Graceful pillars support a ceiling high enough for an opera house. You expect Victorian gentlemen with monocles at the red velvet ringside seats, and Paris street urchins lining the balcony. But the velvet is worn, the yellow paint dingy with age and cigar smoke. The Wagram boxing hall's charm offers faded glory for a dying sport.

Boxing in France is crippled by taxes and undermined by prosperity and bureaucracy. In 1950, France had 631 professional boxers. Today it has 149, and perhaps only three make a living off the sport.

"You find the best boxers in countries where people are hungry," says promoter Jean Bretonnel, who staged 14 matches, only at Wagram, last year. All but three lost money.

"I only do it because I have to find work for my boxers," says Bretonnel, who made a good living from the business for 50 years.

The big and modern sports arena of Paris, the Palais des Sports, lost money on its last two cards and has abandoned boxing completely. Charlie Michaelis, who used to promote 14 big fights a season for the cavernous arena now promotes Rudolph Nureyev and "Holiday on Ice."

"Boxing was popular here. We brought the best men from all over - Australia, America, a few world champions. We played practically to a full house every show - 4,500 seats - and prices were high, 20 to $100," said Michaelis, who came to France from the United States in 1914.

"Now boxing has practically disappeared. We haven't had a slight for over a year."

It's not that the spectators lack enthusiasm as a recent card at Wagram demostrated. "Jeel-ber, Jeel-ber," they chanted as Frenchman Gilbert Cohen tried to break through the defense of Italian Walter Guerneri.

Time after time, a slight movement of the Italian's blond head left Cohen's fist sailing through empty air. Then, as if tired of evasion, Guerneri hid behind two enormous gloves and absorbed the Frenchman's attack likean indifferent bear. The rain of blows over, he bobbed his head and peered at Cohen's chest, looking for an opening.

Despite the Italian's age - 36 - the match was close, and the 10th round brought the crowd at Wagram screaming to their feet. Guerneri was knocked to the mat and pandemonium broke out. But at the count of eight he was up again and doggedly finished the round, losing the decision by a narrow margin.

Enthusiasm was there, but the money wasn't. The hall, which can hold 1,400, was only half full, and like so many others the match ended in the red.

Bretonnel and Michaelis put part of the blame on the defeat and retirement in the last few years of France's best boxers, men who drew crowds and instilled respect for the sport. Now France's star boxer is middle-weight Gratien Tonna, who has just been convicted of involuntary manslaughter and drunken driving - he ran over and killea policeman in Marseilles.

"He's illerate and hangs out with dubious people," Bretonnel said.

But the promoters' big complaint is that taxes have driven boxing to London and Monte Carlo. Before 1970, Monte Carlo had no fights at all. Now it boasts two world championships a season.

To hear Bretonnel and Michaelis, French boxing is the sorriest victim of taxation since the peasantry under Louis XIV. The latest additions are a tax to subsidize poor sports and new contributions to boxers' paid vacations and retirement.

A Paris sportswriter figured that a Monzon-Valdes fight held in Paris with receipts of $800,000 would pay almost half that in taxes and would result in a $240,000 deficit, since purses and expenses would run a stiff 650,000.

"Football pays about half what we pay," in taxes on admissions, Bretonnel said, more resigned than indignant. "Basketball pays nothing at all."

Yet even if taxes were lightened, it's not clear that boxing would enjoy a renaissance here.

"Boxing is the toughest sport," Michaelis said. "It's easier now for kids to make a living other ways."

Some youngsters still want to box. The Cohen-Guerneri fight was preceded by a fight between two helmet-wearing 13-year-olds (combined weight 176 pounds). But it will be years before these young boxers can turn pro. Amateurs in France must first turn 21 and have finished military service.

The rule "is one of the principal reasons for the slump boxing is in," Bretonnel said. "A 16-year old kid doesn't want to go through five hard years of training before he can make money."

Those who do stick it out are hampered by the scarcity of fights.

"A boxer is lucky to get five or six fights a year. And except for Matteo, all my professionals have jobs, so they can't go out and run every morning to keep in shape," according to Bretonnel.

Every evening at six, Bretonnel proceeds through the two crowded, sweaty room of his boxing club, shaking hands with each man. Formallties ovre, the boxers go back to work, running in place, jumping rope, pinching dummies.

In a miniature ring that takes up almost the entire width of the room, middleweight Jean Matteo, 26, is sparring with an amateur in a yellow Adidas sweater. Mateo, who runs five miles every morning, is taking it easy; his partner is game but gasping for breath.

After the workout, Matteo, one of the three fighters who make a living from the sport in France, indulges in a glass of mineral water in a nearby cafe.

"It's harder now. There aren't so many fights," he said in English he learned on an uncle's ranch in California. But he doesn't seem worried. "Next week, I fight Rocky Holiday and a week later I fight Benny Briscoe. I don't look ahead much further than that. Anyway, I don't want to keep on fighting when I'm old. I don't like getting hit any more than the next guy.

"I can always do something else," he said. "When I was in the States, I worked on a ranch, I drove trucks, I even washed dishes."

But veterans like Bretonnel and Michaelis, who remember the days of glory when three cards a week were fought in Paris and more than 3,000 pros and amateurs lived in the Paris region alone, find it hard to share this equanimity.

"I see a very black future," Michaelis said. "I'm sorry because it was a terrific sport."

While "English boxing" is on the decline in France, "French boxing" - a kind of homegrown karate - is enjoying a rebirth.