As a new student in English, boxer Ernesto Espana of Venezuela likes what he reads about the Carter Administration.

"Ernesto reads lots of newspapers," Nick Acosta, his trainer and interpreter says. "He saw that the president's wife went to Cambodia to help the starving people there, and Ernesto said, 'He has a good heart for poor people and human rights." Ernesto was moved by the president's action because Ernesto is a poor man."

The lightweight boxing champion (World Boxing Association version) is a poor man?

"This is only his second defense of his title (Saturday afternoon against, Leonidas Asprilla of Colombia at the D.C. Armory Starplex)," says Acosta.

"The big purses are still to come.

"If Ernesto is successful against Asprilla, he would like to defend his title against Howard Davis (the former Olympic champion currently ranked as the No. 2 contender for Espana's title)."

Trainer Acosta noted that his fighter, 26, comes from a farming family of five brothers and seven sisters, whose parents do not own the land they work.

"Ernesto is tough in the ring because he wants to earn 240,000 bolivars (about $60,000) to buy the land and mechanical implements," Acosta said. "The family comes first," then he may get married.

Acosta, a chiropractor in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela, is relatively fluent in English and Espana is taking a course in English.

The trainer says Espana already has an offer from matchmaker Gil Clancy of Madison Square Garden to fight Howard Davis in New York and is "thinking about it. We'd rather fight Davis here in Washington."

Acosta is confident that Espana can beat Davis?

"Sure . . . (are you) kidding?"

Reminded that Davis has a reputation of being lightning fast, Acosta said, "But can he take a punch."

Espana was knocked down for the first time in his career in the sixth round of the first defense of his title, against Johnny Lira of Chicago, in August.

"Yeah, that got Ernesto mad," said Acosta. "He knocked Lira down in the eighth, beat his face to a pulp in the ninth before the bell saved him. He broke Lira's jaw and Lira could not come out for the 10th round, so he lost by a knockout."

Lira was the No. 3 contender. Claude Noel of Trinidad was the No. 4 contender when Espana knocked him out in the 13th round to win the WBA lightweight title vacated by Roberto Duran, now a welterweight.

Wasn't Duran implicitly downgrading Espana when the former champion said he was moving up because there were no more legitimate contenders in the lightweight division?

"The truth is, Duran no longer could make the 135-pound limit; a boxer always says that when he moves up to a heavier class. Duran was offered $250,000 to fight Ernesto; he turned it down; he was too heavy. Ernesto has fought two ranking contenders, Lira and Noel, and Asprilla (Saturday's opponent) is ranked number seven.

"Asprilla is a good puncher, but a world champion should avoid nobody. They are both good punchers, but Ernesto has more technique. Ernesto has a good left uppercut, Asprilla a hard right cross and a good left hook."

Espana has won 28 of 29 bouts, 23 on knockouts and 13 of those in the first round. Asprilla, 24, of Cartegena, Colombia, has won 25 of 26 bouts, 18 on knockouts.

Espana watched Sugar Ray Leonard train here for his World Boxing Council welterweight championship bout on Nov. 30 in Las Vegas against titleholder Wilfredo Benitez of Puerto Rico and said:

"Ray has a very, very good chance because he is a good puncher, is fast, has good moves, and is hard to hit. He has a jab like a Magnum 44 (pistol), and can win on conditioning and he has a better corner with Angelo Dundee as his manager." CAPTION:

Picture, Sugar Ray Leonard, left, and lightweight champion Ernesto Espana of Venezuela compare notes. UPI