THE SOFT SKIN of Sugar Ray Leonard's perpetually pleasant face was not made for hitting, nor were his aching knuckles meant for punching. Nothing about him suggests the sweet-and-sour science.

"People look me up and down," he grins. "They say, 'That little squirt? He can't be Sugar Ray Leonard.'

"Then," Leonard's eyes get wide and mischievous, "they start punchin' on me. One girl grabbed my arm and said, 'Sugar, you some kinda boney, boy. You're no bigger than I am. You better be good, Sugar Ray, or I'll beat you up'"

Ray Charles Leonard only lets himself be punched by the ladies.He wisely draws the line at men.

That face atop Leonard's slender 5-foot-9, 145-pound frame was made for smiling, for nuzzling his young baby son, and for generally teasing and pleasing everyone who comes into his orbit.

But his open mug is being hit regularly and hard these late summer days.

Barely a year ago, on the last day of Bicentennial July, Leonard won the Olympic title in the 139-pound class, culminating one of the greatest amateur boxing careers in history. He took a nation's affection for his prize and vowed never to fight again. He had had the best, he said. All professional prizefighting could offer him was sacrifice, pain, poor paydays, and a prematurely addled brain.

His "goodbye" was as euphonious as his name.

But now Ray Leonad is fighting again, nearly once a month. The bouts are longer, the blows harder. In the amateur ranks, leather seldom touched his face. For three rounds at a time - "Shazam" - he could become almost invisible, just a blur of combinations and retreating feet.

Already Leonard's fights are six rounds long, and the eight-, ten-, twelve-, and fifteen-rounders are just a matter of time. He knows he has an appointment with pain, and the move quickly he improves, the sooner he will be tested.

After just three pro fights, Leonard has been cut - on the lip in training - badly enough to postpone a scheduled fight.He has been staggered in the ring and learned what it feels like for the brain to ask itself, "Oh God, is this what a knockout is like?" He has been forced, embarrassing as it may be, to wear a protective mask in training that resembles a pillow.

Leonard turned 21 this summer. It was an appropriate line of demarcation. As a youth Leonard's hard work and hard talent earned him world recognition. But the price never included his own blood, his own fear. The boy who discovered that "boxing was in my blood" as a shy, skinny 14-year-old never had to experience that fall from the rim of consciousness into the dark privacy of the knockdown night with its dull dream of pain.

Now, as an adult, Leonard finds himself in another country, one where the men who stand between him and his eventual goal, a world title, all have slumber in their hook and midnight in their right.

In a sense, Leonard's life has come full circle in the swirling year since his Olympic triumph. He has been feted and adored, but he has also suffered through a paternity suit and public pillorying. He was praised for choosing a college education over the brutul pro ring, yet within weeks had to swallow those words and get out the gloves to earn money for his family of nine that had both parents hospitalized.

He started his pro career in glamor as his first two lackluster bouts were on national TV. But by his third fight in mid-June, the Olympic star's video novelty had worn thin and he was on the road fighting before 6000 people but no TV, against an unknown.

Leonard knows that fight in Hartford, Connecticut, symbolized the way his future will be for at least the next two years, while he toughens his soft skin, builds his stamina and his suspect punching power, and, finally, draws the world's loving eye back to him when he fights for the world welterweight championship.

In the meantime, he and his devoted boxing entourage will be crowded into a lot of humble dressing rooms like the one they found in the bowels of the Hartford Civic Center. The sign on the door said, "Men's Room." Underneath, in magic marker on dog-earned adhesive tape were the words "Sugar Ray Leonard."

Fighters far less famous than Leonard would have been insulted to push through the swinging door and see peeling paint, exposed pipes and smell the mixture of ammonia, linament and sweat that gave the cinderblock chamber the same pungent scent of suppressed fear as a hospital operating room.

And others might have been miffed to share their cramped quarters not only with urinals but with half-a-dozen prelim fighters, all shadow boxing or meditating in toilet stalls.

Leonard, squeezed inconspicuously in a corner, sat on a rubbing table dressed in jeans, black bedroom slippers, a blue windbreaker and a favorite sea captain's hat.

"I don't like to look like a fighter," he said, with his easy, slightly gap-toothed smile. "I came here to do a job, not to wear a three-piece suit . . . for instance, I like this old hat. If fits me; it's a good prop. I can salute people, do funny things with it. It's not what people expect me to wear, so I like it.

"Also, I think people like it better if I dress like this. They say, 'He's makin' all this money but he's not buyin' clothes with it.'"

Actually, Leonard dearly loves clothes and carries a photo album of a Woodies fashion show where he modeled two classic suits that made him look like a young, black Cary Grant. "Do I love to look sharp," his mocha face smiles, his jet eyes coming alive. "I know how to dress up and act like somebody, so every head will turn and they'll say, 'Who is that?"

If one gift is even more dramatically native to him than boxing, it is his knack of quietly disarming people and winning them to his corner.

Good manners, modesty, a patience almost unheard of in premier athletes come to Leonard as naturally as doubling up on a left hook.

On this night in Hartford, Leonard is an oasis of calm in the bizarre confusion. In one corner an old gentleman in a sad blue suit and brown wingtip shoes progressively embalms himself from a hip flask while singing musical scales in an undependable baritone in preparation for singing the National Anthem. Leonard humors the drunk, tells how his mother named him for Ray Charles, the blues man. "She says I used to sound like Sam Cooke but now I just sound awful," jokes Leonard.

In another quadrant, a human gargoyle sits holding what remains of his face in his hands. If he were to sit up too quickly, one might see what lies behind a face. He is a heavyweight named Matt, a sacrificial tomato can lined up to appease the crowd's blood lust by a manager named "Sloppy Rocky."

Matt has lost. Finally, he looks at himself in a mirror, mouth barely stanched, teeth snaggled, eyes swollen. In his old ripped tee-shirt he is as homely as Leonard is handsome, as ponderous as the Olympian is lithe, as mentally slow as Ray is liquid.

"I drove seven hours to get here," Matts says. "I just found out I got the fight today. Got another one in Newark on Monday. Some guy named Green, been knockin' everybody out."

Leonard seeks out Matt, gives him a subdued soul shake, and talks for a few seconds. He senses that being kayoed on Sugar Ray's card may be one of the highlights of Matt's career.

"I know I'm lucky," says Leonard, looking around the room. "People write that it's not fair that I got $40,000 for my first pro fight and the other guy got $650. But it's not that what I'm gettin' isn't right; it's that what the guys who are trying to fight their way up from the bottom get is wrong.

"You see their faces," whispers Leonard, nodding at Matt, "and you think what money they're makin' for it. I'm getting more tonight ($10,000 guarantee plus $2500 as percentage of gate) than all the rest of the fighters on the card put together, maybe a lot more.

"These guys that will fight three times a week . . . drive anywhere for a couple of hundred . . . I know the bad feeling they have.

"But, man, you got to stand up for yourself. If they told me to fight again Monday, I'd tell 'em to sit on it. That's not fighting, that's feastin'. Blood feastin', I call it."

Boxing has never been a blood feast for Leonard, but rather an art, a way of speaking, a voice for a youngster who had few other outlets.

The streets of Northwest Washington where Leonard grew up as one of seven children of Cicero and Getha Leonard are full of youngsters with the sort of bright, almost cherubic face that that Sugar Ray has retained. But, as they grow into adolescence, a cloud passes over all but the luckiest.

Leonard was fortunate.When he was 14 his parents - one a nurse, the other a supermarket manager - moved to the predominantly black Prince George's County suburb of Palmer Park. From the front porch of their modest ranch-style house, Leonard could see all the way down Barlowe Road to the Palmer Park Recreation Center.

"Maybe someday when I'm rich and famous," Leonard laughs, "they'll name it the Sugar Ray Leonard Recreation Center." They probably will. It's already been suggested that Barlowe Road become Sugr Ray Leonard Drive.

But in more sober moments, Leonard knows that if any name-changing is done it is a 44-year-old, balding former fighter named Dave Jacobs who should the honor.

Jacobs is the archetypal recreation department coach, dedicated not to promoting his name, but to bolstering kids who are "so little and scrawny they look like they can't lift the gloves." That is exactly the way he describes his first glimpse of Leonard.

They story of Leonard's teens could hardly be simpler. Boxing filled his life - with discipline, praise, goals, self-confidence - staples that the children of the ghetto and the near ghetto lack.

Beneath Leonard's Ali shuffle, his pre-fight kisses to all four corners of the auditorium, is a person who sees himself as "conservative, clean-cut." Plenty of the Washington streets has rubbed off on Leonard. In fact, this summer the last fragments of Barlowe Street glass were surgically removed from Leonard's knee. But what is underneath is almost alarmingly old-fashioned. That is Jacobs' influence.

"Ray was a funny sort of kid," says his father. "He never gave us one bit of trouble, not at home or in school, but he always hung back, you know? It used to worry me. All my other boys were always into something, but Ray . . . not until boxing . . . I didn't believe it until I saw him fight the first time. I still can't hardly believe it, you know?"

Leonard's house quickly filled with scores of trophies and the young man was obsessive about adding to the collection. It would be almost impossible to name a national or international amateur tournament - ten of them considered major - that Leonard did not win in histeens.

With 150 amateur fights behind him (145-5), Leonard was a heavy favourite in Montreal. Leonard knew a hundred crafty ways to win and just as many to avoid losing. He was no killer, just a pure boxer to whom that tall trophy meant more than a bloody knock-out.

The greatest traumas of Leonard's previously rather one-dimensional life came in the weeks after Olympic gold made him an overnight national glamor boy.

Picking up a trick from a fighter he licked in the Olympic trials, Leonard taped a picture of his girl friend and their baby son on his ankle in Montreal. What at first seemed so All-American and insouciant, suddenly turned sour when the Washington Star slapped an eight-column banner on its front page saying Leonard's girl friend and child had been on welfare during the year he trained for the Olympics and that a paternity suit had been filed.

It quickly devolved that the "suit" was a mere red-tape piece of bureaucratic paper that Juanita Wilkinson had signed so her Ray Jr. would be eligible for food stamps. But the damage had been done. Leonard, though he had never denied his parenthood, got a worse black eye out of the ring than he ever got in it.

Those were Leonard's troubled days. On top of everything, his mother had a heart attack before the Olympics and his father was hospitalized with spinal pneumonia after. Palmer Park was knee-deep in Leonard controversy, but neither was negotiable.

The day he returned from Canada, Leonard said, "In my heart all I ever wanted was this gold medal and the chance at a straight life. I wanted to set an example and I have."

Leonard wanted to finish his career on that note, but faced with three generations of Leonards needing his financial assistance, the 20-year-old remembered the words of his Olympic coach who had said, "Ray would go through the pros like a dose of salts."

Also, an inner voice of common sense told Leonard that fighting was what he did best; in fact, that it was all he knew.

"Ten years from now, people are going to look at me and say, 'He won the gold medal and then quit. I wonder why,'" said the boxer the day he turned pro. "If you want to know why I'm changing my mind, you'd have to say it's just reality, I guess."

But the boxing world did five good turns for Leonard, five more than it has done for most fighters. The blessings are named Dave Jacobs, Janks Morton, Mike Trainer, Charlie Brotman and Angelo Dundee. They are Leonard's professional boxing family, his financial, spiritual and athletic cocoon.

Jacobs remained as trainer, a sort of five a.m. conscience from the old days of training on pre-dawn streets, though Dundee, trainer of then world champions, took over Leonard's corner on fight nights.

Morton, an ex-pro football linebacker, adopted Leonard as a little brother years ago and has stayed close as the one person whose opinion carries most weight with Leonard.

Trainer, a local lawyer who thankfully had no boxing experience, helped straighten out Leonard's financial affairs, suggesting that he become the first boxer to declare himself a corporation and own 100 per cent of himself.

Sugar Ray Leonard, Inc., quickly became a small public relations and promotional empire, with Brotman, an indefatigable press agent, lining up myriad public appearance - some charitable, some for a $1000 minimum, and some, like the "Tonight" and "Today" shows, for exposure.

Sites and financial guarantees for Leonard's next twelve fights, stretching into early 1979, are already lined up - unheard-of pre-planning in the lobotomized boxing world.

Leonard's boxing family knows that it is Sugar Ray the "commodity" that runs the risk of becoming saccharine if, for instance,Leonard ends up as the color commentating buffoon opposite Howard Cosell too often. So far the inevitable hype has been reigned in. "You don't see Ray in TV commercials, do you?" Trainer asks proudly, recalling Mark Spitz's disastrous overexposure.

The fighter has judiciously adopted Baltimore as his home fighting city because his managers think that town is more likely to embrace his homogenized All-American image than Washington.

"Ray has really ingratiated himself to Baltimore," understates Brotman. "He's practically the mayor's righthand man . . . Why not make him the All-American boy? He is."

Leonard, the marketable manchild, is constantly hemmed in by public obligations, private restraints and expectations of endless, patient best behavior. Yet he carries the burden like a feather. Born to the cloth, they call it.

Half an hour before he is to meet Hartford's local talent - one bullnecked Vinnie DeBarros, an experienced if unspectacular tough guy - the three sons of the governor of Connecticut arrive, assuming their private audience with Leonard will be granted.

It is, gracefully. Leonard has a genius for suffering fools, particularly the political types who have found him irresistible since the day he returned from Montreal. He signs autographs until the last split second before Dundee, who also handles Muhammad Ali, says crisply, "Time to tape, Sugar."

Then, just minutes before the fight, the change begins. Leonard packs away his last ear-to-ear grin of the night, and pops all ten knuckles in a deliberate ritual to ready his troublesome, delicate hands for taping.

"You think that the hour of the fight is never going to come," he says. "Then it's on you too fast. Everything's a rush. My mind's going in all directions . . . but they say the look in my eyes changes as the fight approaches. My friends say, 'Ray, it's scary.'"

With each minute before the fight, Leonard draws more within himself. When every knot and strap is in place, he stares into a mirror for many long minutes, occasionally flicking a jab at the reflection.

"They say Ray spars with the mirror 'cause that's the only man he can find who's as fast as he is," says his father, nurturing the myth.

"I tell myself, 'Get ready, Ray. It's about time,'" says Leonard. "But I still never feel anything until five minutes before the fight. Then it hits me. It's like somebody's scrapin' your insides. You can't even catch your breath."

For that one wrenching moment the expectations and pressures around Leonard leap up and steal his very breath.

"I don't understand a fighter who doesn't admit his fear," says Leonard. "I feel all those punches. In my second pro fight I was staggered. My knees buckled. My mind said, 'Wow, is it all over? Is this what bein' knocked out is?'

"You can't help thinking about it. One lucky punch,one bad night could end a career. It would make everything stand still . . . It's hard for a fighter to admit that he has ever been hurt or that he has ever lost. It's like a man who won't tell a woman he's in love with her. It's false pride."

Leonard's entourage surrounds him, preparing for the men's room door to open, bracing themselves for the long shove through a sea of hands and faces, up to the ring where Leonard will knock DeBarros out in the third round.

"I'll be the pusher," says the broad-shouldered Morton, taking the front position while Leonard's little family locks arms around him with their only boxing son safe in the middle.

"As we go up to the ring," says Leonard, "sometimes I feel very old . . . 50. That's good and it's bad. You've been to so many parts of the world to fight - Russia, Poland. You've had to reach inside yourself so many times, that you're afraid that you're living life too fast. Your friends say, 'Hey, let's do this.' And you say, 'I already did that.' It gets so you almost know ahead of time how life feels."

Angelo Dundee raises his hands for quiet. The men's room becomes silent. For an instant the only sound is 6000 people outside chanting "Sugar Ray."

"Okay," smiles Dundee who has been here so many times, occasionally even with someone who made it to the top. "Let's go, gang."

"I know that fighting is right for me," says Leonard. "I wake up in the middle of the night and I think of a combination that's completely new. Maybe nobody else ever thought of it or was able to do it. I stand in front of the mirror throwing it as fast as I can until each punch is perfect, the way I imagined it.

"I love perfection. I want to be a master," he says soberly.

"In the ring everything's all right. Your fists are like snakes that strike before you even tell them to. But," he says softly, "you know you shouldn't talk about a gift. You might find out the secret."