It reminded me of a car crash. Standing in a boxing ring at the D.C. Armory, dressed like Rocky's kid sister, I could see some hurt was coming. The only question was how much.

"Remember the rules now. No gouging, clubbing or hitting below the belt," said the referee before the first of six boxing matches Saturday night to decide who was the Toughest Gal in the Nation's Capital. One of the contestants was a legitimate boxer, a 22-year-old early-morning road-runner and afternoon bag-puncher. The other was a quivering, late-sleeping me.

For a week people had asked why a 5-4, 115-pound person with no obvious scars would want to risk life and limb. Now, under the bright lights of the Armory, with a beery crowd yelling for blood, the question loomed like an epitaph.

Maybe the appeal of the contest was in the advertising: "Think you're tough? Prove it!!" It was probably as low an art form as I'd ever see. The contest seemed reckless and ridiculous, like women's mud wrestling.

Then friends began teasing me to sign up. "You're an athlete, aren't you? And with seven older brothers," they said, "you must have had more than your share of backyard rumbles."

It was only after I'd signed up for the contest, however, that I realized most of what I learned about fighting from my brothers was how to lick my wounds.

The seven other women in the contest were considerably more confident than I. Take Raquel "Rocky" Mellon, for exampe, a 5-8, 156-pound, 20-year-old topless dancer in a downtown bar. Then there was April the Assassin, 19, a 6-1, 241-pound fastfood waitress from Annapolis who predicted, "There's gonna be a lot of bloody noses."

Most of the women said they were entered for the prize money, a first-place purse of $750, with $500 for second. Hope Sikes, an apprentice draftsman from Rockville, said, "My boyfriend wants the money."

I just wanted to get out of the ring alive. But the promoters had matched me against a woman whose goal in life was to be a professional boxer.

I decided to make friends.

"They call me Honey. Honey like a bee with a sting," said 22-year-old Sheila Bethea, a student at Washington International College with a major in computer science and a dream of winning fame and fortune with her fists.

Making friends was actually easy. Sheila was a natural lady, with a disposition sweet as honey. At least outside the ring. But because she outweighed me by 18 pounds and at least a ton of boxing expertise, it took all the bravado I could muster up to step into the ring.

The fight was scheduled for three two-minute rounds. After the first 20 seconds I knew I wouldn't go the distance. I felt like I'd stepped into the Twilight Zone. Leather flew. Face hurt. Gwen wanted to disappear.

Sheila did all the punching. I concentrated on blocking the shots and dancing like Sugar Ray. Two thoughts preoccupied me: Please don't let me get hurt and damn what a fool I am.

When the bell rang to end the first round it sounded like a call from above. I was saved. No way would I go back out there for round two. Call it stomach cramps or cowardice, I was not foolish enough to tempt fate or Sheila's right cross.

I shook for an hour afterward. The fights continued and blood flowed freely. It seemed more like a Roman circus from the stands. But now I was rooting for Sheila, who ended up tied for first place with Joanna Needham, a 21-year-old black-belt karate queen.

At a party later that night, as I accepted incredulous congratulations from people who thought me strange, I realized a sense of disappointment. Once, passing by a hallway mirror, I spied my face and thought how lovely a small black eye would be.