He was a black man who told white men he didn't need them. He was a fighter who became the world heavyweight champion. He had three wives. Partly because white men didn't like his uppity ways, he was in trouble with the federal government. When the government's harassment made it hard for him to get fights, he became an actor briefly. He once got into the ring against a wrestler. He was a braggart and clown who liked to drive fancy cars very fast. A lot of people called him the best fighter of all time.

He was Jack Johnson, who won the heavyweight championship in 1908. They made a movie of his life called "The Great White Hope." When Muhammad Ali saw the movie, he pointed at the screen and said, "That's me!"

The similarities go on.

At age 37, flabby and out of shape but needing money badly, Johnson defended his heavyweight championship against Jess Willard, 34. Johnson had fought only twice in the previous three years, while Willard had fought 18 times. A shadow of what he had been, Johnson was knocked out in the 26th round.

At age 38, Muhammad Ali also is flabby and out of shape. He, too, needs his fraction of a $6.5 million paycheck (maybe $2 million for him) that would come from a July 11 fight with Larry Holmes, 30, the champion. Ali has not fought for 19 months now. He has not fought anyone except Leon Spinks, the fangless cabbage, in the last 31 months. Holmes, in those 31 months, has fought nine times.

And as Johnson made a tactical mistake by not training diligently for his bout with Willard, so has Ali made a tactical mistake in this comeback.

It's not a mistake to take the fight, unless you think it's a mistake to take $2 million for a night's work.

It's not a mistake in training, either.

If it is true that Ali does not like working in the gym. It is also true that he will submit himself to the most torturous work to bring that extraordinary body into shape. He always has done that. It is a source of pride for him.

Ali's mistake is in taking Holmes before Mike Weaver.

Weaver is the lesser fighter, a mediocrity of Spinksian stature. In 30 fights, he has lost nine times, some of those to people known only to their next of kin. Weaver won his share of the heavyweight championship three weeks ago with a desperation one-punch knockout in the 15th round of John Tate, who thereby gained the distinction of being the first heavyweight champion in history to lose by a knockout in the last of a scheduled 15 rounds. c

By fighting Weaver, Ali would get the feel of combat again with none of the risks.

He could see what is left to the jab that once was a snake-lick weapon but now may be a slupring puppy's tongue.

Ali could see if he could move for 15 rounds or if the two years of sloth -- diplomacy, acting, selling roach spray -- have reduced him to immobility.

Can he take a punch anymore? Or have the years from 35 to 38 softened his brain, as it does the brain of many civil servants and sportswriters, and so made him vulnerable to a knockout?

Better to find the answers to those questions against Mike Weaver than Larry Holmes. If all the answers should be negative, Ali could survive on instinct along against Weaver. And having learned the answers, Ali, the most cunning of all fighters, could disguise his faults for the bout with Holmes.

Most important of all, Ali could beat Weaver. That would help him psychologically. When you haven't beaten anyone except a cabbage in the previous three years, you have reason -- in the wee dark hours of the morning -- to think that maybe, just maybe, you've lost it. One more victory, even a victory over another cabbage, would remind Ali of his greatness in the shortening days before he would face the one fighter in the world virtually certain to beat him.

Is Larry Holmes "virtually certain" to beat Ali?

Yes.

That's why Ali ought to fight Weaver first. He needs a victory to convince Holmes there is something to worry about. Heaven only knows how many fights Ali has won because he convinced the other guy, before they ever stepped into the ring, that it was all over. Sonny Liston? Floyd Patterson? Jerry Quarry?

If Holmes is vulnerable to an Ali psych -- Holmes seems impervious to the Ali act, having seen it for a decade now -- it certainly won't be because the old fella is running off at the mouth about how great he used to be. A convincing victory over Weaver, however, might give currency to Ali's bragging.

Holmes has knocked out six straight men in defense of his share of the heavyweight championship. He has not looked overpowering, forced to labor long and hard against Weaver and taking six and seven rounds to dispatch such turnips as Leroy Jones, Ossie Ocasio and Lorenzo Zanon.

These are men an invincible George Foreman, say, would have decapitated. Foreman destroyed a Joe Frazier who gave Ali all he wanted. And yet -- and yet! -- Ali made Foreman look the fool, working him as a matador works a bull until, exhausted, Foreman fell at Ali's feet. So much for invincibility.

With his nice jab and good movement, with his 6-foot-3 height and 215-pound body, Holmes is, really, another Ali. What Ali used to be, Holmes is today. They could be mirror images, in which case the choice is made on one thing: age. One image is eight years younger.

And yet! Ali has been a wonder of nature. Maybe he still is. At 37, Joe Walcott became the oldest man to win the heavyweight championship. At 38, Walcott went 13 brutal rounds before losing the title to Rocky Marciano. Whatever Walcott was, he was no Ali. So while Holmes is "virtually certain" to beat Ali, it would be no surprise if Ali won. It would be only further proof that here is a phenomenon beyond one explanation. It would be proof that Ali was wrong when he pointed at Jack Johnson on the movie screen and said, "That's me!"