He had promised a miracle. Age had not withered, nor custom staled his infinite variety. He was, after all, "The Master of Illusion." Dressed in magician's black and white, he would pull a rabbit from his hat, turn water into wine, unlock the chains of common mortality, heal the sick, raise the dead and make the little girls talk out of their heads. Mixing metaphors is always appropriate with Ali, for he is so many things to so many people.

But when it was over, when the performance was mercifully stopped, there was Ali, his arms dangling limply at his sides, his chest heaving, the invisible straitjacket of age binding him more tightly then he ever imagined. The magic was used up. He had allowed his trainer, Angelo Dundee, to enter a plea of nolo contendre for him before the 11th round. Sixteen years after the first of his championship reigns had begun with Sonny Liston sitting on a stool in Miami Beach, his quest for a record fourth heavyweight championship had ended with Ali sitting on a stool here. Completely outmatched by Larry Holmes. Not coming out to fight. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

There was no epic struggle.

This was no titanic clash.

This was nothing. Ten one-sided rounds of a man pitching and a man catching, and nothing, not even the fireworks in the clean black night could save it from its dullness. As soon as it ended, the people started filing out, without passion, without yearning. There was no emotional catharsis at the passing of a legend. People simply filed out quietly. Just another roadside attraction in Vegas, where people get used to beginnings and endings. From dinner show to midnight show. So it goes.

Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton, John Davidson, Gregory Peck, Sylvestor Stallone, Kris Kristofferson, John Travolta, Ken Norton, O. J. Simpson, Andy Williams, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, they and many more Mr. First Nighters had come to be thrilled by Ali, to see him go once again to the bar of life. But what they saw was what they got -- a tired man, lean but not mean, beaten time after time to the punch, a hollow shell who had finally lost the only strength he'd ever needed: his will to win and the ability, as Gus D'Amato said, "To project it through your opponent who is immediately affected and dominated by it."

There were no second guesses.

Nobody screaming, "We wuz robbed."

Instead, a charitable realization that this was surely best for Ali, that if he could not have his dream, at least he could have his health.

"Ali's done too much for boxing. Why take a chance?" Ken Norton said. "Angie loves the man. He did the right thing."

"The head says, "Throw,' but the body can't," said Kris Kristofferson. "I was glad he stopped it."

"He could have been killed in there. Stopping that fight may have saved his life," said Sylvester Stallone. "You didn't see him fight it, did you?"

Everyone who watched it could sense the end coming. "Sooner or later Angie had to do it," said Richie Giachetti, Holmes' manager. "I thought Angie or the ref could have stopped it any time from the sixth round on. It was just there."

And when the referee, Richard Green, came to raise Holmes' hand in victory -- and he would have done it before the 11th round anyway, with or without Dundee's approval -- he found a subdued Larry Holmes. No wild exultation. No spontaneous celebration.

Later, Holmes would say that he won each round, that Green should have stopped it earlier because he was hitting Ali at will, even holding back in the ninth and 10th in fear that he would hurt Ali, whom he loved and admired, so much so that after the fight he told him, "Anything that you need, any time you need it, just call me and I'll be there." Holmes knew he was fighting a no-win situation; Ali would win their hearts no matter who won the fight. It was strictly business for Holmes. He no longer suffers illusions about who he is in relation to Ali. "I did what I had to do out there, but there wasn't any fun in it," Holmes said.

He shrugged.

"All I got was the money."

Larry Holmes never wanted this fight. Ali had been more than his hero and his benefactor, teaching him how to box and paying him $300 a week, plus room and board, as his sparring partner; Ali had been almost a father figure to Holmes. How many of us are eager to come face-to-face with the Oedipus within? Holmes looked at this fight with dread.

Yes, there was the obligatory bravado. Holmes calling Ali, "an old fool," proclaiming he wanted to hurt him and to kill him. But could there be any doubts that had he seriously hurt Ali, no one would have come to his aid quicker than Holmes? No, he didn't want to kill him; Holmes simply wanted to beat him, to win the fight and to escape the shadows. This was a difficult week for Holmes.He had to fight Ali on so many levels. The man. The myth. The entertainer. The star. The former employer. So many rivers to cross.

Verbally, he was completely outmatched. It was like trying to get blackjack with one card. Each time the two traded vocal jabs, Ali drew blood. He made fun of Holms' lisp, then called him a peanuthead and promised to shell him.

By Monday Holmes was through with public appearances. Three days running he invited the press to his room to talk rather than risk confronting Ali in an open forum. And once the press showed, Holmes wouldn't allow them to leave. He talked and talked, trying to give them something to write down. Anything. He was like a guest making the talk-show rounds, bringing a different film clip to each show, a different piece of footage from a bad movie.

It was obvious enough that he wasn't meant for brilliant repartee, but how much more painful to be the guest who has to follow Sinatra? Ali leaves the stage knowing he will always be welcomed back. Holmes held the stage, desperately playing for time. He always seemed uneasy in the role, confused.

At core, Holmes is an honest, decent workman, a salaried employe.His values are the values America was built on. To fight for his wife, his family, his children, even his swimming pool -- what's wrong with fighting for upward mobility? Yet Ali made Holmes sound foolish and selfish and petty because he, Ali, claimed to be "on a mission for God." Whenever they clashed verbally, Ali sounded so much worthier.

By Wednesday, Holmes had become almost reclusive. He stayed in his suite, admitting only close friends and family, hiding his light behind purple velvet walls. He came to the weigh-in, traditionally the final public confrontation between fighters before the actual bout, 20 minutes ahead of schedule, got his numbers and left, denying Ali a last shot at psychological intimidation, leaving Ali alone on stage to spew his greatness. It seemed a wise move, a realization that Ali was unbeatable every place but where it counted most to Holmes: in the ring.

Ali entered first, in the unfamiliar role of challenger. At first he seemed serene, smiling contentedly and picking out friends at ringside, like John Travolta, and waving to them. So rermarkably calm, as if he already knew his destiny and understood he had to play it as it layed.

In sharp contrast, Holmes came charging into the ring like a nervous colt, completely lathered. Seeing him and sensing again the opportunity for psychological intimidation, Ali turned to his oldest pose -- mania. He led the crowd in cheering, "Ali-Ali." He pulled out all his old faces, making his eyes as wide and white as the moon, jutting his jaw, mugging at Holmes. Once again Ali conjured up the spirits of his legend. Careful always to have a trusted cornerman there to hold him back, Ali attempted to go at Holmes, shouting, "Gonna get you, sucker, gonna eat you up."

Although Holmes would later say that at no time did Ali get to his head -- "I know the man. I've seen the act" -- Holmes' demeanor changed drastically. He seemed suddenly to grow roots in his corner. His face became glazed. In truth, he appeared to be standing unconscious.

Then the bell.

Holmes charged at Ali, throwing furious punches at the man whose very name cast a shadow that all but obliterated Holmes' unbeaten record. The fury lasted but 30 seconds. From then on Holmes settled into a conservative pace that would enable him to be as sharp in round 10 as in round two. If Ali's strategy was to rope-a-dope, to let Holmes bang away at him until Holmes tired, he found no dope to rope. Holmes husbanded his strength intelligently and Ali, hardly throwing anything resembling a right hand all evening, couldn't even make Holmes work hard.

Falling back on his old dodges, Ali taunted Holmes. He screamed at him and showed him his unprotected face, daring Holmes to tear his head off.

In the first, "Here chump, try it here."

In the second, "You got nothin' at all."

But in the third round Holmes raised a mouse under Ali's left eye, and after the fourth round Holmes returned to his corner smiling. He was measuring Ali, cuffing him behind the head. Holmes had the gun loaded.

After the fifth Ali no longer had anything to say. Holmes was beginning to taunt back, moving to the center of the ring to do a hula, beckoning Ali to him. After the fifth, Dundee told Ali, "If you don't start throwing punches I'm going to stop it."

Ali threw fewer punches than Tommy John throws high fast balls. In the seventh he tried at least to jab. Some hit, but only grazingly, just enough to cause spray, never enough to snap Holmes back. It was Ali's best round, and he didn't even win it. There was no ebb and flow to the fight. Ali started slow, then tapered off. In the eighth and ninth Holmes got to Ali's right eye, raising another mouse.

Green almost stopped it after nine and would have stopped it after 10, had not Dundee, on orders from Herbert Muhammad, Ali's manager, beaten him to it. Asked why he was keeping Ali on the stool, Herbert Muhammad said, "Because he's getting defenseless."

There was little to start with.

And nothing left.

The day after the fight, in a remarkable reversal of form, Ali would actually say that he was to light, that he overtrained and had no strength, that he sensed it as early as the first round. His weight loss, which had given him so much hope, he now said, was his undoing. "I'm glad it was stopped," Ali said. "I'm too proud to let go, and I would have had to take too many punches over the next four rounds. It could have been dangerous."

So it ended for Ali not with a bang, not even with a whimper, just with him sitting on his stool too tired to move.

". . . Look at me. I promise you this will be no contest. Look at my body. Didn't think I could do it? Didn't think I could lose all the weight. Fat old man 38 years old, 256 pounds. Now LOOK at me. Tricked ya. Tricked the world. Tricked Holmes into fightin' me. Oh, I want Larry Holmes. I WANT HOLLLLMES . . . Look at my face. I can pass for 28. LOOK how pretty I am. Ain't I pretty? Oh man, I'm in my GLORY. 2Four times world champ. Ding, ding, ding -- that the bell -- ding, ding. Four times. FOUR TIMES. And I'm so pretty . . . Go 'head. Ask me about my weight. Now how come none of you askin' about my weight? Lemme take off my robe so you can SEE me. Don't see no fat, do ya? Look at my BODY . . Don't bet against me. Don't bet against Muhammad Ali. How can you not pick me when I look so good? Eat him up. Eat him up. Eat HIM UP. Man's too ugly to beat me. Oh, I'm so PRETTY. . ."

Three days before the fight he was eating fruit.

Apples, oranges, melons. Shoveling them into his mouth, their juices drooling down the side of his face. Fruit, glorious fruit.

"Keeps my system regular," he said. "Lets me move my bowels real regular. Keeps you from getting old, moving your bowels regular."

Muhammad Ali, at 38, sitting quietly in his hotel suite, finally away from the maddening cresendo of his waterfall voice, and the first words out of his mouth are about moving his bowels regularly. Sounded like one of the old bubbas in Miami Beach. Putting on black hair rinse to wash away the gray. Having himself rubbed with skin creams to maintain the tone. Looking into mirrors, checking himself out. Combing his hair. Touching himself. Constantly touching himself to make sure he's there, make sure he's real. Marilyn Monroe did that. Jean Harlow too. All the narcissists do. Touch yourself and feel how pretty you are.

Worrying about getting old.

LOOK at me. See, I'm not fat. Lemme take my robe off so you can see. Ain't I pretty? Go 'head. LOOK at my body. Calendar says 38. What's a calendar know? Don't I look 28? Don't look like no old man. Forget age. I'm SPECIAL. I'm in the world, but not of the world. Jesus said you should be like that. Don't read no stories about Jesus that say, Jesus, 31, of Nazareth, said . . . Forget age. Forever young.

Ali's vision of Hell? Surely it would be a room without mirrors, without anyone to talk to. How would he know how pretty he is? Who would tell him?

I touch myself, therefore, I exist.

I tough myself, therefore, I am real.

I can't get old. Look at my skin. Look at my face. Don't let me get old. Hope I did before I get old.

On Monday, Ali went five rounds with an amateur middleweight named Carter. In the fifth round Ali kept both hands behind his back, leaned against the ropes and tried to slip punches, like the old Ali, like Cassius Clay. For three minutes he bobbed and weaved, but the kid hit him -- pop, pop-pop pop -- almost at will. If you were there you had to see it. But Ali grabbed the microphone and screamed, "You SAW it. You all SAW it. aSaw me out there. This boy's 10 years younger than Holmes, 10 times faster than Holmes, and he couldn't hit me. You SAW it. He couldn't touch ME."

Deny, deny, deny.

The crowd cheered like crazy, and an hour later Ali was back in his hotel suite eating fruit and talking about moving his bowels regularly and keeping from getting old.

The big gamble, for one, as Ali's security man James Anderson said, "Where we put all the chips on the table and deal out one hand," was over.

The Last Hurrah was in fact, that.

Holmes was benevolent in victory as befits him, saying he could never hope to be the giant that was Ali, calling him repeatedly, "a living legend, the greatest of all times." Holmes managed to finally fully claim the championship that had been his for two years without denigrating the man who held it in absentia. He was tough without being hard. Just as he'd been earlier in the week when he warned people not to mistake his gentleness for softness.

Ali was gracious in defeat as befits him. He still drew the crowd. His entourage at the Friday noon press confrence outnumbered Holmes' three-to-one.

Ali arrived wearing a black shirt and very dark glasses to cover his black eyes. Ever the crowd pleaser, he picked up Holmes' baby daughter, Kandi, held her gently, then kissed her. He then said of her father, "He is much better than I thought he was. Give the man his due. He was baaaaad, the man was so bad he was terrible. He's the heavyweight champ."

And Ali was not without his characteristic good humor. After praising Holmes without reservation, he waited that all-important split second and said, "But he isn't the greatest of all times, because I am." And describing the conversations with Dundee during the fight, Ali said, "Dundee told me, 'Get out and hit him, get out and hit him.' I said, 'You go out and hit him, 'I'm tired.'" Lots of laughs.

But the central issue with Ali is never the jokes and it's always the same -- what's next?

On Friday morning, in a national television appearance, Ali brought up the possibility of a fight with Mike Weaver for the WBA version of the heavyweight championship. Closing the interview, Ali said, "As MacArthur said, 'I shall return.'"

Many of those close to Ali, including Rahman Ali, his brother; his mother; Howard Bingham, his photographer; Dundee; even Holmes, have urged him to retire. They all say he has nothing left to prove, which is a polite way of saying they're afraid he'll get his brains mashed into puree. But teasing the public has always been Ali's fondest joy, and opening the Weaver door he can continue to play the innocent showgirl. The fact remains that only Ali among the heavyweights can guarantee multimillion-dollar gates, and such is Ali's hold on the public that he would be the sentimental favorite against anyone with the possible exceptions of Bob Hope, George Burns and Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

"I said we haven't made up our minds yet," Ali said, although who the "we" might be was beyond comprehension. "We have our options. I have to wait and see about my physical condition. If this was the best I could do, then forget it. But you didn't see the real Ali. I wasn't ready. You never know, I could go home, take a few weeks off, start feelin' good . . ."

He started throwing jabs.

Soft jabs. Parody jabs. Lounge act jabs.

There is always the danger he could convince himself to do it again, not just for the money but because there is simply nothing else that juices him up as much as being around the fight guys, the newspaper guys, the television guys. How could he look at himself in the mirror and see only a spokesman for roach spray looking back? How could Ali, this self-proclaimed giant in, if not of the earth, just go gently into that good night?

So should he attempt to fool everyone including himself one more time and return to the ring, he will certainly train as he always has, and that includes watching film fights. And certainly one of those films will be Holmes-Ali. And then, certainly, he will see who he is now compared to who he was. The film will not lie, and he will never be able to intimidate it. This was not some amateur middleweight whose skill he could deny to a crowd.

He can deny, but he can't disprove.

They all SAW IT.

Even him. Even Ali. And deep down he must know it's time.