When Muhammad Ali failed to answer the 11th-round bell in his bout with Larry Holmes two weeks ago, his fans were desolate, his handlers and friends more so. The fight convincingly settled the issue of who is now the better fighter. Just as certainly, it did not answer the question: Why had Ali gone into the ring?

Rumors abounded that he had suffered brain and kidney damage from the punishment of his 59 previous fights, and Ali, 38, had finally welcomed the Nevada Athletic Commission's order that he undergo a thorough physical exam. "At first he was ticked off," recalls commission chairman Sig Rogich, "but then it was Ali himself who decided to go to the mountain—to Mayo. Secretly I think he wanted to find out himself. Maybe some of the rumors were getting to him too." The Mayo Clinic found nothing wrong. Holmes clearly did. Ali says there is no mystery about why he braved the clear risk of permanent injury. "Of course I did it for the money," he says. "I've always needed money." Yet those who know him, while not minimizing the allure of $8 million ($4.5 million after taxes), worry that a payoff alone never got him into the ring before. They have concluded that the Holmes fight may have been a gamble inspired by serious financial pressure. "Before, he always talked about the love of the championship, the love of the ring," says writer George Plimpton, a friend of Ali. "The Holmes fight is the only time I've ever heard Ali talking about going into the ring for money. I found it indicative."

Years of bad financial management, lavish generosity and opulent living have taken their monetary toll. "The man has earned $60 or $70 million in the ring," says Mark McCormack, a lawyer and financial adviser to athletes, who was hired two years ago to bring order to Ali's business dealings. "With proper management, that kind of money should have him set to live in luxury for the rest of his life. Of course, if he'd been manageable he might not have been Muhammad Ali. In any case, the money was drained away."

Ali's net worth is unknown, but estimates of his expenses run as high as $10,000 a day to support his lifestyle. He owns a farm in Michigan, a training camp in Pennsylvania, mansions in Chicago and Los Angeles. He will put in an elevator large enough to contain four grand pianos and decorate rooms with geographical motifs—an Egyptian room with camels and pyramids, an Indian room with tepees. He is extravagant about cars. "I wanted a Rolls-Royce," he once said. "And why not? Then I saw a pretty Cadillac Eldorado. Don't want to ride in the Rolls every day—buy the Eldorado." Child-support payments and alimony to his two ex-wives cost Muhammad in excess of $100,000 each year. He also supports his parents generously and has given millions to his church, the Nation of Islam. Even in defeat he talked of "building an $8 million mosque on 50 acres in Los Angeles. I'm having the blueprints drawn up for a house of prayer. The commandments say if you build a house for God, He'll give you a home in heaven."

Meanwhile, Ali's major expense seems to be his retinue, the 30 or so hangers-on whose dubious services he rewards handsomely. "Ali is too nice," says one friend. "He'll meet someone and the next day the guy will be on the payroll with a self-invented title. When Ali made a million dollars, he supported a million dollars worth of people and their lifestyles. If he made a hundred million, he'd support a hundred million dollars worth of people."

There are signs that Muhammad won't be living that way much longer. A. Robert Abboud, the president of Occidental Petroleum and former chairman of the First Chicago Corporation, volunteered bank services gratis to straighten out Ali's accounts two years ago. His affairs are now run on a more businesslike basis. Agent McCormack arranged Ali's endorsements of a magazine, Inside Sports, and Sylvania flashbulbs. He believes his client will continue to be eminently bankable. "He's Ali," McCormack says. "He's totally different from what anyone else has ever been. And if he chooses to get involved commercially in the Third World, where he is worshipped, he will make even more money."

His personality and charisma may be Ali's only sources of future income. Although he talks of future matches, few experts believe he will be permitted another fight. "After seeing this one," says Dr. George Romeo, Nevada Athletic Commissioner, "I guarantee you he will never be allowed to fight in this state again." Boxing officials everywhere are likely to concur.