The rube from the city wanted to see the mongoose that John Tate brought back from South Africa.

He bent over the wooden box covered with wire screen and suddenly a bushy bit of fur brushed his face as his senses were discombobulated by an accompanying loud crack as the lid slammed shut.

If his life didn't quite flash before him, visions of a series of rabies shots did before laughter restored his poise. The box was empty. A raccoon tail was attached to the back of the lid, which a camp comic slammed closed at the right moment.

If Charles Dickens had given title to the heavyweight champion's squeaky-clean sweatshop it would have been "The New Curiosity Shop."

Very few boxing gyms have case upon case of assorted brands of beer to tempt a fellow with a weight problem, trying to get down from 257 to 235, which Tate has managed with noble restraint.

The diet hucksters rarely offer options such as fried catfish, fried potato cakes and beakers of syrupy iced tea.

Maybe another trap was being set for the know-it-all visitors from the other side of the Appalachian mountains, because Tate's closest approach to self-torture in getting ready for Monday's confrontation with the classic musculature of challenger Mike Weaver was an exercise in which he punched at stationary targets.

After the fashion of Latin American managers, Ace Miller wore sort of miniature catchers' mitts to absorb the high hard ones delivered by 6-foot-4 Tate as he towered over 5-foot-5 potbellied Miller.

Miller disclosed that he prepared Tate for 11 weeks the same way before his losing Olympic bout with Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba, "because there were no sparring partners to be had."

Yet, here is Tate unbeaten in 20 professional bouts and the symbolic conqueror of apartheid with his eliminations from the World Boxing Association tournament of Gerrie Coetzee and Kallie Knoetze (the latter demolished Leon Spinks, a previous winner over Muhammad Ali.).

Does Tate lull spies with his nonviolent demonstrations in the gym, as Ali distends his gut in the manner of a blowfish when he sees a camera cocked? No, longtime observers of Tate say; he runs 10 miles in the mornings, works out in the afternoons -- and again in the evenings. They insist he could fight 30 rounds without tiring, a wellspring of stamina at age 27.

There are so many weapons about the duplex health club and rec room that Tate was asked if he would take a gun to the intimidating-looking Weaver. "Not unless he gets naughty," Tate said.

In the exercise room were a shotgun and a rifle with telescopic sight that a camp hand said could bring down an elephant. In the trophy room were a war drum, an African spear and shield covered with an animal hide, a surgically precise pelt of a zebra on the wall, six shotguns in a case, three others on a table, plus three handguns.

A book on a table was in keeping with the motif -- "The Colt Heritage." A Con Hunley album topped a foothill of records. A blown-up book cover of "Elvis" adorned a wall.

He also has a thing about Stetsons. There are several unopened hat boxes.

He bought some gold -- "very little" -- in Africa, one hat with a band of snakeskin, with the rattler still attached.

For all his arsenal he is among the mildest of men and his obsession with 10-gallon headpieces recalled the Texan who was "all hat with no cattle."

Ali says Tate is "big and slow, with no punch or hand speed. He ain't nothing; I want him bad."

In view of Ali's opinion of him, Tate wears a T-shirt bearing the image of Mickey Mouse. In contrast, opponent Weaver has a tank shirt inscribed, "I'm Gonna Win March 31, WBA Title Fight."

A bull mastiff from South Africa has the run of Tate's gym. But even the dog has the sad-eyed, wrinkled expression of a hound, rather than that of a pit fighter.

Tate slays with kindness interviewers who want to let blood. "I see no reason to feel tense or nervous," he says. "I have no pressure on me like the racial atmosphere in Africa.

"Ali is no threat; he doesn't intimidate me; he'd make a mistake to come out of retirement. Ali would be like Joe Louis late in his career coming back against Rocky Marciano; the old man against the young one.

"I'm not saying I'd go in there and run all over Ali, but if I beat him I'd be at a point in life where I could demand more money. You know -- when E.F. Huttton talks, everybody listens.Because he was the legend. He already has had his lip torn, and a lot of people said, 'Oh!' But if I don't beat Weaver, I don't get Ali. I'm thinking of Weaver."

Did the raps at his skills irritate Tate?

"They don't bother me, because I'm not 20 or 21 anymore; I'm 27. I just hope I keep on beating people, and maybe they'll write something nice about me for a change. When Ali first talked a lot in the 1960s, people didn't like him. But when he kept winning, they did.

"People may come to say about me, 'Tate may be slow, but he gets the job done.'

"Now, people are saying Larry Holmes is getting old. They say Ali is old and can't win. Earnie Shavers and Ken Norton are getting out. If a fighter finds he is not getting better, he should get out. If I got to walking on my toes, I'd get out.

"Having me, Mike Dokes and Greg Page coming up is good. Ali's case is planned publicity. I don't know whether he is broke or not; I heard he gave away half of his money.

"Three years ago I didn't like to do interviews. I got taunted, but I didn't respond.Sometimes it was hard, damn hard. I'm just an ol' country boy who is very fortunate to have people help me develop boxing talent. One of the guys who tried to get me mad wrote the best story about me."