It was hardly a lilting ballad to the beauty of the night when, at the fight's end, a bitter Larry Holmes went public on cable television's Home Box Office, with his song of farewell to the trade he had followed for 18 years.

"They can kiss me where the sun don't shine," he vocalized, dedicating the number to "all the judges, referees and boxing commissioners."

This was Holmes, his charming self again, stepping out of boxing but not out of character. He was saying he won Saturday night's fight with Michael Spinks after two of the three judges said he didn't. In announcing his umpteenth retirement, Holmes once again didn't know how to take leave of the sport that brought him the fame and millions he is given to bragging about.

The fight itself was a close thing, the decision for Spinks hotly arguable except in the record books. There was also a lesson for Holmes: Don't bad-mouth fight judges before a fight. Of Nevada's judges who voted unanimously for Spinks in their first fight in September, Holmes had said, "They're all drunk and taking payoffs." He apologized later but might have left a lasting impression with members of the brotherhood of fight judges.

Saturday night's affair was an exciting fight, unlike the dull thing last time. This time Holmes reactivated his right hand, as he promised, and scored with it. In the fifth and the 14th rounds he threatened to take the lighter Spinks out with it, but when everything was added up, there was reasonable belief Spinks had won the fight.

The battle plan of Spinks, calculated on pulling out the fight in the late rounds, was almost surgical in its application. It was premised on survival in the early rounds, then wearing down Holmes later.

It worked, with Holmes having labored himself into arm weariness after the seventh round, with fatigue a passenger on most of the punches he threw thereafter. Hanging heavily on him were his 36 years, plus the tiring effect of those early rounds.

There was some strong doubt that Spinks would even last those early rounds, so heavily was an enraged Holmes coming on with his dockwalloper attempts to brutalize Spinks quickly. Spinks found succor in steady retreat and head movement, but he was appearing even punier than the 18 pounds he conceded to Holmes' 223, and his well-wishers were concerned. In round one, according to the computer, Holmes landed 23 punches, throwing 72. Spinks threw seven, landing five.

But, except for a short hard right he took to the head in round two and another bruiser in round five, Spinks wasn't being damaged and presently it was to unfold that his strategy was a version of Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope that worked against George Foreman in Zaire. Cover up, get out of the way, let the big guy punch himself into near exhaustion, then zap him.

Spinks admitted he gave away too many rounds at the start. "Gave away four rounds," he said. But in reality he gave away the first six, and now it appeared this overgrown light heavyweight could save his title only by knocking out a man who never had been knocked out in 49 fights.

"In the fifth," Spinks said, "my corner said, 'Get busy, Mike.' " His tactics changed and he began to busy himself, indeed, in the seventh. Now, no more retreat. He was snapping off punches good. Jab, jab, jab to Holmes' face without a return. With these triple jabs becoming frequent, and with Spinks also unafraid to throw his right, it now was Holmes who was retreating and plainly tiring.

Gone was the early-round glower, the threatening look and the cocked right hand that would scare a less brave mortal. In the late middle rounds, Holmes' eyes were no longer darting, his jaw was hanging slack and so was his right. He appeared to be a man in trouble against a faster, younger opponent, and knew it.

And then Holmes, in a desperate burst, almost turned the whole thing around with one punch. This time, Spinks couldn't escape a sudden right hand thrown from inside, and his knees wobbled and sank to within inches of the floor. He was hurt and maybe done, yet he summoned enough leg power to get out of the way of Holmes' follow-up and near the end of the round actually was belting Holmes again.

Spinks won the 15th big, against an almost-idle Holmes, whose energy had leaked badly. The little man was pummeling the big man at the bell. And if Holmes was now hearing that the decision had gone to Spinks, well, he knew how Tim Witherspoon and Truth Williams felt when they heard decisions favoring a still-standing champion after they knew they had licked Holmes. Retribution figured in it somewhere.

It hasn't been a pretty farewell for Holmes. Big as he is, he hasn't knocked anybody out in the last 45 rounds. The adulation and the trophy he sought in trying to equal Rocky Marciano's 49-0 record has turned to dross for Holmes: first heavyweight champion to lose his title to a light heavyweight, first to lose to the same little guy twice. That will follow him into the books.