attracts record financial numbers is a mystery.

Ali and Spinks training there gave ancient Municipal Auditorium another unique niche. Chiseled about the room are Schubert and Chaucer, Mozart, Tolstoi and Haydn. On stage, either the incessant disco of Spinks or the favorite melodies of Ali - his own voice - invaded the ears this week.

The contrasts were everywhere, from the heckler Ali dismissed with a story but who clearly rattled Spinks, to the absolute crush of bodies during a meaningless weigh-in yesterday.

The Ali retirement theme is working well. The other day a man gave trainer Angelo Dundee a gift for Ali. It was a remarkable likeness of Ali words "The Greatest," "Muhammed Ali" and "3-Time Champ" painted on each of three sides.

"Somebody wanted to give us a cockatoo," Dundee said. "In Zaire, somebody wanted to give him a lion. Somewhere else, it was a dog."

And the Ali entourage is larger than ever.

"At the workout the other day," Dundee said, "a guy I've never seen before backs into me and tells me he's with Ali. I asked him if he'd mind if I had a decent view of things."

The Spinks workouts fairly crackle with tension whenever trainer Sam Solomon and technical adviser George Benton get together, although Spinks insists; "I pay Sam Solomon and I pay George Bentom. They go along with what I want or they go home."

The Spinks workouts had at least one oddly numerous moment, when Benton was seen from afar gesturing in such a manner as to be saying to the nonpaper heavyweight champion of the world: "This . . . is . . . a . . . Jab."

Spinks was seen qualified to fight Ali Feb. 15 in his eight pro fight, after a draw with Scott LeDoux and a decision over Alfio Rightetti. He won a split decision in a city, Las Vegas, whose judges rate the number of punches more highly than the sort of subjective matters that would tend to favor Ali.

Those same breaks may not be in Spinks' favor here.

"But he's much more relaxed than before," said one of his sparring partners, Leroy Diggs. "The first time, there was much more pressure. Now he knows more about the people, everyone involved in all of this."

Presumably, Ali will come out with early desperation, realizing that the longer Spinks remains on his feet the better his chances of victory. But Ali never had a fearsom knockout punch.

Spinks said one of his concerns was overtraining, adding: "You never know if you're ready for 15 rounds. It's like waitin' for Christmas in July."

The fight is being billed as "The Battle of New Orleans" and for one of the few times ever the masters of publicity overkill managed an appropriate title. But not for the reasons they believe.

The real-world battle of New Orleans also was a mindless affair, fought two weeks after the War of 1812 officially ended. This one also promises to be sad.