Jersey Joe Walcott said "There is no question he could do it." Floyd Patterson said "I don't see how." Ken Norton said "I was shocked."

Muhammad Ali, 38 and overweight, has stepped back into the boxing ring, vowing to make the world heavyweight crown his once again. Can he?

Reactions from past champions, old ring foes and others generally was, "No." Nevertheless, such is the mystique surrounding Ali that many ended up saying, "maybe."

Walcott, as much as anyone, should be able to offer an expert opinion: he won the heavyweight title when he was 37. Jersey Joe is 66 now and the New Jersey state commissioner of boxing.

"the big question depends on what he did in the early part of his life," Walcott said, "and what he has done in the last 1 1/2 years. If he has walked three or four miles a day about three times a week, yes, he could fight again if he takes it real serious and cuts out everything else.

"There is no question he could do it, but I hope he stays retired because he was such an idol, an example to the youth of America. They look up to him.

"Personally, if he feels he can do it, that's 90 percent of the battle, with his skills. It's a question of how serious he is about the fight; not the money.

"I'd license him in New Jersey. I know from experience that a lot of people thought I couldn't do it, either. I say he can do it, knowing there is a God and the He will answer prayers.

"I had five chances at the title before I won it from Ezzard Charles," Walcott said. "i started boxing when I was 9 years old and I would have still been out there trying for the title if I had won it when I was 37, because I just knew I could, no matter what people thought. In fact, I feel wonderful now at 66."

Norton, who decisioned Ali in one of three bouts and broke his jaw, said: "He got the broken jaw when he was slack about training," Norton commented. "He has accomplished so much, all he can do is tear it down. The risk is too great, physically and to his reputation. A comeback couldn't enhance it.

"Could he be hurt? That's a very good possibility from some kid who is fast and full of vim.

"But anything can happen," Norton added, "he's so versatile. If the body is young, there are lots of things you can do.

"I was shocked when I heard he was coming back. I couldn't believe it. He has to feed his ego.

'The money? It's no good if you can't spend it or enjoy it. Right now, he's an individual who can do a lot of things -- speak, make appearances for blacks and kids -- and everybody has a good taste of Ali in his mouth."

Patterson, who won the title a second time when he was 21, said Ali "talks up something and then tries to live up to it, a psychological thing.

"But this time it's a physical thing, too. If he had taken care of himself better in his younger days . . . but he never liked training. I don't see how he can do it."

Patterson, 45, a New York state athletic commissioner, said he would have no objection to licensing Ali to fight again, "if he trained, was in good boxing condition and could pass the physical test."

Then Patterson added: "He has done some extraordinary things. Now he's talking about the impossible. He might do it. I wouldn't be surprised."

Ali's scenario is to first fight new World Boxing Association champion Mike Weaver. World Boxing Council champ Larry Holmes would come next if Ali wins.

Holmes said Ali "may just be blowing smoke" about fighting again.

"He's too fat and overweight. He's been out of boxing for more than a year. If the money's good, I think he will fight, but it will be a sad day for boxing because he's going to get hurt."

Don King, who is promoting Holmes' fights, agreed.

"I love him. He's the reason I am where I am," King said. "But he shouldn't fight. I wouldn't want to see him hurt or ridiculed. He's been a phenomenal athlete, but he'd be chancing his health.

"As a promoter, a businessman, I'd welcome him. But he's fighting Father Time and trying to fool Mother Nature. Nobody beats Father time. Methuselah lived to be 999 years old but he couldn't beat Father Time."

"His reflexes have deteriorated," said Chuck Wepner, one of four opponents to have knocked Ali to the canvas. 'It's a shame he's doing this.

"In November, I boxed an exhibition with Ali to encourage dental hygiene.

He was very heavy and I could hear him puffing. He was moving slower than when I fought him.

"Of course, I didn't try to jab. I was throwing punches toward his shoulders, but he couldn't stop them. In 1975, it was almost impossible to hit him with a jab. There comes a time when you've got to get out and let the kids do it."