After 11,697 shows, animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams performs his last death-defying act today with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

``Everybody asks me, 'Why now?' ' he said in the thick German accent he hasn't lost since he came to the United States 22 years ago. ``I want to step down when I am really good. I don't want to be like Ali, Sugar Ray, 'Another fight, another fight.' 'A U.S. citizen since 1979, he calls himself ``German-engineered, but a proud American.' At 56, Gebel-Williams remains enviably trim, 141 pounds with a ruddy complexion and a trademark sweep of blond hair.

He announced two years ago that he would retire from ``The Greatest Show on Earth' at the end of the 1990 season. He plans to settle at his winter home in Venice, Fla., with his 20 Bengal and Siberian tigers.

After 42 years on the road, he said, he has lost some of his quickness, and his eyesight isn't what it used to be.

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