The late sportswriter, Jimmy Cannon, sitting in the postmortem silence of Yankee Stadium more than 30 years ago, wrote that Joe Louis' knockout punch came like the night itself.

That cobblestone of a right hand, he wrote, spread of blackness into the corners of the subconscious like a man breaking down a door with his shoulder until finally Louis' victim "lay in the spurious day of the right lights and had the aching blackness all to himself."

The prospect of such a fate awaits all boxing's victims.

Alfredo Evangelista, Javier Muniz and Carlos Becerril know it intimately, know it as only hand-picked victims can.

Each must face a world champion Monday night at Capital Centre and each knows he was picked from boxing obscurity for a nationally televised fight for just one reason - to be put to sleep in prime time.

Most fighters suspect the truth about their careers. But they go on anyway.

A "title shot" is the dream and none turns it down, no matter how hopeless.

Evangelista's manager told him flatly he was not ready for Muhammad Ali. "Who is?" answered the wise 22-year-old, grabbing the $85,000 guarantee for Monday's fight.

Muniz, who must face that vicious brawler, lightweight champion Roberto Duran, a nontitle bout, states the case eloquently for preordained victims.

"Your career can be a long railroad track that never leads anywhere," said the unranked Muniz, beaten five times, including his last fight.

"When you finally get a break and find yourself at the doors, you must push them open, no matter what is on the other side.

"I know Duran will come at me with a brick in each hand. It's an eerie feeling, knowing his experience, his reputation. But you can't back out. You tell yourself he can't hit you with a third arm.

"I'm here. I got to take the bag and run. I got to do it now."

No one is prouder of Monday's supposed mismatches than the man who claims to have masterminded two of them.

"I begged for these fights, "boasted enormous, jovial Harry Kabakoff, the Los Angeles manager of both Muniz and Bcerrill. "I used every trick in the book.I forced Becerril down (promoter) Don King's throat."

Kabakoff knew that King's man, junior lightweight champ Alfredo Escalera, had to fight a ranked contender to keep his World Boxing Council title. Becerril, the WBC's eight-ranked man, was about as far down the top 10 as Escalera could reach for a legitimate title defense.

Kabakoff also knew that Duran, just recovering from a motorcycle accident, wanted to reach down even further for his nontitle tuneup.

"As far as Duran is concerned, Muniz can't even breath," said Kabakoff.

The coin of every boxing promotion has its flip side. Kabakoff can only admit his boys are supposed to be pigeons, because in the next breath he paints the glorious picture of their upset triumphs.

Becerril, finally free of his job in a foundry where he repeatedly burned his arms and came home exhausted from the 110-degree-plus heat, has won seven fights in a row by knockout.

And a West Coast doctor has fixed up Becerril's right hand, the one that hurt so badly he retired for 18 months.

Muniz will steal the crowd's heart with his street-fighting style, his bronze chin, his right hook to the liver. "It'll be a savage fight," exalted Kabakoff.

Only Evangelista is as yet without an upset scenario. He still seems euphorio at being in Ali's presence.

Yet of all the traveling pugs in this three-ring circus, it is not Evangelista but Muniz who faces the cruelest opponent and has the least chance. Nevertheless, of the three he is the one who can express that mixture of pride, manditory illusion and grudging pragmatism that marks the dignified underdog.

"When I am running in the dark in the morning," he said, "I talk to my body. I ask myself, 'How good do you feel? We're going to run harder. Somebody is going to pay for all the times I have had to say, 'No,' to my sons and wife.'

"Training is like climbing a ladder. You can only go so high and you want to get to the top rung on the last day."

Evangelista may be the one promoted here as "The Spanish Rocky" but it is Muniz who has seen the movie. He has even taken Becerril to a meat market in Los Angeles to punch beef, a la Rocky.

"It makes you laugh," he said, "the blood squirting in our faces.We call ourselves the two meat tenderizers."

Muniz already has his second career lined up, making $9.08 an hour as a heavy-machine operator. "When my boys grow up and say, 'What do you do, Daddy? I'm never going to have to say, 'Nothing.'"

But at this instant, counting down the hours until he meets the champion, Muniz sai, "I have no plan for the fight, no plan for afterwards. It would go out the window in a minute, anyway.

"I'm just pointing everything in me for that night. This will prove to me if I can do it."

Win? Beat Roberto Duran?

"No, not necessarily," he said. "You can push your way through those doors, but when you get through, sometimes nobody gives you nothing. But even if I end up with my hands empty, I'll know."

He, like Evangelista, Becerril and generations before them, will have had that chance to step into the glare of a ring with a worl champion and range, as best he can, againt the dying of the light.