Do I look like I'm ready to retire?" crowed the new half-champion of heavyweight boxing. "Can you believe I'm almost 37? I was in training three months before any of you knew it. I had it all set up for you, for all you suckers."

It is dutifully acknowledged here that a supreme effort by Muhammad Ali is more than enough to embarrass a man in his ninth pro fight, especially one whose handlets entered the arena without their fighter's protective cup and then alienated the only mind in their corner minutes before the fight.

George Benton is the part-time tactician who planned the strategy Lwon Spinks used to win the title from Ali seven months ago. Over the objections of jealous trainer Sam Solomon, Benton was brought in for the rematch.

Incredibly, Benton turned his heels as the champ was gettin an "ex" jabbed in front of his title, in fact walked right from Spinks' corner and out of the Superdome as the bell was sounding for round six. This is why.

"About five minutes before we're to leave the dressing room for the ring," Benton said, "he (Solomon) comes up and says, 'Here's how we're gonna handle things. You'll go up (to advise Spinks) one round, (brother) Mike will go up one round.'

"I told Sam he had to be jokin' - and then I said the hell with it. But a guy from Top Rank (Chet Cummings) told me I couldn't let Leon not see me in his corner. So I went along.

"I got up one round. I think it was the third, when I saw him doing nothing. Then I went up the next round to try and tell him something, but everybody was talking from all angles. I couldn't get a word in edgewise.

"Fact is one guy's telling the fighter to shake 'n boggie 'n wiggle-wiggle. Stuff like that. I still don't know what wiggle-wiggle meant. Once one of the commissioners jumped up and said he was gonna fine us for too many men in the corner (three are allowed, but at least six seemed to be screaming at Spinks).

"I just couldn't stay and be subjected to a circus like that. Ali did exactly what I thought. I knew Ali couldn't win the fight, but I also knew our guy could lose it. I felt like I was seeing a friend die and unalbe to do anything ablut it, 'cause they wouldn't let me do anythng about it."

Spinks trained to disco music, but the only beat he heard Friday night was the one Ali was tapping on his head. It was more a clinic than a fight, the sort of match even a pacifist could tolerate because Ali's punches have not been evil for three years and Spinks rarely landed a blow let alone anything telling.

"Walked into another punch, Leon," one ringside cynic yelled during the seventh round.

"Ali's pitching a shutout," said another.

While Spinks fiddled, Benton burned.

"It don't take much to beat Ali, if you're young and strong apply pressure," Benton said later. "He's not a puncher. you gotta get inside, but he (Spinks) stayed outside, getting raked. He was outside when he should have been close, like the first fight, when he was close all the time.

"But Ali can take a punch. I knew Leon would have to have a hammer to knock him out. But he was throwing spitballs, so to speak. He was throwing shots with nothing on 'em. I kept waiting for him to build a little fire, but nothing ever came."

Later, Spinks said of Benton: "Maybe he turned indian giver and went somewhere else. That's on him." A moment before he admitted: "My mind was not on the fight . . . Maybe it was because I've had a lot of things on my mind, a lot of problems. Who knows? I don't know myself."

One of the problems was someone causing friction betweeen Spinks and brother Michael, which had reduced Leon to tears during a workout a week before the fight. At ringside during the victory over Ali. Benton had Spinks' ear to himself. But Friday night it was strategy by committee, with the wisdom of Solomon contributing, mightily to the defeat.

In his room two hours after the fight, Benton spoke at length to five reporters, saying near the end of the conversation: "I'm cool now. I took my walk. I don't know anybody else that ever did anything like it."

Benton was cool enough to speak of Ali and his "mystic moon," the unseen hand that brings uncommon good gortune so often.

"If he were just a mortal, it wouldn't matter," Benton said, smiling. "But he's so protected.It's amazing how things work out, like clockwork, like he's God or something.

"Who would have thought a prize fighter would be recognized like a king, or some president. One fighter - and he's known in Russia and China."

The problem with Solomon, Benton volunteered, "is he acts like he's scared of the fighter. Or scared of his position. You've got to control your fighter, or he don't respect you.

"Spinks has got potential. He's got all the heart in the world. But he's got nobody to give him moral support, nobody to give him an education in the boxing ways. He's got nothing going for him."

Ali went in the fight Friday night without the WBC an WBA versions of the title, and won back the WBA half. Within eight months, he will make a decision about retirement. Benton and many others do not need a mystic moon to see Ali fighting WBC champ Larry Holmes, his former sparring partner.

"Ain't no way he won't fight Holmes," Benton said. "How can you turn down big bucks like that'll bring. But there'll be no mystic moon that night. I think Holmes'll win - and he'll hurt Ali."