It has been almost 100 years since a professional boxing match had been held in Fayetteville, N.C. Boxing had been illegal in Cumberland County from 1880 until early in 1977, when the ban on the sport was lifted.

In September, boxing returned to Fayetteville. But only a few more than 1,000 people showed up at the Cumberland County Memorial Areana for the debut. For their second show in November, Ringside Promotions Limited decided it needed a hype for its program.

The hype is decided on was Cat Davis.

Cathy (Cat) Davis, who is 5-foot-10 and 135 pounds, is the women's lightweight boxing champion of the world. Her three-year record is 6-0 with 15 knockouts.

But few have heard of her. When she boxed Margie Dunson in Fayetteville NOv. 11, the crowd was about 1,000.

Davis, 25, a native of Winfield, La., and a drama major at the University of New Orleans, is aware of the struggle of women's boxing, but doesn't find the odds insurmountable.

"When I first got involved in boxing, I never even gave a thought to the sex barriers," she said from her New Jersey training camp recently, where she was preparing to compete in the Women's Superstars Competition. "I was really just in it for the exercise.

"The thing the women have to do to gain recognition and to get people out to watch is prove that this isn't like wrestling - that this is a real sport and we're real athletes."

There appears to be little doubts that Davis is a real athlete. She originally got into boxing as a means of having skills as a fencer, a sport she has worked at for the past eight years.

"Actually, I just took up boxing because I thought it would be a good trainer for my fencing," she recalled. "I just went into a gym and started working out. I enjoyed it and I was pretty good at it, so I kept at it."

The gym was in poughkeepsie, N.Y. The man running the gym was Sal Algieri, and it was Algieri who set up Davis's first exhibition match. Now he is her manager, and her fiance.

Algieri and Davis are currently battling the New York Boxing Commission and its head, Floyd Patterson. Patterson doesn't want women boxing in New York.

"Patterson claims women shouldn't fight for medical reasons," Algieri claimed angrily. "What medical reasons? If Patterson wants a court fight, we'll give him one. Personally, I plan on writing a letter to the governor calling for his removal."

If women's boxing is to establish itself, the New York commission will be just one of many obstacles it will have to overcome.Right now, the sport is struggling to establish itself as a draw among fight fans.

"We decided to give the women a shot in Fayetteville because it would be something new, a novelty," explained Ed McCarthy, public relations director for Ringside Promotions. "I guess you could say it was an experiment.

"We were hoping with all the army men there are in this area we could draw. But they have amateur boxing at Fort Bragg that's free. The women just didn't draw. Actually, they've never drawn anywhere."

Not exactly. Davis says the biggest crowd she has boxed in front of was 8,000 last summer in Seattle.

"It's going to get better," Davis said. "If the women work at making it better, that is. I think potentially women's boxing could be a better draw than men's boxing. Most of the people who watch boxing are men and women and prettier than men."

Davis is testimony to that. With large, dark eyes, long brown hair falling below her shoulders, and a slender figure, she is certainly far more attractive than the average boxer - male or female.

But when Davis and Dunson headed the card in Fayetteville in November they hardly provided the meager crowd an opportunity to become enamored of the female style of boxing.

It took Davis exactly 2 minutes 34 seconds of the first round to knock out her opponent from Maine. The result pointed up a major problem for the women - there just aren't enough good boxers around to schedule many flights that will be competitive.

"I know that if you put two boxers out there and one has four or five years experience and the other is just starting you're going to have a boring match," Davis conceded.

"But I think more good women athletes will turn to boxing when they see it's legitimate. I mean, you can only have so many tennis players.

"Boxing is a contact sport and women are going to need an outlet when they want to get into contact sports. I think boxing can fill that need very well."

Davis makes constant reference to the importance of the women proving themselves to be "legitimate." This appears to present a problem. McCarthy referred to the women as "a novelty." Clearly, a sport must prove itself to be more than a novelty in order to succeed.

"But you know Cat is a very good promoter for the sport," McCarthy pointed out. "When she was down here, we took her around to promote the fight and she was just terrific. She's bright and articulate. She's one of the best things women's boxing has going."

But it is the limelight of the big cities that Davis is striving to reach. Headway has been made. There is now a women's boxing federation in New Rochelle, N.Y., and women are beginning to receive rankings in the different divisions, like the men. More importantly, purses are improving.

"When I first boxed, between the traveling and the rest of our expenses, Sal lost money," Davis remembered of her beginnings. "Now the purses are getting better and so are the crowds. There's still work to do, though."

Convincing promoters that women boxers are more than a mere novelty, convincing boxing fans that it is worth good money on a regular basis to watch the women box, and convincing the media that women's boxing is deserving of regular coverage, are the keys for the sports.