To understand the significance of the World Barber Championships it helps to view America as Contest Nation, a land where virtuosity is tested again and again and then some more.

Ours is a country of competitors longing for opportunities to prove they are the best at what they do--whether that's eating a mountain of hot dogs, driving a Metro bus through an obstacle course or installing bathroom plumbing with precision. Pinpoint a skill and there's a competition surrounding it because ours is also a country of promoters.

Hence, the National Beef Cook-Off in Omaha, the International Auctioneer Championships in Oklahoma City, the Rube Goldberg Contest on Long Island (As in: Who can design the zaniest machine?) Next month: Ocean City's Weird Contest Week, a smorgasbord of scrimmages in such fields as saltwater taffy sculpting and animal impersonation.

But let's get serious: Barbering is one of the world's oldest professions and to be a world champion haircutter is to hold a title that really means something. And so on a slow Monday night this week some 150 people traveled to the Classics nightclub in Camp Springs to be dazzled by clipper prowess.

Would Amani Stebbins of Marlow Heights or Davida Berry of Philadelphia win the women's preliminary?

Would Frank "the International Haircutting Machine" Rawlings of Capitol Heights or Jerl "City Sharp" Leary of Philadelphia capture the speed-cutting crown?

And finally, in the showcase matchup, would world champ Angelo "Razor Sharp" Cannon of Suitland successfully defend his title against Jermaine "Mr. Maine" Roach of Philly?

"I'm gonna stomp on that roach," boasts Cannon.

"That was real cute," replies Roach, "but I want to see him get in the ring with me."

Snippy Repartee

The evening's impresario is Roger Gore, by his own description "a hair products manufacturer, promoter, visionary."

"I'm before my time," he says.

Gore is wearing a bow tie and a pinstripe shirt and a fine suit. He explains what is about to take place and why anyone should care. "These contests will display the best barbering techniques in the world. You'll then have barbers coming into the trade shows wanting to knock the champ out. They'll want to be considered the best barber in the world. From holding the belt, you get endorsements. It's like Wimbledon in tennis, like the U.S. Open in golf."

Whoa, Roger, slow down.

"We're trying to take it to the level of a world boxing championship. Like getting in the ring with Mike Tyson. If you come into the ring and don't know what you're doing, you're going to get hurt. Eventually, we want to have it at arenas. They've nicknamed me the Don King of barbering."

If the linkage between barbering and boxing was not apparent before, it is now.

The Classics' dance floor has been transformed into a ring, set up with side-by-side barber chairs and white-clothed tables for each barber's tools. Flood lights give the space that big-sport feel. The four judges have just been sworn in and are sitting patiently at ringside. They will grade the barbers on such things as creativity, technique, variety, showmanship.

Two color commentators with a microphone are at another ringside table providing prefight analyses for the crowd. A referee in tuxedo garb is standing in waiting. The fighters, uh, barbers, are in the audience, their models and entourages in tow. D-Nyce, a local deejay, is blasting the sounds of Slick Rick and the Huck-a-Bucks. It's a party, all right.

Boxing is full of characters and theatrics, and no evening of competitive barbering would be worth squat without some of that. Witness Regi Miner, bodyguard to athletes and entertainers (Riddick Bowe, Whitney Houston). As the women's prelim gets underway, he sits down at the commentating booth to hype the main bout. Miner is Razor Sharp Cannon's cornerman.

"Look at him," Miner says, pointing to his man. "He's pretty. Every day, drinking fresh water. Steady hands." Obviously Miner has seen the tapes of Muhammad Ali's famed cornerman, Drew "Bundini" Brown, going through his routine. Miner then turns in the direction of Roach, who is sitting maybe 50 feet away, surrounded by his Philly crew. "I give him credit. He did come down here. I thought he wasn't going to show up. I thought he was going to run."

At that, Roach leaves his table and heads for the mike. "Basically, I think Angelo is a pretty good barber," says Roach. "But the man's too old. He needs to be in a rocking chair."

It should be said that Cannon is 33. Roach just turned 24.

"This ain't no high school talent show," Miner shouts back as he returns to his seat. "We're going to beat him so bad, he's going to get out of the business. He's going to grow dreadlocks."

In a surprise, Amani Stebbins, in her first year of barbering, defeats Davida Berry, known as "Philly's finest female barber." Her winning cut: A sculpted Afro that she then ran her hands through with oil to create a slightly uneven, unfinished look.

Next up: the speed-cutting championship. One round, 15 minutes.

"The Machine," as favorite Frank Rawlings is called, promises to make mincemeat of "City Sharp" Leary. Rawlings is a squat fellow with a bald head who flexes his fingers as though he is preparing to put a death grip on those clippers. He has a tattoo on his neck that says, "Cutting Machine." He's 52 with a story to tell.

From 1969 to 1974, he served time for armed robbery at Lorton, where he learned the barbering trade. Now, he teaches the trade to female inmates in the District. "It's not just learning a lesson, it's what you do with your life," Rawlings says.

Rawlings and Leary enter the ring and go at it. Neither of the barbers' models actually looks like he needs a haircut. But this is about speed. The Machine gives his model what is called a "high-skin fade," meaning he leaves an inch or so of hair on top and chisels the sides until just skin is left. Both barbers finish in just under 15 minutes. The Machine takes home the speed-cutting belt.

He is happy.

Now it is time for the main title bout. The Philly fans are hyped. They're drinking lime drinks with cherries. They're in the aisles dancing.

Roach's entourage makes a grand entrance. In come two guys in black-trimmed gold robes, waving gold flags. Then, four female cheerleaders shaking gold pom-poms. A gantlet is formed from the doorway of the club to the ring. Through it bops "Mr. Maine," dancing, profiling. He's wearing a shiny gold robe too, and red boxing gloves. He shuffles, throws a few punches.

Now, it's Razor Sharp's turn. But first, etiquette must be observed. A Marine Corps color guard enters the ring for the national anthem. The crowd quiets. A local crooner does an R&B rendition.

Now, back to the show.

A tall, curvy woman struts in, holding Cannon's championship belt up high. Then comes Cannon's team of big bruisers, some dressed in white-and-black satin robes, one carrying a red spit bucket. They're led by Regi Miner, who intentionally chest-bumps one of Roach's men. Intimidation. Behind them is the champ in a full-length white satin robe. He doffs that robe to reveal a shorter white satin robe.

Wardrobes are important.

Both corners are noisy. "I detect a lot of tension between these two camps," says Gore from the commentator's table.

The referee brings the two contestants to the middle of the ring. "I want a nice clean fight, no tricky stuff." There will be three rounds. Each barber will cut three heads in different styles, with a 20-minute time limit for each haircut.

Now, let's barber!

Cannon is so confident that he dances while giving his first cut to a woman with short curly hair. She is the only female model to appear in the competition, and Cannon uses a razor and shaving cream to do her eyebrows. Roach's first model is a man with a medium-size Afro and full beard, and Roach sculpts both perfectly and finishes long before his allotted time and before Cannon.

"The speed-cutting championship was the last bout," taunts Miner from the sidelines. "This is about skill. Angelo is a true warrior."

In the second round, Cannon finishes first after giving a kind of pompadour cut to his model. A ring girl massages the champ's shoulders. Miner wipes the champ's forehead with a towel. Then Miner lays down on the floor and pretends to go to sleep, mocking how long it is taking Roach to finish his second cut.

Roach is unfazed. He has won six competitions, including in the hostile environs of New York and New Jersey. He has his technique down to a science. He wears headphones during his cuts. Positioned behind him is a cornerman, also with headphones, who stays in constant communication.

"He helps me keep my focus," explains Roach, "let's me know if I'm going too fast or too slow. When you're competing with a time limit, it's easy to make mistakes."

After two rounds, the match is close.

In the final round, Cannon cuts his model's hair until he is bald. He then takes out the razor--after all, he is "Razor Sharp" Cannon--and shaves the head extra clean. "That man is so relaxed with that razor in his hand," says one commentator, "that he's falling asleep."

For his final cut, Roach turns artistic. He fades different sections of his model's head, cuts in squiggly lines everywhere and whips off his model's cape Zorro-style. When he finishes, Roach's work looks like it belongs in a gallery.

The judges tally the scores, the suspense builds. And the winner is? Jermaine "Mr. Maine" Roach, in an upset. The championship belt and a $1,000 purse are his. Roach is mobbed by his Philly posse. The celebration begins.

Meanwhile, the mouth that roared, Regi Miner, has crept quietly out of the ring. What happened? How could the great "Razor Sharp" Cannon, the champ with the steady hands, so pretty, drinking all the fresh water, be dethroned?

"Well, the young man trained real hard," Miner says of Roach. "He cut real well. He was a better man today, but we'll be back."