Sugar Ray Leonard sent a message over the world's airwaves tonight that his credentials as a challenger for the welterweight championship are patently genuine.

No longer will the quality of his opponents be questioned or criticized. He took on Andy (The Hawk) Price, who had defeated two champions, and knocked him out in the first round with an intensity that left his opponent senseless for all of two minutes, before a physician revived him in the ring.

The Olympic champion gunned for a finishing shot from the opening bell following the instructions of Manager Angelo Dundee, who shouted, "Be the boss right away, be the boss."

Leonard's first punch, a flashing left to Price's head, brought gasps from a crowd marveling at his hand speed. There was a glancing right to get the range of Price again before a right-left-right combination and a one-two, left-right combo shattered the poise of the veteran of 41 fights.

Sure of his prey, the undefeated Leonard erupted with six one-two combination punches, only one of which missed, and the last sent the Los Angeles fighter slumping into the ropes and to the canvas.

Instinct influenced Price to try to keep himself up on one knee, with his left arm draped over the lower strand of the ropes. But the flesh was too weak and he collapsed, rolled over onto his back, and lay there until Dr. Donald Romeo of the Nevada State Athletic Commission hurried into the ring to give emergency aid.

Leonard's punches traveled as if they were on a laser beam, direct to Price's chin.

It was all over in 2 minutes 52 seconds and then Leonard suddenly was composed and explaining it all on television to millions of viewers.

The telecast had a special significance for Wilfredo Benitez of Puerto Rico, who will put his World Boxing Council welterweight title on the line here on Friday night, Nov. 30, against Leonard.

A spectator on the scene was former lightweight champion Roberto Duran of Panama, who fought on tonight's card as a welterweight.

Jose (Pipino) Cuevas of Mexico, the World Boxing Association welterweight champion, will show his wares to Leonard's hometown fans in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 24.

Leonard said of the possibility of fighting Cuevas and or Duran, "I'll fight any champion except the heavyweight," having a little joke.

"My speed surprised him," Leonard said. "I first hit him with a jab from the waist up, and gained his respect."

Leonard came into the ring dancing to a cassette playing, "Hey, Sugar Ray . . . " and waved calmly to answer the shouts of well-wishers in the audience.

Price avoided Ray's glances and appeared a bit apprehensive, though he previously had decisioned Cuevas and Carlos Palomino, former WBC welter champion.

It was Leonard's 25th victory since winning the Olympic title and his 16th knockout. Price lost his sixth of 41 bouts. The Los Angeleno weighed 147; Leonard, of Palmer Park, Md., 146.

Dundee said he advised Leonard to go right after a first-round knockout. "Go with your left hand, wait for his left counter, and then go after him with combinations," Dundee said.

Price was ordered to trim his beard before the bout but still had plenty of padding left when the bout started, for all the protection it afforded him.