THEY WERE TALKING about the fights. They were talking other sports as well - some baseball, a little softball and a mention of wrestling - but mostly they were talking fighting. This was a slice of the old fight crowd, some of the men who used to lace up for Catholic University. They were gathered again, some of them. They were among those gathered for Walter Washington.

He was expected momentarily. He would come around the side of the house and onto the back lawn where the food tables had been set up and he would speak from the raised wooden deck at the rear of the house. He would stand on the deck, the sun setting fast behind him, and his features would go purple with the fading light and then be lost entirely. When he arrived at the reception attended by about 50 persons, the old fighters muted their recollections and answered questions in a whisper.

One of them had pointed to J. C. Turner, pre-eminent labor leader in a town that never hears a factory whistle. "Jay Turner could knock out a man with one punch," said David Bernstein, a one-time CU boxing star and later a coach. "I've seen a lot of fighters in my time but there are very few of them I could say that of. He was a marvelous fighter."

Turner ambled over to join the small group. He said hello to Charlie Reynolds who used to referee fights out at Griffith Stadium and he said hello to Joe Bunsa renowned, or so it was later told, for having three knockouts in one fight. As a CU boxer, he decked his opponent from Duke, kept swinging, accidentally hit the referee and then clobbered the guy from Duke again when he came up off the canvas with half a minute to go in the round.

"Mugsy Morris," Bernstein said afterward. "That was the name of the referee."

Up on the deck, Abe Rosenfield was auctioning off various items, the profits to go to Walter Washington's campaign. If you'd asked me, I would have told you that Abe Rosenfield is a former member of the school board, which is where I first saw him, and the owner of a prosperous liquor business. But down on the grass, he also was described to me as a marvelous athlete, another Catholic University great, and the man who struck out the all-but invisible Milton Kronheim. Kronheim also is in the liquor business.

This went on for a while. There were connections inside connections, associations that were already fully formed in the late 1930s, a way of looking at Walter Washington that comes from this perspective. It occurs to you after a while that there was a city before there was a city - something here before K Street got fancy, when downtown was really downtown and you couldn't sit at the counter at Woolworth's if you were black.

It was a city of baseball games and silent influence on the Hill and heat that drove you home in the middle of the day and paper fans supplied by some patient mortuary. This was the Washington that stayed in August, that sat out the summer on the stoop, that played a hose on the leaves of a tree and then waited for the breeze to come off it into the house. This is the city that was here before there was a city. Walter Washington is mayor of this city.

Later, at another reception, a woman said that she would vote for Walter Washington because of what he did during and right after the riots. "He was the one who held us together," she said. "I will never forget 1968." Others said the same thing - how Washington kept the whole thing from coming apart, how he slowly pulled it all back together. He mentioned that himself, hinted at it, actually, talked like a statesman. He was running, he said, not for himself - "but for the next generation of Washingtonians."

He was probably tired. He was sitting before the fireplace and he looked down at the floor and he spoke softly. There were minor jabs at his opponents, but this was an audience of friends. He spoke about what he believed - about the way you run the city government in Washington. You do not call congressmen names. You do not posture. You do not yell for the television and scream for the newspapers and muddle in areas, like education, where you have no business.

His wife spoke up then. Bennetta Washington is a Bullock in a town where Bullocks are important. She is a Washington in a town where her Walter is the mayor. She is an educator - a former high school principal and she talked the oral version of Palmer penmanship - perfect, rounded diction, every syllable in its place. Your attention did not flag. She sat by a chair in the window, a large woman with a dead cigarette at her side, and she told you how the schools should be run. There was little with which to argue. The mayor nodded. The group nodded and some applauded.

Earlier, he had stood on the raised deck. He was nice and effective and easy to like. You had to remember that the public opinion polls say that most of the voters oppose him, that there is a coalition for change, too fragmented, probably, to beat him, but that Walter Washington is not a part of it. He looked down at the people on the lawn and he said he smelled the sweet smell of victory and there's a good chance his nose is right. The night was coming on and when you looked up, his face was totally in the shadows. It seemed almost a statement.

The sun had set on Walter Washington but he never seemed to notice.