Just beyond Cleopatra's Barge inside Caesars Palace sits a man trying to interrupt a riptide of humanity. Jack Nicholson has hurried by without a glance; most everyone else slips past and stops to do business on Holmes-Cooney with the nearby Sports Book. The $100 line stretches as long as each of the three $20 lines.

Almost no one notices S.L. Woods eating tickets.

"Can't give these away," he says, flicking a stack of 28 very valuable pieces of cardboard to the World Boxing Council championship that will begin in less than two hours today. "I'm tryin' to just get something, $100 for the $100 seats and $300 for the $500 seats.

"Everybody's cheap."

Poor Woods. He had arranged for the tickets for a man in Wisconsin who was supposed to bring a gang of 23 here for the fight, and the parties before and after.

The man in Milwaukee died Tuesday.

So while S.L. Woods seems casual enough, sitting on a handrail, his left foot dangling in time to the beat that his hand waving the tickets creates, he is close to desperate. Even the curious soon walk away. Some nibbles; no bites.

"Maybe the late arrivals from California," he says, hopefully.

Fans who paid face value--and who would have paid more--arrived as late as possible, choosing not to go the undercard distance in heat that reached 100 degrees as the first preliminary began.

Many lingered inside the cool of Caesars; some of those alternately cheering and jeering would remain oblivious when Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney began whacking one another. Fight? What fight? Shut up and deal.

Some friends of Woods' work in the MGM Grand, and told him that during the major fire at the hotel many a gambler kept his mind on the bets at hand even when the flames licked within a few hundred yards. Eventually dragged from the tables, they could give George Allen lessons in how to avoid distractions.

Late-arriving glitterati tonight included Richard Pryor, David Hartman, Sugar Ray Leonard and Olivia Newton-John. Forty-five minutes before the main event, nearly all seats were occupied. Woods may have gotten lucky after all.

As the hard-core hardies arrived, they noticed Caesars' usual understated touch of patriotism: an American flag 14 floors in length. Cynics noted it blocked free viewing of the fight with binoculars.

Hotels were lavishly accommodating to guests able to muster, a $50,000 line of credit. For them, the fight was a necessary intrusion to the business of pleasure.

"The entertainment of everybody after this is over," promoter Don King admitted during a weak moment earlier this week. "That's when the real fight will begin."