Anyone mining for truth around a Muhammad Ali fight soon bends his pickax on the impenetrable skulls of the perpetrators. This is the truth. Prospectors have worked the Ali ground to death, and besides a headache that won't quit, all we have to show for it is the same old thing. The body is 39 and counting, but Ali's imagination is forever 16 and overheated.

Not to say the promoter of the Ali-Trevor Berbick fight is a bad guy, for maybe James Cornelius has a wife, dog, two cats and 2.7 children. Here are two prospector questions, and the responses from Cornelius, who supposedly is paying Ali $1 million and other fighters $1.5 million more for Friday night's card . . .

Q: What kind of business are you in? (We were thinking maybe he sold titanium to Armand Hammer.)

Cornelius: "I'm not answering that." (Guess not.)

Q: We hear the promotion is selling "$50" tickets for $10 to Bahamians and giving away tickets, too. Is that right? (Heaven forbid that he should think we would think nobody would pay good money to see an Ali statue when so many other statues are available for free viewing.)

Cornelius: "I don't have to answer those kind of questions."

Anyway, everybody says the Ali fight will take place and work is proceeding behind second base at a baseball diamond where 11,000 seats (not the original 17,000) are going up. You can buy your tickets at any city meat market in Nassau and if you trust a fight where you buy the tickets from a butcher, that's your business.

Let's say Ali gets in with Berbick, a big, strong, young roughhousing brawler, then what? Some ringsiders consider blindfolds appropriate attire Friday night; not for Ali, for them. They have seen the emperor naked too many times.

He reclined on his bed the other day, dressed in black, for he thinks the color gives him strength, and he so filled the room with his voice that the walls bulged from pressure of fantasies piling on top of pipe dreams.

Before the prospectors could swing an ax at a spot where truth might be buried, Ali said, (1) "I'm really 30 compared to most men," (2) "Two billion people will be conscious of my fight," (3) He weighs 233 now, instead of the 219 for Larry Holmes two months ago, and his floppy belly is good because, "It shows I have strength," (4) He's as good now as when he beat Joe Frazier in Manila.

More on that last: "Oh," he said suddenly to three reporters, "Do you think Berbick is as good as the Joe Frazier I fought in Manila?"

Ali defeated Frazier six years ago in a classic fight stopped when Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to let his man go into the 15th round. Futch had seen enough bravery. He didn't want to see a death.

Before anyone could say Berbick is nothing to that Frazier, Ali went on, "But me, and please believe me, I am like I was in Manila."

Silence from the audience.

"I'm now moving and punching like Manila."

Nobody said a word.

"If right now, today, if I met the same Frazier as in Manila, I wouldn't worry a bit."

Everybody wrote it down. One man marked it with an asterisk, to remind himself to file the note under "D" for delusions.

As it happens, Eddie Futch is here with a welterweight to fight Tommy Hearns. So a prospector talked to the wise man today, hoping to strike truth. He asked what Futch thought of Ali's last workout Monday. Ali claimed to be young then, dancing and moving, throwing jabs galore.

"It was slow motion," Futch said. "The jabs had no snap. He didn't move. Four rounds of nothing, and he was wore out."

If you saw Ali against Holmes, you know he's done. What you don't know is why he wants to fight again.

"Ali is fighting, Joe is making that comeback, because they see these young fighters and they see their deficiencies and they think they can whip them," Futch said.

"But what they don't see is that their own reflexes ain't what they used to be. They see any opening, but they can't deliver the punch. Or they see a punch coming and they get hit with it when they wouldn't have before. They tell themselves, 'I'll be quicker next time,' or, 'I'll be in better shape next time.'

"They're just refusing to believe what their body is telling them. It's like a pair of socks. When the elastic goes, it's gone. Throw the socks away. You can't fix the elastic. The reflexes are the elastic in your body. If it's gone, it's gone."

Futch beat Ali with Frazier in 1971 and Ken Norton in 1973. He thinks Ali is the greatest athlete who was ever a fighter.

"Of the great athlete, there's only one thing left. He can't circle anymore. He can't hurt you with any punch. He can't evade a punch by leaning away from it anymore. He can't take the body shots. But he still has the last thing a good fighter loses -- the jab.

"The jab was the last thing Joe Louis lost. He kept Rocky Marciano off him for seven rounds with the jab (in a 1951 comeback at age 37). But in the eighth, he got old in a hurry and Rocky got him good."

Marciano knocked out Louis.

"No way Ali can win this one," Futch said, "Unless Berbick fights a strange fight. Ali can't hurt him, and Berbick will tear him in two if he gets him on the ropes. Berbick is too strong for Ali now."

Gold is always pretty when you find it. Truth isn't, necessarily.