For the first time, Sugar Ray Leonard fights a world-ranked opponent today. Some 22-year-old pros would have the jitters. Leonard has the can't waits.

"I'm really loving' it; I'm excited," said Leonard on the eve of his nationally televised 10-rounder (5:10 p.m., WJLA-TV-7) with Floyd Mayweather, 17th-ranked weltherweight by the World Boxing Council.

"From now on, I'm going to be moving up those rankings," said the undefeated (13-0) Leonard from Palmer park, Md.

"I'm gaining weight (146 1/2 pounds and power. I'm getting full-fledged. I'm a real welterweight now.

"I don't want to sound cocky, but I really want to be world champ. When I first turned pro (after being an Olympic gold medalist), I was just looking for financial security for my family," said Leonard."But now, all I think about is becoming champ. I've sacrificed. I've been self-motivated. It's my time. Within the year, I'll be ready for a title shot.

%I'm looking forward to a tough fight from Mayweather (whose record is listed as 15-1). And I'm looking forward to even tougher fights after that.

"You know, it's the tough fights that make you," bubbled Leonard. "Fighting the top people gives you that pride . . . you know what you are . . . you find out about yourself."

"Mayweather's the best Sugar Ray's fought," said trainer Angelo Dundee.

"But every time I say that, Ray tries to make a liar out of me," said Dundee. "When he fought Javier Muniz, the guy had never been stopped. Muniz even went the distance with Roberto Duran, and Duran could kayo a truck.

"So what does Sugar do? He knocks Muniz cold in the first round."

Mayweather of Detroit, ranked sixth in the U.S. by Ring magazine, may be the first of Leonard's pro opponents who is not in the trial-horse category. The experienced Mayweather, who had a 10-0 record in 1977, and won his most recent fight two weeks ago, matches Leonard's 5-foot-9 1/2 height, and has a more varied style than some of Leonard's early fireplug foes.

"I've been working on slipping punches, rather than just avoiding them," said Leonard. "If I'm going to be a powerful counter puncher, I have to learn to step into a punch and slip it, rather than move away and avoid it.

"I'm sure I'm eventually going to be a-middleweight . . . you know, we all gain that weight . . . and I've gotta be able to match force with those bigger guys.

"But I don't want to be a middleweight too soon. I'd have to buy a whole new wardrobe."

"Ray's gonna be a champion," said Dundee, "but it's coming nice and slow and easy. When it comes that way, it stays. Ray learns one thing each fight."

"This time it's slippin' and slidin' on the inside, rather than outside. The knockout punch is the punch your opponent never sees. And you get most of those nail-'em shots on the inside."