A thimble is container enough to haul away all the common sense here. This is a city built on wishful thinking. Alas, Earnie Shavers has been infected. He believes he can beat Larry Holmes because he no longer is eating linguini. Really.

Earnie Shavers is as decent a fellow as ever knocked out 56 men bold enough to fight him for money. He has his original wife, five daughters and such a sweet nature he is forced every morning to shave his head in hopes of passing for ferocious.

Of the ebony dome, Shavers once said, "I had to do something to be noticed. We all look alike, you know." The line was delivered with a smile. He comes to the world with no bitterness, this son of an Alabama sharecropper who worked picking cotton, putting out fires and putting cars together on an assembly line before, at 23, he tried boxing.

He knocked out 19 fighters in the first round. Strong men grew faint at the sound of Earnie Shavers' name. Only Muhammad Ali, the greatest, dared risk a reputation against the dreadnought. Shavers is 6 feet tall, weighs 210 pounds and has arms carved by Michelangelo.

Against Ali, Shavers fought the fight of his life. This was two years ago. Brave but no fool, Ali figured Shavers was a sprinter (he had gone more than six rounds only seven times in 60 fights) who, at 33, was sprinting against the wind.

But come the 15th round, Shavers was there. It was a grand round. Two strong and brave men brought all their resources to three minutes of war. Shavers seemed to have Ali unconscious. Then Ali rallied to stagger Shavers. By winning that round, Ali kept his championship.

The Ali fight made Shavers a force in the heavyweight division. It led directly to a fight with a rising young contender named Larry Holmes, another son of the dirt-poor South who was so good -- 27 victories without a defeat -- that the fighters with names wanted nothing more than to put great distances between themselves and the kid.

Holmes beat Shavers easily. In 12 rounds, only one judge said Shavers won a single round. Whatever Shavers took into that 15th round with Ali, he left there; that was the experts' judgment. Shavers was done for good.

Holmes won a part of the heavyweight championship -- the World Boxing Council version -- by beating Ken Norton in his next fight. A lot of people who like Shavers wondered why the nice guy kept going.Why, they asked, did he want to fight Ken Norton a year after being embarrassed by Holmes? Norton would send Shavers to humiliating retirement.

It took Shavers 1 minute 2 seconds to knock out Norton. So much for retirement.

And now we have Holmes-Shavers again. They meet Friday night on ABC-TV for Holmes' part of the championship. A knockout of Norton is no big deal, for Norton spent a career in apprehension created by the idea someone might hit him hard on the nose. At 35, Shavers is still strong enough to do that. But why, the question now is, should any wishful thinker believe Shavers can beat a guy he couldn't even touch 18 months ago?

Shavers says he can win because he no longer is eating pasta and linguini, pizza and Big Macs.

He is serious. He believes he was in poor physical condition for the first Holmes fight. He says it was the fault of his manager the, Blackie Gennaro. "Blackie wouldn't go for a nickel," Shavers said today. "El Cheapo. He said, 'Ernie, I'll do anything for you, so long as it's free.'"

Shavers said Gennaro spent only $8,000 for 4 1/2 weeks of training. This time, with a new manager, Frankie Luca, Shavers says he has been in training for nine weeks at a cost of $40,000.

"In Blackie's camp," said Shavers' sparring partner, John Giroski, "I lost 10 pounds. Here, I've gained 20. Thank God, we ran out of them coupons for Big Macs."

"I'm eating good food this time," Shavers said. "I'm ready this time," Shavers said. Physically I'm ready and mentally I'm ready. A new ball game."

Students of wishful thinking will recognize in Shavers' words the familiar litany of a fighter getting a second chance against the man who beat him badly the first time. It's never a matter of ability that made the difference, it's always an outside force that can be controlled the next time. If he lost eating pasta, naturally he can win eating steak.

No he can't. Holmes is too young, too strong, too fast, too tall and too good for Shavers. As he did the last time, Holmes will keep a jab attached to Savers' lip. Holmes will move freely around the ring, Ali-like, consistently out of reach of the slower, shorter Shavers.

Throw out Holmes' last bout, a stinker against a youngster named Mike Weaver. Holmes wasn't interested then; after Shavers and Norton, the anonymous Weaver stirred Holmes to genuine action only in the last two rounds of a 12-round fight. Then, also Ali-like, Holmes did what he needed to win, nearly knocking out Weaver in the 11th.

Holmes knows better than to lose interest against Shavers. One punch and it could be over.

"He was cocky then," Shavers said, speaking of the first time he ever say Holmes, back in 1973, "but he's much more cocky now."

Holmes has good reason for confidence. At 29, he is at his physical peak. He is undefeated in 31 fights. He will be paid $2.5 million for going against a man he beat with astonishing ease 18 months ago (Shavers gets $300,000).

The first thing you see at the baggage claim area of the Las Vegas airport is a man wearing a Playboy bunny outfit.

He says his name is Strawberry.

He wears Playboy bunny ears and has a bunny tail. At the bottom of his hairy legs, he wears roller skates. He carries a tambourine and a tiny tin trumpet. He uses them when he sings to passers-by. He says his job is to deliver singing telegrams to the arriving wishful thinkers.

"Who," someone asked Strawberry, "is going to win the Holmes-Shavers fight?"

"Don't you think Shavers ought to wear my wig?" Strawberry said. He shook the red tresses that hung down past his whiskers.