Julius (Juice) Gatkin, aide-de-camp and self-appointed bodyguard to Sugar Ray Leonard, cracked open the door to the boxer's dressing room Friday night and told the visitors to go away.

As usual, however, Juice was overruled. Leonard had recognized the visitors. "It's OK, let 'em in, man," he said softly.

"Old friends from school," explained Michael G. Trainer, Leonard's lawyer, as he watched the hugging and hand slapping. "Ray just can't turn these people away. He can't say no to his friends."

"Why not," says Leonard. "These people have been good to me for a long time."

As boxers go, Sugar Ray Leonard, the Palmer Park, Md., gold medal Olympic boxer, hasn't been around that long. Friday night was his 15th consecutive win, his first against a high-ranking fighter.

But he has already developed a devoted entourage that is a miniature version of the crowds that trail Muhammad Ali.

Not everyone who comes to watch Leonard fight knows him. "I've seen every fight he's fought in this area since he turned pro and I never met him," said Willard Burton, who works in a Seat Pleasant supermarket. "But when I see him I feel proud because I know he's made it. He's proved you can move from our area and make it."

The inspiration of Leonard's meteoric career seems to affect friends and strangers alike.

"Sugar Ray puts spirit in me whenever I see him," said Louis Buther, a fighter for seven years and a friend of Leonard for four. "Watching him makes me want to do what's right. I want to try and be like him, just like him."

Such accolades are usually reserved for champions. But Leonard, although he intends to fight for the title within a year, is still only the 8th-ranked welter-weight boxer in the world. His popularity easily outstrips his ranking.

His 4-year-old son, known as Little Ray, is almost as big a celebrity as his father. "Hey Little Ray, how's your dad going to do?" people shout as the wide-eyed youngster sits on the lap of his mother, Juanita Wilkinson, at ringside before the fight.

"I don't like fighting but I love Ray," said Andrea Ferguson. "He's good-looking, he's slick and he's funny."

Leonard's personality and smile are probably as responsible for his popularity as his boxing skills. People want to be near him whether he's or lacing his sneakers.

In spite of Juice's best efforts Friday night - Leonard won a unanimous decision over Randy Shield - Leonard's locker room looked like the Whitehurst Freeway at rush hour during most of the prefight period.

This revolving door does not please those in Leonard's fight "family," but at the same time they realize that part of Leonard's immense popularity in the Baltimore Washington area stems from the fact that many people consider him to be "one of us."

"It's a dilemma," Trainer admitted. "He knows an awful lot of people and they all want to be a part of this. It's a big thing to be able to say, 'I'm friends with Sugar Ray Leonard.'"

"We don't want to ever get to a point where we have to take him somewhere and hide him, but it gets to be a distraction sometimes, especially before a fight."

Fight night for many people who knew Leonard as a boy is a major occasion. It is a night to dress up, to step out, and to bask vicariously in what he has achieved.

On Friday night many of them checed into the Holiday Inn Downtown, directly across from the Civic Center, so they could spend the night here celebrating the victory.

Otherw simply wanted to be near Leonard, to wish him luck before, to cheer him on during and to shake his hand after the fight.

"Ray is special," said his older brother Roger, who also is a boxer. "Most fighters are just that, fighters. Not Ray. People relate to him and he can relate to them. He has the smile and the personlity. He's more like a singer than a boxer."

Dave Jacobs said, "There was a time when he was young when Ray was shy, withdrawn." Now, the man who has trained Leonard since he first began fighting at the Palmer Park Recreation Center in 1970 says, "He's grown as his following has grown. Now he enjoys most of it. It's easy for him."

And so as the seemingly endless stream of well-wishers poured into the dressing room, Leonard smiled and enjoyed himself.

Meanwhile, Julie struggled to keep outsiders away. Only Cicero Leonard, his four sons, manager Angelo Dundee, Jacobs, adviser Janks Morton and publicity man Charlie Brothman were supposed to be inside.

At ringside, Leonard's mother, Getha, sat with her daughters and waited nervously.

During the fight she did not leave her seat, she did not cheer. She just waited for it to be over. "The rest, they enjoy it," she said gesturing to the people surrounding her. "I just become a wreck. Especially now with two of them fighting. By the time I get myself together from one fight it's time for another."

As the tension in the dressing room built, it was Leonard who broke it, telling stories about past fights, clowning with his brother Roger and joking with Trainer.

Finally, 15 minutes before Leonard was scheduled to enter the ring, Juice got his wish. Most nights everyone but the "fight" family is cleared out of the locker room.

Then for a few moments, all was quiet. When Brotman put his head in the door and said "two minutes," Leonard, his father and three brothers, Dundee, Morton and Jacobs formed a circle.

In a loud voice Jacobs asked the Lord "to put a fence," around Leonard and to protect him. Then it was time to go.

Six large bodyguards waited outside the door. They made sure Leonard got through the crowd to the ring untouched. All waited in the wings as Leonards's sister, Sandra, sang the national anthem.

A single spotlight cut to the wings and the entourage stepped into it. The moment the light struck Leonard, the crowd - 10,067 Friday - exploded. Clearly, Leonard was on his home turf.