Whom Muhammand Ali would destroy, he first annoys. He drives 'em flat flyin' crazy. "His behind shall be mine by round nine," he is saying here. He is sooo pretty and the other guy has a peanut head that he'll shell and ship to Plains, Ga. Ali is The Greatest of Allll Tiiiimmes, and the peanut head is his little boy student. Here comes Ali with his fugitive lunatic act, eyeballs bulging, and soon enough the peanut head want to stick TNT down my pretty throat.

"Ali will bring out something in me," said Larry Holmes, the heavyweight champion, "because when I get angry, I fight better."

A man in Ali's suite the other day told the old champ, "I was there Saturday when Holmes watched Cosell interview you on television. I watched Holmes to see his reaction. You were doing your act, screaming, "I wannnnnt Holmmmes, I'm gonna eat Holmes uppp."

"What did Larry do?" Ali asked.

"Didn't do nothin'. Just sat there. Looked worried."

Ali said, "Good." He smiled brightly.

Ali is winning a battle that has always been as important to him as what goes on in the ring. He is winning the psychological battle. Not only is he persuading himself that he can win the fight Thursday night, he is at the same time driving Larry Holmes flat flyin' crazy.

Not that Holmes will admit it.

"The only way Ali can beat me," he said, "is to wear me out, tire me out, to get my mind. And he can't get my mind. You know why? Because I've got his mind."

No he doesn't. It is Holmes who is preoccupied with Ali and has been since the fight was announced in March. For fans of Ali, this is good news. sHere's why.

The universal complaint of fighters who have lost to Ali is that they didn't fight up to their ability.That's because (to begin with) Ali is, or was, anyway, a wonderful defensive tactician who commands every moment in the ring, and (just as important) by the power of his overwhelming personality, by the Chinese water torture of his silly poems and farcial theatrics, Ali robs his opponents of their sense of self, reducing these real and strong men to mere foils for his act -- toys, even slaves.

Before the bell rings, the hypnotist Ali has won a victory of the mind that, in the late rounds, may produce the ulitimate victory.

We have seen that 10 times, 15 times, perhaps. Against Ken Norton, Ali twice needed strong finishes to win close decisions. He made them. Against Joe Frazier the third time, against a noble and fearless warrior, it was Ali who won a knockout in the 14th. Ali beat Earnie Shavers in the 15th. He swept the last six rounds against Leon Spinks.

Only Frazier, in the first fight, ever proved invulnerable to Ali's psycho job. Joe won that one in the late rounds of an all-night war. When Norton and Spinks beat Ali, Ali had taken them lightly, barely worthy of his poetry. Significantly, none of the three men who have beaten Ali ever was able to repeat that first victory.

Holmes' persona since his days as Ali's young sparring partner --"When I'm gone, this bad nigger will be the champ," Ali once said of Holmes at his camp -- has been that of the basic, decent, simple nice guy. At repartee, Holmes is defenseless. Ali is show biz, Holmes is the big friendly lug at the corner bar.

It is a mistake for anyone, let alone a nice guy, to engage in a battle of minds with Ali. And Holmes has made that mistake for two weeks here.

One piece of evidence is enough to convict: Done with a press conference the other day, Ali led reporters to ringside as Holmes worked out, shouting ahead, "Holmes is my Frankenstein! I created this monster! The monster's done broke loose! I gotta get him!"

At ringside, Ali did his act, "I wannnnt you, Holmes!"

Holmes attempted nonchalance. "Here I am." And to the 1,000 spectators:

"Hi, y'all."

"Holmes must fall!" Ali screamed. He shook a finger at Holmes, as if saying the champion was a naughty child deserving of a spanking from daddy.

Still trying to be cool, but now failing miserably, Holmes looked down from the ring and said, with a mean edge to his voice, "Hi, Ali, you want a whuppin'? Come on up, get you in a ringside seat, Watch and learn."

Then to the spectators, Holmes said, "Kings get old, kings die. By the eighth round, it's all over."

And from the assembled fans came a loud, "Boooooo."

The crowd was Ali's. The crowd will be his on fight night, too. The Vegas bookmakers say all the betting money is coming on Ali now. Once a 2 1/2-to-1 favorite, Holmes now is less than 2 to 1. The fight may be even money when the bell rings. Ali is convincing a lot of people that he believes, truly, he can win.

At a press luncheon today, Ali arrived swaggering.

Holmes stayed away.

"Larry lost the first round when he didn't show up today," Ali said.

"Larry's sleeping," said the champion's brother, Jake, who stuck his head out of Holmes' room to explain the absence.

Perhaps Larry Holmes can fight better when he is angry. That is unlikely. Ali is always so cool in the ring. His patience and pace are admirable assets not likely to have been destroyed by the two years off his age of 38. If Holmes makes a mistake in tactics because anger owns him, he can lose to this old man.

And while Holmes has Ali on the mind -- there's a color poster of Ali, with his teeth and eyes blacked out, on the wall in Holmes' suite -- a case can be made that Holmes will be unaffected by the mind games being played.

With Ali making a dunce of himself at ringside, jumping up and screaming even as the fight went on, Holmes methodically destroyed Scott LeDoux this summer. He was not distracted in the least.

What Holmes remembers best, however, are the private moments with Ali when he saw what he believes to be the real, naked Muhammand Ali.

"Ali's worried," Holmes said. "You can bet on it. The day before he fought Norton the second time, I told him, 'Good luck, champ, but you don't need it, you're the baddest.' He just kept his head down and walked off.

"The second Spinks fight, he was in the corner of his dressing room worried to death. He wouldn't even open his mouth. He was scared to death. I watched him for four or five rounds with Spinks and his eyes were this big. And that's with a little midget Leon Spinks. What's Ali going to do with a guy who worked with him and knows him, a guy who is as tall as him, a champion in the prime of his life?

"The day of the second Spinks fight, another thing I did was go to his hotel room, to instill some confidence into him. He was in bed with his wife, Veronica. He said to me, 'After this, I gotta retire.'

"I said, 'Champ, you can't retire, you gotta fight me.' He said, 'I can't whup you; you're too young, too strong. If you was 36 and I was 28, would you fight me? I can't fight you."'

Holmes also said that he thought of what he will say to Ali when they meet in the ring Thursday night.

"I'm gonna tell him point-blank, 'You ain't s---'," Holmes said.

If Holmes believes that, he is in trouble.