"I shall return . . . " Muhammad Ali said this morning.

". . . to Los Angeles, California."

The eternal imp, Ali said goodbye with a laugh.

Had Joe Frazier called?

"Yes, he called last night," Ali said. "We'll be fighting next month."

He knows it's over now, and he said goodbye gracefully.

Someone asked Trevor Berbick if he learned anything in Friday night's unanimous decision victory and, before the Canadian champion could answer, Ali leaned toward the press conference microphone.

"I taught him to retire before he's 40," Ali said.

He wasn't grieving, he said. Not after losing to Frazier, not after losing to Ken Norton and Leon Spinks and Larry Holmes. And not now.

"I'm happy. I've had a good life in boxing."

So many times before, Ali has said goodbye only to show up again on our doorstep with his boxing gear and a fantasy. So many times he has said he had to move on with his life, to do his Muslim preaching, to be an evangelist to the world. How are we to know he won't pop up with another fight soon?

"I'm not craaaaazzzy," Ali said.

He had no excuses this time. After the Holmes humiliation 14 months ago, Ali said he was too light, took too many thyroid pills, had no strength or energy. Not this time. Not after failing to win more than three of 10 rounds against an inelegant brawler.

He was happy, anyway, that he took the fight. Dreams move this man. Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was 12 years old when somebody stole his bicycle in Louisville. He told a policeman. The policeman took him into a boxing gym. He was a pro six years later. At 22, Clay won the world heavyweight championship. As a pro for 21 years, one month and 13 days, first as Clay and then as Ali, he mesmerized us. His dreams became ours.

The dream this time was to win the title a fourth time, and he needed to beat a decent fighter to get a chance at a champion. So he had no second thoughts about this last fight. He had a chance to show what he could do.

"I didn't show," he said, "and now I know."

In seven words of unwitting rhyme, Ali confessed it was over. Never before did the ultimate believer admit disbelief. He said he could feel his strength vanishing about the sixth round. It was nice, he said, to hear the partisan crowd chanting "Ali . . . Ali" as he walked into the ring. "You're just sorry when you can't respond to the challenge."

Vince Lombardi, looking on the young Ali, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound strongman with acrobatic agility, said he could be the greatest tight end ever. At his best, in the mid-60s, Ali danced all night, circling bewildered opponents, pausing only long enough to rip a snake-lick jab into unseeing eyes. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," Bundini Brown said of Ali. The metaphor was a dead perfect fit.

Once he could do anything; now, nothing. Can't respond to the challenge, he said. "I felt the timing wasn't there, and the reflexes . . . I could tell I was 40, and I could tell he was younger . . . I think I'm finished as far as getting in the ring. Training was difficult, jogging was difficult, everything I did was difficult. I know myself better than anybody. I know it's the end."

Ali, always a ring tactician beyond compare, said he was confused this time. He didn't know how best to work Berbick. Staying away didn't work, going at him didn't work. "Confusing," Ali said.

The best he could make of this fight was that he survived it honorably. He could have been on the floor, he said, or the referee might have had to pull Berbick off him, or he might have broken teeth and a split lip. "It could have been worse . . . I'm happy because I'm still nice looking . . . Look at me. I think I came out good for an old man."

Did he ever think he had the old Ali magic?

"No," Ali said. "The things I wanted to do, I couldn't do."

Did he think his skills may have gone?

"They may have gone?" Ali said. "They have gone. Not 'may have gone.' "

He won't do boxing exhibitions. Too much work, too much pain. He says he'll do his evangelism work. He dropped Billy Graham's name, saying the minister has asked to talk with him. He will work with Wallace Muhammad, the Muslim leader in America. Ali said he turned down a $10 million public relations job with an oil company that wanted to use his influence in Muslim oil nations. No politics, he said. Preaching, lecturing, spreading Allah's word.

"It's a joy and relief," Ali said softly, "to know it's over."

It ended not with a bang or a whimper; it ended with a cowbell. They put up a ring behind second base on a kid's baseball field. They didn't have a real boxing bell. So they took one off a farmer's cow. A guy hit it with a hammer. This was not Frazier in the Garden, Spinks in the Superdome, Foreman in Zaire. This was the end on an island in the ocean, Ali exiled here when only one of the 50 states would let him fight in the U.S.

He's fought in Indonesia and Malaysia, Ireland and England, Zaire and Germany, Japan and Canada.

Ed Schuyler of The Associated Press, who covered 22 Ali fights, said to Ali this morning, "It's been one helluva ride." Goodbye and thanks from the ink-stained wretches.

And Ali, a twinkle in his eye, teased the AP man. "I don't know how I'll feel next month," the old champ said, smiling brightly.