Thirty-eight-year-old Muhammad Ali, his tongue in high-season form after 18 months in retirement, returned to his training camp at Deer Lake, Pa., and sparred 15 rounds yesterday with Eddie Gregory, the No. 1 light heavyweight contender.

"I'm going to be greater than great, great, great," Ali said of a projected bout in June with John Tate, the World Boxing Association champion. "I'm going to be the quadruple champion when I whip Tate and quintuple when I beat Larry Holmes (World Boxing Council titleholder) after that.

"I really boxed 17 rounds today (Tuesday)," Ali said, "because I boxed seven three-minute rounds with Gregory, then 30 minute straight without any rests; that's like 10 more rounds.

"Seventeen rounds, and I weigh 240 pounds and am 38 years old.

"Gregory's only 27 years old, but he was worn out. I'm a little tired and my ribs are a little sore because my body is not in shape. I took too many punches. So, I'm not going to do any boxing in my training for Tate.

"I know how to box. I don't need to learn that again. To save the wear and tear on my body, I'm just going to chop wood up here, run and hit the bags. Boxing is too punishing. I did this today after only a week of boxing in Santa Monica (near his Los Angeles home). I'm down from 251 already.

"I'm dancing, I'm fast. The guys here are 19 . . . 25 years old . . . they can't keep up with me. Larry Holmes is 32; he's too old. I'm an exception. I want you to warn people who don't believe I can do this, that I shouldn't do this -- they're just using the logic they've experienced. It's impossible for them to conjure what I can do with my strong faith. They don't believe.

"They made a big thing when Floyd Patterson won the title twice. I won it three times. Now I'm going to win it two more times (against Tate for the WBA title and WBC champion Holmes for the undisputed title).

"Muhammad Ali is back."

A member of Ali's entourage watched the fighter work the 15 rounds and called his performance "miraculous."

"This was the first time the champ had the gloves on in 18 months," the staff member said on the phone, referring to Ali's last bout -- Sept. 15, 1978 -- in which he regained the title from Leon Spinks. "His first day in training camp and he looked so great.

"He'll whip all over Tate."

Sparring partner Gregory figured to be near the top of his form because he will challenge Marvin Johnson for his WBA light heavyweight title March 31, on the card in Knoxville, Tenn., on which Tate will defend his WBA title against Mike Weaver.

Ali has had only four fights in the last 41 months, but promoter Bob Arum of New York City brushed off a directive by Rodrigo Sanchez of Panama, the WBA president, who insisted that Ali have a warmup bout before meeting Tate.