The Snickering Snipe and The Voodoo Bantam weigh in for the Fight Book of the Century title match--Wilfrid Sheed's Muhammad Ali versus Norman Mailer's The Fight (p. 758), and it's a closer battle than you might think. That is, you might think Sheed's fancy footwork no match for The Phantom Metaphor's occult clout. But Sheet has several pounds of sweat-drenched color photos stuffed into each glove, plus just about the brightest smile now in business. He also draws upon Ali's whole life, most of which Mailer mightily ignores while conjuring on The Lip's cosmic ($$$) tussle with Foreman in Zaire. Sheed didn't finish reading Norman's serialization of the fight in Playboy because of the ""pervasive influence"" of the Champ's hypnopunch prose. Perhaps half of the present book is based on press clippings and ""rugged hours spent in barroom think tanks, and finally my own head, which recreated Ali stone by stone in its own image, as writers must."" This last, of course, is a feint at The Purple Ego, who has shown he can absorb some of the sharpest punches ever thrown and ask for more. Sheed's shadowboxing with his own past, alas, reveals a glass jaw. Often enough, he offers an insight, then dismisses it, floats like a butterfly but fails to sting like a bee. His interviews with Ali are his funniest moments, especially when Ali notices a book in his lap ""and there is one of those moments of luminous directness. 'You read that whole thing?' he asks. I mumble that if I can write them, I guess I can read them, and he shakes his head . . . I tell him it takes at least a year to write a book, with no applause at the end of the day, and a chorus of boos when it's all over, and he looks absolutely incredulous.