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When Sugar Ray Leonard and Johnny Gant touch gloves on Thursday, boxing in Washington will dance on its coffin. Get up and boogie, you sad sweet science.

For all the dreamers and no-account schemers in the local fight game, that night in Capital Centre will be a born-again revival meeting for boxing and a soul party, too.

"It'll be the biggest fight this town has ever had for little men," said welterweight Leonard, beaming.

Occasionally, the undreamed of comes to pass -- even in boxing, the sport of scoundrels.

For those in fighting's thrall, a decent payday qualifies as the unexpected. The unthinkable is a sellout.

This 12-round bout between two home-grown contenders with a possible crowd of 19,210 and a potential $300,000 gate is almost beyond fantasy.

"All my trials and tribulations haven't been for nothing," says the 29-year-old Gant, who has been scuffling in the pro wars for 10 years. "When I beat Leonard, it will put me on the map worldwide."

Boxing prospers only when it can deliver the genuine Big Fight -- the match that sells itself and flourishes in an atmosphere of magnum hype. Muhammad Ali did a superhype for his two title matches here; now Leonard and Gant are doing the tradition proud.

"All the guys Ray has fought have showed up for the payday not for the fight," said Gant's manager, Jim Dudley.

"Short People" ought to be the theme song of Leonard's 17 opponents, according to Dudley. "They been little short guys with little short arms," said Dudley with contempt. "Nobody's even fired back at Ray yet. The last guy he fought had to come out of retirement.

"Ray's full of flaws. He gets hit with right hands. He's dead tired by the sixth round... Ray's people finally made a mistake. They matched him up with a fighter."

One of boxing's charms is its prefight ritual. Among athletes, perhaps only fighters have a tradition of telling the truth about each other -- before the event.

They figure, what's the difference? It's all going to end up in a punchout anyway. Fighters rarely put inflammatory quotes on their training room walls. Why bother? "Your mother wears combat boots" is mild stuff compared to the first left hook to the mouth.

So Leonard and Gant, old friends, are having a field day sniping at each other, telling those barbed truths-in-jest that each hopes will give him a slight psychological advantage. Nothing beats a neighborhood feud.

"Where you been, Johnny?" asked Leonard when Gant showed up late for a press conference.

"I was down in court trying to get affidavits so you could leave me everything in your will," shot back Gant.

"You shouldn't talk about dead men," said Leonard, getting hip to the jive. "You haven't fought anybody but stiffs. All the guys you fight, they bring 'em out from under sheets."

"You got that backwards," said Gant. "They put em under the sheets after I fight 'em."

Of course, this is calculated to sell tickets. But it is also a marvelous form of gibberish that only boxing offers.

"Nobody has ever talked to Sugar Ray the way I do," said Gant. "I've worked on my patter all my life, just like my jab. I'm a street fellow... out there you better be able to talk a good fight so you don't have to really fight."

Leonard, from Palmer Park, Md., may be the handsome and articulate one of the pair, but Gant, from Northeast D.C., with his high school diploma from Lorton Reformatory, has won the early rounds of the verbal sparring.

When the unbeaten Leonard says, "I'm campaigning to be the champ... as far as I'm concerned, I'm already elected," Gant answers, "You know, I've never liked Sugar. I've always used honey."

The robed-in-glory youngster Leonard, 22, and the star-crossed vet Gant make perfect mock cnemies. When Gant says, "To tell the truth, I like Leonard, but he's standing in my path. He's going to have to step aside..." he means it absolutely.

It would be a mistake to think that no element of genuine resentment exists between the two camps. That only adds to the atmosphere.

Fuzzy Wilson, who runs Finley's Gym where Gant trains, always has called Leonard and Angelo Dundee, "The Cinderella Boy and his manager Mr. Brains."

"I'm getting a very, very small flat fee, compared to the gate," said Gant" "Even though it'll be double the biggest purse of my life, it's still nothin' compared to what Leonard and the Capital Centre are getting.

"I understand it. That's the way it is. But that doesn't mean I think it's fair. Next time -- after I beat him -- I'll be the one who dictates."

"Of course this is the biggest fight of our lives," said Gant's manager Dudley. "If we win, the TV people got to give use some of what they been givin' the guy they've built up (Leonard)... they got to give us somethin' ... one shot anyway.'"

To call this the best fight in 20 years between two Washington boxers, is to miss the point. Leonard and Gant may have grown up only a couple of miles apart, but they now live in different worlds. Leonard, with his Olympic gold medal and TV pizazz, has made himself an international athletic citizen.

Gant -- the perennial contender -- may have fought from London to Australia, he may have boxed for the WBA title in Puerto Rico, but in the splintered devalued boxing scene, he still is, a struggler.

Every step on Leonard's path has been tested in advance for land mines. He has been handled the way every gifted fighter ideally deserves to be.

Gant was thrown into that Puerto Rican title shot against Angel Espada in 1975 on 11 days' notice. Once he flew to Brisbane, Australia, and discovered that the other fighter's manager was not only the boxing commissioner but appointed the referee, who was sole judge.

If Leonard's career has been the exception, Gant's has been the rule.

For the clearly favored Leonard, who seems to gain upper-body strength in every fight, this is another of his monthly steppingstones to my first title shot."

For him, this fight's extra dimension is substantial, but limited: "It's a chance to stop a great deal of local criticism... none of my opponents have been deemed worthy. But now the people are really getting hyper. This is an action fight," he said.

"People on the street tell me, 'Sugar Ray, you're fightin' a bad dude... if you win, I've got a new car.'"

For the gangly Gant, however, this is a lifelong dream. Leonard may tease that "I been watchin' Johnny Gant box since was 3. I think he's 35." But Gant knows the truth --that he really is 29, and close to his peak.

"I think about the fight all the time... day and night... it's never away from me," said Gant, the journeyman, the tall, craftsmanlike jabber-and-grabber. "I've never had an opportunity like this before.

"Ray'll be around a long time... he'll have plenty of shots. This is the one for me. I'm right where I want to be. This is the countdown of my life."

Gant, however, is just the emblem of a whole Washington boxing subculture -- a community from which few rise to security and only Leonard has risen to fame.

For them, this Thursday night is a long-awaited celebration. It's a long way from the Runyonesque gyms of D.C. to the Bunyanesque dimensions of Cap Centre telescreen, but at least two game little welters have made it.