OVER THE years, Ray Leonard has been the cause of a certain inconsistency on these pages when it comes to the sport of boxing. For while we have denounced the fight game itself with some regularity, we also couldn't help admiring the work of this particular fighter -- a brilliant and dominant figure in the ring and a home-towner to boot. This week, however, we can be wholly consistent: boxing is still a nasty business, and we're glad to see Ray Leonard finally getting out of it.

Of course, he had to do it the hard way, reneging on a series of retirements before taking on a much younger man named Terry Norris, who made Mr. Leonard feel all of his 34 years and left him bruised, bleeding, puffy-faced and beaten on Saturday night. Nevertheless, Ray Leonard leaves the ring with his faculties, his finances and his looks intact. The fact that so few of his colleagues are able to do the same is what makes boxing such an unpleasant business.

To be fair, boxing can be -- as Ray Leonard showed many times -- one of the highest of athletic achievements, calling on deep reserves of courage, skill and stamina. And, too, there are other sports where lives are at risk or where players inflict a brutal pounding on one another. But no sport we can think of exacts such a cruel toll over such a long period of time as does boxing -- a form of punishment that leads in all too many cases to permanent brain damage. And none is run by so cynical and rapacious a crowd of exploiters.

Ray Leonard was good and smart and lucky. He didn't have to destroy himself by fighting too often, and he had his money and his career well managed. A figure of great magnetism and charm, he's been a model for the kids in just about everything but the sport he chose, which has long been, for most others who sought their fortune in it, a dead end.