Dear readers of long memory know I picked Sugar Ray Leonard to knock out Roberto Duran. They remember, too, my moment of prescience six weeks ago when I said the Orioles would win the pennant because the Yankees clearly were panicking.When you're hot, you're hot. So, today, I guarantee that Larry Holmes will defeat Muhammad Ali in their heavyweight championship fight Thursday night. Probably be a knockout before the 10th round.

Holmes is too good for Ali now. The undeated champion comes with the kind of destroying jab Ali hasn't seen since Joe Frazier took up singing. Ali rants on about "dancing 15 rounds" when, in fact, he has been a stand-still fighter, dancing only two minutes or so a night, for the last five years of his career. And if Ali stands still, as past performance says he will, his jab and his punching power are no match for a man eight years younger and stronger.

Ali's best hope at winning is that Holmes will lose.Only by making a tactical mistake can Holmes be vulnerable to Ali's powder-puff punches. Should an angry or nervous Holmes rush into action over the first four or five rounds and spend energy in a frenetic attack on a 38-year-old retiree, Ali by hugging and holding on to get rest can carry the fight 15 rounds. Six of his last seven fights went 15. That would leave the decision to the three judges.

Then Holmes could lose, because the judges inevitably will be fascinated by the spectacle of Ali trying to win for the fourth time the championship he has won when Larry Holmes was 14 years old and washing cars for a living in Easton, Pa. Such fascination may be translated into a subtle favoritism when it comes time to pick a winner every round.

Most likely, it won't come down to a decision. Holmes has knocked out all seven challengers for his title. True, they were the Seven Dwarfs (Evangelista, Ocasio, Weaver, Shavers, Zanon, Jones and LeDoux). What's important is that Holmes dominated them when it counted, even coming out of fogland to deck Weaver (he trained for Weaver by lifting beer glasses nightly) and getting off the floor to take out Earnie Shavers who had landed a thundering right hand that registered 6.7 on the Richter Scale.

By coming back against Weaver and Shavers in the last year, by mounting a sustained 15-round assault to win the championship against Ken Norton a year and a half ago, Holmes has demonstrated the thoroughbred class he needs to beat Muhammand Ali. The only question is: can Holmes carry that class into the ring when the man in the other corner is, in fact, Ali? Or will he, on seeing his idol there looking unbelievably young (Ali hasn't looked this good since the last Frazier fight, in 1975) -- simply come apart mentally?

He says not.

"I thought Ali was a great fighter once, and I was proud to be his sparring partner," Holmes said. "But now he's just a tired, old fighter trying to take my title away. I'm goin to hurt him bad. You been seeing him work out?A little old middleweight has been hitting him. If Earnie Shavers can hit you (Shavers took Ali a hard 15), I can hit you. If that little midget, Leon Spinks, can hit you (Spinks beat Ali once, then lost the rematch), I sure as hell can hit you.

"I'm going to make Ali drunk up here . . ."

Holmes tapped his temple.

". . . and I'm going to mug him down here."

He stuck his fingertips against his ribs.

What Holmes thinks is not the most important element of this fight. Rather, it is what Ali believes.

Although Holmes has given signs of being preoccupied with the threadbare Ali act of taunts and insults, let's assume he won't let it bother him in the ring. He has been a pro seven years. He hasn't lost in 35 fights. Unlike all those fighters who fell under Ali's hypnotic spell -- save for Joe Frazier, a truly great fighter -- Larry Holmes has a sense of worth built on a good record as the champion. If he is not a dazzling star, he at least has his own identity. Let's assume, then, he will fight a typical Holmes businesslike fight, full of jabs and patient pursuit of his opponent.

The important thing becomes Ali's mind.

Does he want this fight badly enough?

He came back for the money, the $8 million. That, and the attention he gets as a fighter.

But to survive against a good champion, Ali will need more than dollar bills and the roar of the crowd.

Listen to Cus D'Amato, the sage of boxing sages:

"Ali is going against the greatest odds any fighter ever tried," said D'Amato, who once trained Floyd Patterson and counseled Ali. "Because of his style as a boxer, he depends on split-second timing. But he's been out two years now. He hasn't had the fights to whet the edge he needs. It is a very, very difficult thing Ali is attempting.

"But remember, Ali is not to be weighed as an ordinary man. He is extraordinary."

What Ali needs, D'Amato said, is the will to win.

"The body, while it is nice that Ali is in shape, is not of importance here. The ability to generate the winning complex is. Boxing is a contest of will more than skill. If Ali has convinced himself that he can win, then I look for him to win. The will to win has always been the most important weapon in Ali's arsenal, more important by far than his jab.

"And Holmes does not have the overwhelming skill needed to beat an Ali who has the will to win. I don't rate Holmes very highly among champions because most of his opponents have never had any competitive desire, and those who had desire had no ability. Holmes would not have held a candle to the Ali of 10 years ago. But now there are so many unanswered questions about Ali."

The questions may be answered very earl Thursday night, D'Amato said.

"Ali should establish something in the first round, the way he did when he surprised George Foreman with a volley of punches in Zaire. And the answer to the question to Ali's ability to take a punch will be revealed quickly, too. Taking a punch is matter of attitude, more mental than physical. If a man refuses to allow blows to weaken his resolution, he can take any punch as long as he sees it coming."

This is war in the ring. "Fighting is very much like being at the front lines," D'Amato said. "A man is compelled by circumstance to be there with a gun in his hands. He sees his friends killed at his side. He survives by saying, 'Not me, it won't happen to me.' And when he survives this hell, he goes on a 30-day furlough.

"Thirty days is not forever. He must go back to the front lines. It takes will to go back. It takes will to face death again after being reprieved. And for a fighter, even Ali, it is almost as difficult to go back into the ring after leaving it. If Ali has this will, then I would pick him to beat Holmes without hesitation.

"But I suspect," D'Amato said wistfully, "that Ail no longer has the will. The act may be there, but not the belief."