Fight crowds just ain't what they used to be. They don't cruise up in the long black Caddy limos or strut to their $30 seats in their furs and brims like they did 10 years ago.

But they still cheer for their champ like they used to.

Familar chants, "ALI . . . ALI . . . ALI. . ." were heard as far as a mile from Capital Centre, where a half-capacity crowd sounded like 100,000 in support of "The Greatest" to win the World Boxing Council heavyweight title for the fourth time, against undefeated Larry Holmes.

Barely anyone paid more than passing attention to the three preliminary fights, the most exciting of which was former champion Leon Spinks' ninth-round technical knockout of Bernardo Mercardo. Those who did watch overwhelmingly favored Spinks.

Most of the approximately 12,000 wandered around socializing, gulping a brew, slapping a few hands and talking about how the champ would destroy "peanut-head Holmes."

As soon as the SPINKS FIGHT WAS STOPPED, "ALI. . . ALI. . . ALI. . ." resounded in anticipation of Ali's return to the ring after a two-year layoff. r

"It's about time," said Leslie Foran of Silver Spring. "I didn't drive all this way to see no damn Spinks-Mercardo fight. Where is my boy (Ali)? Let's get it on!"

If there were any Holmes supporters in the house they could not be heard. Ali was the choice of all but the 150 or so media members who did not work and enjoyed the "freebie" evening of beer and soda in the pressroom while watching the fight on a 19-inch screen.

"Ali's gonna win, that's for sure," said Geof Mack, a Catholic University junior. "Ali in nine. I've been waiting all night for this. It took us 45 minutes to get here and we didn't park in a legal spot either."

"Ali, all the way," said Geof's brother Johnny, a Carroll high school student.

Cheri Kirwan of Falls Church said it took her almost two hours to drive to the Centre in all the traffic. "I hate all sports except for boxing," Kirwan said.

"Boxers are the last gladiators of sports. I come from a long line of Irish boxers and I've seen a lot of fights -- all the ones on TV and closed-circuit.

"This crowd isn't bad at all. They're pretty calm, in fact. You should have been here for the Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fight. There were bloody bodies everywhere in this place. High school kids were walking around looking for fights themselves. The one on the screen must have not been enough."

The crowd became restless when after five rounds Ali and Holmes had done little but circle each other in the middle of the ring. Ali went into his 5-year-old rope-a-dope, springing out of it every 30 seconds with a left hand to Holmes' jaw. The crowd worked itself into a frenzy.

"Fight Ali, fight dammit," screamed one man as Ali received a vicious beating from Holmes in the middle rounds. As a welt swelled under Ali's left eye, one woman began crying. "I can't take this, I just can't take this."

After the fight was stopped, the Ali supporters either stormed out or cried.

"Ali didn't have no business going into the ring," said Jeff Mitchell. "It was an embarrassment. It's the first mistake he made in a long career. I hope it's his last, but I'm still his fan," added a red-eyed Mitchell.

The whole evening was best summed up by one of the media members who stormed out of the pressroom exclaiming, "I had a free ticket and I didn't even get my money's worth."