She didn't know what to say. The fight was over. The end came brutally. Everyone stood up in front of her and she didn't see the end because she sat with her head bowed. Her hands were locked together. She might have been praying. The terrifying noise of the end finally stopped, and she didn't know what to say to Johnny Gant.

So Cecelia Casey just smiled. It was over now and they had given Sugar Ray Leonard a big trophy and they were interviewing the winner on television. In the eighth round at Capital Centre two nights ago, Leonard scored a technical knockout over Johnny Gant and when Gant bent over to go between the ropes to walk back to his dressing room, he saw his girl friend smiling.

He smiled back. They were in this together. Out of the ring now, he began the longest walk in sport, the fighter knocked out walking back through 20,000 people to his dressing room.He walked unsteadily, like a man going downstairs in the dark. He put his arm around Casey's shoulders and they walked together and they said nothing until they were in the dressing room, where she said, "You all right?" And the fighter, in response, kissed his girl.

Sugar Ray Leonard's people were outside talking to the media. Leonard was shouting, "He called me a 'boy' and I'm quite sure now he knows this boy can hit." And Leonard's trainer, Dave Jacobs, hefted the big trophy and shouted, "No. 1, No. 1. One of these days, in the world we'll be No. 1."

Gant, in his dressing room, sat on a training table. He still wore his blue-and-gold robe. A little girl, 8 years old, in a red coat with red ribbons on her pigtails, walked up to the silent fighter and softly said, "Daddy."

In the single word, Sirraya Gant spoke a thousand. The fighter reached out and put his hand on his daughter's head, reassuring her, and the little girl moved away to sit and wait for her father.

"A rematch?" Deatria Gant said. She is Johnny's sister. Outside, Sugar Ray Leonard shouted into microphones that he was a strong fighter getting stronger and that he would fight again on Feb. 11 in Miami against an opponent to be named later. When you're hot, you pick the opponents. When you're Johnny Gant, an anonymity for a decade, you take what you get, and his sister, Deatria, wondered if the crowd of 20,000 meant there would be another Leonard-Gant fight.

"No... no," Gant said. "Ray got away this time and he's not going to get in with me again. They ain't that stupid."

Johnny Gant wants to be the welterweight boxing champion of the world. A victory over Leonard would have earned Gant a title fight. He is 29 now, a fighter for a decade, a survivor up from the streets of Northeast Washington. They put him in jail once. He was 16 and running with punks who shot a man they were robbing. Years later, a lifetime removed from his 19 months in jail, Gant said, " "I was mad at what I was."

So he made himself over. Not out of any love for boxing, but because the cruelest game turned out to be what this gentle man was best at, he became a professional fighter whose work was so good it took him around the world. The child of the streets fought for money in fairy-tale places: Monte Carlo and Paris, London and Honolulu. He fought for the championship once as a substitute on 11 days notice, so desperate for the title he would try anything, even the impossibility of preparing for so difficult a match in so short a time. He lost a decision in 15 rounds.

Before the Leonard fight, for which he was paid $25,000, Gant figured his fighting had earned him $10,000 a year. Everyone counted him among the 10 best welterweights, but that meant little money, and he knew it. At night, after a day's training, Gant goes to college to study computer programming and business administration.

Gant doesn't like to fight, but he is good at it and it brings him money that puts him through school and will help him set up a business some day. "Johnny has to hype himself up so much for each fight," Cecelia Casey said. "He has to work up a hate for the guy he fights. He says it's like going to war and you don't love your enemies."

She has seen Gant fight seven or eight times. She hates it. She hates the crowd lusting for blood. The first fight she saw so frightened her she wrote a four-page poem entitled "Epitaph for the Pugilistic Art." It is about Johnny Gant's pain.

"The fans are out there, guzzling their beer and smoking their cigars and making their bets and they're all bloodthirsty," Casey said. "They don't see two men up there in the ring. They see pieces of meat. The people don't feel the pain, they just want to see it."

She wants what Gant wants, however, and for now, he still wants that championship. Ironically, the defeat by Leonard may not prevent Gant from fighting for the title. The champions may now see him as a lesser threat and so agree to take him on. It is the cruelest sport. "Johnny has come a long way," said Casey, a recreation specialist for the D.C. Department of Recreation, "and I hated to see this happen tonight. But the biggest thing I care about is that he didn't get hurt."

Near midnight, an hour after Gant climbed between the ropes and returned Casey's smile, the fighter walked slowly toward a building exit 100 yards from where workmen were dismantling the ring. The only sound was a hammer pounding on iron. Cecelia Casey walked beside Gant, holding his arm with both hands.