There is excitement in the camp of thrice-champion Muhammad Ali as the time nears for his square off tonight with former sparring partner and current World Boxing Council heavyweight champiion Larry Holmes. The excitement is because the former champion, a fighter for pay since 1960, has trained hard for the first time in several years.

When Ali, then Cassius Clay, first came around the pros in Miami, it was a joy to watch him make opponents fall short with punches and be feinted out of position by his natural movements.

However, since his return to boxing in 1970, after a three-year layoff, Ali has shown a clear distaste for training. He has been winning his fights by allowing his opponents to hit him at will after the first few rounds, then coming on late.

This tactic, it says here, is what could beat him tonight.The punches landed on him by Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Earnie Shave and Bob Foster have taken their toll on the once-dazzling reflexes of Ali. And Holmes, a good,durable professional, will press him hard throughout the fight.

The remark made by Indian Benny Deathpane, a fine trainer and teacher of boxing in the '40s and '50s, says it best: "When they begin to leave their hands there, it's all over."

What Deathpane meant is that Ali has not been able to snap out his punches and return his hands to their proper positions, as in the past. Ali has been "leaving his hands there" for some time now and there is no known medicine, calisthenics or strategy that can overcome that.

When Ali used to spar with a youngerHolmes some six years ago, he had to reach back for extra to hold him off. Since then, Ali has gone back and Holmes has charged ahead.

Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, has told close friends that Ali never has been more earnest and can upset Holmes.

The Las Vegas bookmakers took the Ali Holmes fight off the boards last week when only some sentimental Ali money had shown up. But when word got out of the Ali camp that he was trim and revitalized mentally for this fight, action on both sides began showing and the bookies are doing a landslide business with Ali now an underdog by only a 7-to-5 margin.

Like most boxing fans, this writer is of the opinion that Ali should not fight anymore. He has done enough in the 26 years he has been boxing.

But the drama is there, and there are enough of us around who want it to be yesterday once more to ensure a gate worthy of the extreme effort from both fighters.

I see little chance of Ali winning. The odds are too great against him. But like some since forgotten wise man once said, "Don't ever bet against the Yankees, Joe Louis and Notre Dame in the clutch." To that list they could have added the name of the world's most famous person, Muhammad Ali.