ne of the last of the many legendary contests won by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer was his encounter with Mike Tyson in 1987. As related by Ben Rogers in ''A. J. Ayer: A Life,'' Ayer -- small, frail, slight as a sparrow and then 77 years old -- was entertaining a group of models at a New York party when a girl ran in screaming that her friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. The parties involved turned out to be Tyson and Naomi Campbell. ''Do you know who . . . I am?'' Tyson asked in disbelief when Ayer urged him to desist: ''I'm the heavyweight champion of the world.'' ''And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic,'' Ayer answered politely. ''We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.''
So they did, while Campbell slipped away. There are endless stories like this about Ayer's charm, nerve and dazzling powers of improvisation. He was famous for responding clearly and directly without showing off or talking down, whether it was to a television audience, an overconfident student or a boxing titleholder. He was as competitive as Tyson, partly, no doubt, because he never entirely got over a similar sense of being an outsider. Both needed to assert themselves by proving and re-proving their own worth. Their almost childlike delight in worldly success found its downside in an equally childish arrogance and insensitivity. Each had an insatiable drive to seduce women coupled with frank inability to take them seriously as equal human beings.