They put Johnny Gant away when he was a child. For running with a punk who shot a man during a robbery. Gant spent 19 months in jail. He was 16 when he went in. "I became a man overnight," he said, "I was angry at being what I was."

He was a street fighter. He liked it in the beginning because it made him special. "I won all my street fights," he said. "No split decisions." This was in Northeast Washington and young Johnny Gant, running the streets, was doing things he thought he would make him a man.

And then the gun went off during the robbery and Johnny Gant, who was only along for the fun of it, wound up in jail. "Incarcerated for 19 months," Gant says now. Incarcerated. A chilling word. At 16, incarceration can chill a child's heart forever.

It made Johnny Gant into what he is today.

He is a professional fighter who may be a world champion soon.

And he is a college student working toward degrees in business administration and computer science at the University of the District of Columbia.

At 29, a winner in 43 of 57 fights, Gant is ranked from fifth to ninth among the world's welterweights in various ratings. He wants a shot at the championship - against either of the title claimants, jose Cuevas or Carlos Palomino - and two or three developments may make that possible.

For one, Capital Centre owner Abe Pollin has designated his arena as Gant's "home court." The Centre matchmaker, Eddie Hrica, will have the 19,000-seat capacity as a powerful lure for big-money fights.

"I aim to get Johnny a title fight in 1979," Hrica said, "I'm closer with the Cuevas people because Palomino has fights lined up."

More important, Gant is on a streak of four straight victories, including a knockout of Roland Pryor in his last fight May 10 at the D.C. Armory. And Gant in the last 18 months scored impressive victories over formidable fighters Jose Baquedano and Danny Gonzalez (then(rated No. 4 in the world).

A third development, now only a matter for speculation but interesting nonetheless, is the rise of Sugar Ray Leonard. He, too, Is a welterweight from Washington, though more famous by far than Gant. Undefeated in two years of a spectacular pro career, Leonard, 24, may reach the championship ahead of Gant.

A Leonard-Gant match for a championship would a good crowd at Capital Centre - or a RFK Stadium for that matter.

Angelo, who has trained seven world champions and is the manager of both Leonard and Gant, said, "Anything is possible. If the public calls for it, why not? What the public wants, I wouldn't stand in the way of."

The championship is out there for Johnny Gant. Out there somewhere. He fights Tuesday night at Capital Center, going against a stubborn veteran, Sammy Ruckard of Spartanburg, S.C., who has 28 of 46 fights. For Gant, it's a pay day, another day to wait for the title, another day that reminds him how far he has come and how far he has to go.

From the ghettoes, he has gone to London and Paris, Honolulu and Monte Carlo ("I thought I was in the fairy books"). Kids he knew are dead now, or in jail, one condition, he says, little better than the other. In Jail, he found life.

At Lorton Youth Center, the boxing coach, Ken Stribling, turned the street fighter into a gloved boxer. Gant had been a good athlete, playing football, basketball, baseball. He didn't like boxing, and doesn't today, but it was a way to stop drifting.

"I never had the guidance to steer me in a proper direction," he said. "So I had to take the powers God gave me. Boxing was a means of survival. If I had to do it over, I wouldn't be a fighter. No - way. A doctor. I'd be. Maybe a lawyer. But in jail - I was a child in jail, with nobody to give me guidance - the only way I saw out was fighting."

'Gant spoke softly. This was matter of fact. His face is square cut and pleasant. Tiny bumps of scar tissue mark it. He has a thin mustache and unblinking eyes that make it easy to imagine him in the ring coldly stalking an opponent.

It is, after all, a matter of survival. In 10 years as one of the world's best fighters. Gant figures he has earned maybe $10,000 a year. It ought to be $100,000 a year now, he says, and he wants to know from Dundee "why it is that everytime I beat these guys he puts me against, I don't fight agains for seven or eight months?"

Dundee: "That $100,000 figure is realistic. But when you get a kid like Johnny who is a good puncher, guys gets a little leery of fighting him." Big-name opponents look for someone who blinks more often.

Gant keeps training, though, working under the supervision of Stribling, Bobby Brown and Jim Dudley ("three guys who should be sainted," Dundee said). Gant also works for the D.C. Department of Recreation overseeing boxing shows ("Kids I see who are like I was, I tell them my experience," Gant said. "Some listen, sone don't")

Gant says he'll fight until he is 35.

"I see fighters making money now who couldn't carry my shoes into the ring," he said. "But I can't quit now. I've invested too much in the trials, tribulations and heartaches of the last 10 years. I'm going to stick with it until I can't do it anymore, and then there are other things I want to do with my life."