News accounts say Muhammad Ali had nothing to do with Muhammad Ali Professional Sports Inc., except that he sold his name for 10 percent of the gross. This puts him at a safe legal distance from suggestions that the bosses of MAPS may be involved in an alleged $20 million embezzlement scheme. It yet is another symptom, as is the proposed San Juan fight, of Ali's desperate, degrading need for money and fame.

The clock ticks.

In the flush years of his ascendancy, Ali boasted he would never be "one of those nigger fighters who shine shoes when they get old." He sneered at Joe Louis, gave handouts to Sugar Ray Robinson and brought Kid Gavilan in out of the cold. With his megamillions . . . with his apartment building in Cleveland, the farm in Michigan, the big house in Cherry Hills, the camp at Deer Lake . . . with his investments handled by his Chicago lawyers, with his movie career and lecture fees, Ali had no worries with all this, he said, especially since he had been chosen by allah as a missionary to the world.

Then came the candy bar.

For 60 cents in the lobby of the Shearton-Lanham motel three years ago, you could buy a Muhammad Ali candy bar with the fighter's picture on the wrapper. This was before the Alfredo Evangelista fight at Capital Centre.

"When did they start making Muhammad Ali candy bars?" someone asked a woman selling them.

"They're brand new," she said.

"Any good?"

"Muhammand wouldn't have anything to do with something that's no good."

Shortly came the roach spray commercial.

Ali was fighting roaches when he wasn't fighting Leon Spinks.

Then one sad day in his retirement, Ali was on the grounds of the Washington Monument fighting tooth decay.

Bloated to almost 250 pounds, Ali put on trunks and gloves and climbed into a makeshift ring to fight tooth decay.

Tooth decay was a guy wearing a white jumpsuit.

A supermarket bought Ali that day.

For Sale: An athlete once great, a man of majesty wasted. Price: a candy bar or a can of spray or 10 percent of the gross or whatever you can pay.

"Who steals my purse steals trash," said the villainous, double-dealing Iago. "But he that flinches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him,/And makes me poor indeed."

Ali's name enriches little today. At every turn, we see how he conned us for so long. His story needs no telling here today, except to say he earned lasting respect in two arenas only. By his eternal shows of justified pride, he made blacks think better of themselves. And in the ring, completely honest, giving his soul to the war, Ali may have been the greatest fighter ever, surely the most thrilling with his size, grace and corage.

The clock ticks. As Ali sneered at broken-down fighters on the scuffle, now comes the dandy sugar Ray Leonard sneering at Ali.

Leonard sells 7-up and Dr. Pepper.

"No roach commercials," Leonard says, snapping the lash at the falling champ.

We knew it was an act, Ali's 20 years of con. We hoped there was something behind the curtain. No one expected Ali to be a global ambassador at the call of the resident. If Ali thought so, and he did, he learned better when Jimmy Carter duped him into an African trip that demeaned Ali by demonstrating his political naivete. Nor did anyone believe Ali had a future in the movies; even playing himself, he was a wooden mumbler.

We went along with the con because it was fun, and we hoped that under it there was dignity. Maybe he truly could be a minister, as he insisted he wanted to. Maybe he could be the new Malcolm X, preaching dignity and struggle for blacks without demanding universal hatred of whites. That is the best Ali can give us, and it would be a wonderful thing. It would be, too, irony so rich as to be the stuff of fiction.

It was Malcolm X who gave as Muhammad Ali.

The young Olympic champion, Cassius Clay Jr., met the firebrand Black Muslim in Detroit in 1962. Malcolm preached the Elijah Muhammad version of Islam then: death to the blue-eyed devils. Under malcom's influence, Cassius Clay accepted the Muslim faith as his own. The day after winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston, Clay revealed he was a Muslim. His name from then on, he said, would be Muhammad Ali.

That same year, 1964, Malcolm X fell out with Elijah. He had come to believe blacks must live with whites, must respect them if blacks were to be respected.

In 1965, after telling friends that the Black Muslims would kill him for taking on Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X was assassinated at a public meeting by two men with a shotgun and revolvers.

Maybe full of faith, maybe frightened, Ali was the Black Muslim's meal ticket for nearly a decade. Not only was he a famous spokesman with the world listening intently, Ali -- by some estimates -- gave one-third of his $60 million in purses to the Black Muslims' business organization. This was money given to people whom Malcolm X, Ali's mentor, blamed beforehand for his death. And never, in any interview, would Ali talk about Malcolm X, always casting his mentor as a perfidious infidel.

The clock ticks toward irony. Today the Muslims, and Ali, invoke the name of Malcolm X and preach his tolerance, not the angry segregation of Elijah, now dead. Ali, once taught to wish death upon blue-eyed devils, now sells them roach spary and fights tooth decay for them and answers the call of a gritseating president.

Now apparently broke, or at least addicted to a life style of profligate overspending, Ali sells his name for 10 percent of the gross to guys who may be thrown into jail for robbing Wells Fargo. Ali now could use that one-third of $60 million he is said to have given the Muslims, given either out of faith or out of fright.

What he needs more is a sense of dignity, but now those of us who had fun with him and who admired him must realize dignity is slipping hopelessly beyond his grasp. Else, why sell his name for pocket change? Why, Ali, why fight again?

He can fight no longer. Larry Holmes could have hurt him, had Holmes been so cruel as to pick on a butterfly with wings that wouldn't work. Yet Ali says he will fight John Gardner, the European champion, in San Juan on April 18. Ali is 39 now, the clock is ticking, and another fight will not stop it.