Toward the end of a press conference in which he was as introspective and honest about himself as he will ever be in public, Larry Holmes was asked today about prefight prayer. Is there a favorite verse of scripture that inspires him?

"I always say a little prayer," the World Boxing Council champion said, "which comes from the Bible, but probably comes more from my heart . . . Wanna hear it?"

Certainly.

"Lord, don't let me kill this guy."

Rich Little down the strip could not have matched the timing, and when the laughter ceased several seconds later, Holmes added: "Just let me beat him up and get the hell out of here."

It was one of the few light touches during 40 or so minutes of getting a pile of bile out of his system. Is he frustrated about challenger Gerry Cooney getting equal, sometimes superior, billing? And more lucrative, appealing commercials? Is he bitter about being labeled a racist? Aware of the humiliation that would forever engulf him should he lose Friday night to this one-punch whitey?

Hell, yes.

"This is a fight that my kids have to live with for the rest of their lives," he said. "And my brothers and my family. That's why this fight is so important to me."

Justice and the American way, he said.

In Holmes' mind and others, his considerable skills have been blown from our minds by the Muhammad Ali jet stream. Whoever was available, Holmes fought--and beat. The public pounding on his ego over the years has been telling, although he said, very forcefully:

"I get the respect that I want. If I wanted more respect and more notoriety, I'd move to New York City and run red lights . . . But you media people are important, who get the word out to people who can't meet me, who determine my life after boxing. Make sure you write the truth and nothin' but the truth."

This is how he views truth: you can call Cooney "The Great White Dope" without being a racist.

"This is a fight," he said. "And it's a hype fight. Sometimes you've got to say a lot of things you wouldn't ordinarily say, to get next to this person that you have to deal with. . . My family is half white (four of his brothers have white wives). I feel at peace."

Some others of us don't. How do we judge a man who proclaims himself pure and yet, with the excuse of hype, fans the worst racist instincts in potential customers? Holmes is telling us he practices what he doesn't preach. But then the conniving Cooney camp has hit below the moral belt as often.

If you think some, why shouldn't they? It's a mean business, boxing, a sad science. The appeal is to our darker side, anyway, so why pull any money punches? White sells. Other than being born with a wrecking ball attached to his left shoulder, why else is Cooney so coveted?

Evidently, sporting America is not as ripe for hype as everyone imagined. Ticket sales are lagging, at least those greedy enough to anticipate a $10 million bonanza for each fighter. With the delay caused by the shoulder injury to Cooney, fans very likely have had time to think: who are these guys? And come to the reasonable conclusion that whoever wins will not have beaten much.

"I feel good about Larry Holmes," Larry Holmes said. "I make me feel good. That's what's important. I am what I am. I don't want to be a Muhammad Ali; I don't want to be a Gerry Cooney. I want to be Larry Holmes. All I'm trying to do is make you understand what I want to be.

"Seems like it's so hard to get it across."

He's a Don King puppet.

"Don King pulls my strings and tells me what he wants," Holmes said. "I do what he wants, long as he brings up the cash. I mean, money talks . . . I started boxing for Don King in 1973, when I made $150 for winning a fight. At that time, $150 to me was a lot of money.

"We been rolling ever since."

King said of Holmes during an introduction: "He's a man who doesn't suffer from amnesia."

After a long, moving period of reflection, about his family and his sacrifices over the years, Holmes made a statement that will jolt his supporters: "You can take a title, but you cannot take what I feel." Hardly supreme confidence. He quickly added: "Trying to get the title, I feel you're only going to fall short. I'm in very good shape; I feel good. I've trained hard; I'm confident . . . "

Whenever possible, Holmes hears a Cooney tune: tick, tick, tick. This is supposed to remind the champ that time is running out on him.

How does Holmes take that?

"Time is runnin' out (on Cooney)."

He explained his strategy:

"No strategy. I'm a boxer. Side to side; left jab, left jab; 70-80 punches a round. Count 'em. Can't take it--70-80 punches a round, 50 of 'em landing. I will box him. Gotta make him drunk before I mug him. After I knock Cooney out (in seven rounds or fewer, he has said), I'm not gonna say anything bad about him.

"I'm gonna say he gave me a lot of trouble--for one second. He's gotta go home, too."