THE DAY STARTED early for George Johnson and it ended late, but it was his dream and he was going to see it through.

It was the first and only Riggs Park boxing tournament at the playground at Riggs Road and Madison Street NE last week. It was Johnson's brainchild, start to finish.

Two months ago he looked around his neighborhood and saw some things he didn't like, so he decided to give the little guys something to shoot for.

"Hey, man, these dudes have been clean for two months. They been off the smoke, off the beer. They in training."

And this was the payoff, rites of manhood conducted under the flickering baseball diamond lights in a makeshift boxing ring, before brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles.

There were diplomatic hassles that would give Henry Kissinger fits. The D.C. Recreation Department tried to back out at the last minute, Johnson said, fearing injury and liability.

"I had to go downtown and see the head man myself, just to keep it on."

Then the raised ring, complete with championship stretchy ropes and padded corners, didn't come through. And the loudspeaker system the city sent didn't work.

Yet here they were, kids ready for their first public faces, shadow-boxing with dumbells on the bare red playground clay.

A ring was devised. Tumbling mats from the playground program were dragged out and thrown together in a crude square. Volleyball net posts served as the four corners, each with a man to hold it up and keep the fighters from banging heads into bare metal. The ropes were just that - a length of three-quarter-inch nylon stretched around the four posts.

Judges were chosen. Robert Stephens, a newscaster from WHUR; Warren Davis, who trains amateur and pro boxers in Bowie; Bob Cockrell, a teacher. They posted themselves at a table ton one side. Playground director Dan White would referee.

And they began an schedule at 8:45 p.m. as a crowd of 400 closed in.

The first fight would set the tone. It was tiny Enoch Williams, 5-foot-1 and 113 pounds, against rangy Anthony Ramsey, the same weight but 5-7.

There was much to-do in the corners preparing the fighters. Then as the bell rang the judges leaped up, shouting a halt before it began. Neither fighter had on head gear.

Gear was found and fitted, the fighters griping that they couldn't see, that they didn't need the stuff, they'd never worn it before. Then the battle was one.

The start was slow. The fighters tested each other, strutting their Ali stuff and winding up for killer blows that never came.

Then in a flurry the taller Ramsey landed telling punches. Williams came back in fury, punching widly. It was mayhem in the ring and the shouting crowd pressed closer. Suddenly Williams stalked off to his corner anmd flung his headgear tothe ground. He spun and came after Ramsey.

The judges leaped up again, referee White ran to split the fighters, clocks were stopped, whistles blown, bells rung.

There was a great hue and cry to stop the fight and declare Ramsey the winner. It was Johnson who stepped in from a corner and quietly ironed the details out and got the fight back on.

He was there all night, watching with a gleam in his green eyes as the kids he'd worked with had their shots at glory. He was there to adjust the mats when they broke loose, to rewind bandages and retie loose gloves, to advise the fighters, to stand up for them when the burgeoning crowd booed or picked on one.

And at 11 p.m., when everyone else had finished, George Johnson put on the gloves and squared off against Richard Hughes in the main event.

The crowd by now had grown to 800. They were 10 deep around the little ring; they were standing on cars and trucks and bicycles further back; some had climbed to the roof of the school to look down. It was a little Woostock in Northeast Washington.

Johnson's fight, like the seven that preceded it, was a good and fair three-rounder. There was wrestling and there was awkward tripping over the inadequate mats; there were crashing flights through the single rope and there were wild blows that never connected.

But two men, in a labor of pride and confidence, put their minds and bodies on the line before most of the people in the world they knew and loved.

In the end referee White had the two by the wrists; Stephens was leap-frogging around the ring, his newscaster's voice ruined by a night of screamed announcements from center ring.

"AND THE WINNER," he bellowed, "BY A SPLIT DECISION," and he paused as the crowd pressed forward . . . GEORGE . . . JOHNSON!"

White thrust Johnson's hand to the sky and a grin split the winner's face. Instantly he was engulfed, then hoisted on his brother Leslie's shoulders and carried off.

"I did it, I did it," he shouted in glee.

Somebody said, "You sure did, man, great fight."

And Johnson stopped, a puzzled look on his face. "Oh yeah, good fight.But I mean the program, man. They said I couldn't do it, but I did. It was beautiful. And there wasn't no violence at all . . ."