Two days before the September Ali-Norton fight in Yankee Stadium, Gleason's Gym was overflowing because the heavyweight champion of the world had arrived. Muhammad Ali was not the best fighter in the gym that morning, though, until Roberto Durand - frustrated at his lack of attention - had left.

Duran arrived in Washington late Thursday afternoon with an entourage of four, about 46 fewer than Ali's. To the heavy crowd in National Airport, he was just another small Latin, although clearly a tough-looking fellow.

Yesterday two men came into his room and Duran allowed them to take his measurements for ABC's "tale of the tap." As they Were leaving, one of them said: "Now which one of the fighters is this?"

Pound for pound, everyone keeps insisting, Roberto Duran is the best fighter in the world. He is the lightweight champ, with 47 knockouts in 56 fights, but has been sort punched into submission by the publicity machine that beats hard and long only for Ali.

"I'm not hurt that much any more," he said in his room at a hotel perhaps 500 yards from the main fight headquarters near Capital Centre. "The most important thing is that (in the ring) I perform better than anyone else in the world."

Through his enterpreter, Louis Henriquez, Duran added, "The worst thing I can do is make myself famous. You have to let the people make you famous. They make me famous by virtue of what I do, that is important to me."

Even though he is involved in only a 10-round nontitle fight Monday night, Duran gives the Ali-Evangelista card much of its meager credibility. One of his trademarks is an efficient, often ugly, submission of the unworthies brought before him.

"The most enjoyable thing is the knockout," he said, "to get the fight over with as quickly as possible and then get out of the gym. I enjoy the moments while he is being counted out.

"Then I want to leave the country and get back to Panama and my family, and then to the interior to ride horses, or bicycles, or motorcycles, and later come back into the city. I am away from my family so much."

Like many on whom the sporting spotlights focus at least occasionally, Duran can be frustratingly sensitive and stubborn, as was evidenced the other night when he refused an interview - and a ride from the airport - because he had not eaten.

Yesterday he was marvelously cooperative, as he relaxed after weighing in (at 142 pounds) for his Monday exercise against Javier Muniz, who, oddly enough, is staying almost directly across the hall.

"When did I start all this?" he said. "At 5 or 6, I guess. I was born fighting. I beat the crap out of everybody on the streets. Thirty-five street fights; 35 kayos. Once I fought a guy for two hours, because no cops came."

Duran was to have fought in March, but that bout was delayed by a motorcycle accident that led to seven stitches on one side of his right ankle and a bruise that remains ugly on the other. The crash came after he swerved to avoid a boy who had stepped into his path, he said.

Like Ali, Duran is extremely religious, with a $2,000 statue of a saint, Virgen Del Carmen, held in special esteem. It stands in front of the home, in a fashionable section of Panama City, he bought for $110,000. Duran also owns two condominiums.

"God has given me great satisfaction about life," he said. "Anytime I pray for something good, God helps me to do it." He illustrated this by talking of his prefight illness before winning the title from Ken Buchanan nearly five years ago.

"I knew I would have to train even harder to beat him," Duran said. "But I trained so hard I got sick when I was about to leave my country for the fight. I was scared, so I prayed. I prayed I would be able to continue to train - and I got better.

"I trained the right way and you know the rest." The rest was a knockout in the 13th round that allowed him to generate "more money than I thought possible."

Duran's only loss was an over-the-weight match with Estaban DeJesus after he became world champion. In a rematch for the title 18 months later, in March, 1974, Duran scored an 11th-round knockout.

"He's just a grinder," said Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee. "Steady bang, steady bang. He has the hardest punch for a lightweight I've ever seen. Actually, he has the punch of a middleweight.

"The only guy who has a shot at him is a runner."

And the guy who gets the next shot at Duran's title is expected to be the European lightweight champ, Perico Fernandez of Spain. And it may well be in Capital Centre this summer. Next time here he will have feature billing to himself.