The express line at Safeway has better fights than they put on at the starplex yesterday. Some guy nicknamed The Sweet Samoan (honest) won on a knockout. The local hero, Johnny Gant, left the ring when his opponent didn't show up. Too Tall Jones needed only 41 seconds to whack out a Mexican whose physique (fat) and disposition (teddy-bearish) suggested he once was a closet pacifist for Pancho Villa.

The big fight, the lightweight championship fight, was canceled. The champion made this outrageous demand. He wanted to be paid. He had a contract for $60,000 pay and he wanted to see the money. He suspected the promoter, Jim Denson, didn't have 60,000 peanuts, let alone $60,000 dollars.

"Denson say he come to my hotel by 2 o'clock today with the money," said the champion's manager, Felix Zabala. "He no show. We no fight."

Great comedy, this was. It was 2:42 p.m. when Zabala told reporters his fighter, Ernesto Espana, wouldn't work. Denson, the president ot the District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce, was supposed to have given $60,000 to the World Boxing Association representative, Mel Ziegler. g"No money changed hands," Ziegler said.

So at 3:15, the Starplex ring announcer told the "estimated 1,000" customers (the promoter's estimate seemed to have been based on number of eyes, not bodies), "Due to problems with the champion's management and some questions about Asprilla's physical condition, the fight has been canceled."

Leonidas Asprilla, the challenger, was in the building and ready to fight, but Denson said there was a question about an inflamed hand. The only things inflamed, of course, were the customers, who had paid $10- $60 to see what turned out to be less than three rounds of boxing. They'll get their money back -- or else the Starplex would now be in little pieces -- but it will be a long time before anyone believes a fight promoter in this town again.

Dave Wolf could see it coming. He is Too Tall Jones' manager. "Denson's made a big mistake," Wolf said at 12:30 p.m., an hour and a half before the card was to begin. "A Venezuelan against a Colombian on Thanksgiving weekend in Washington, D.C., for this kind of money?"

Once a newspaperman, the author of perhaps the best sports book ever written ("Foul," a biography of Connie Hawkins), Wolf has spent the last year working in big-time boxing. He believes his connection with Jones will lead to something big. Will he write about the experience?

"It would have to be a novel," Wolf said. "The things I've seen in boxing, I couldn't name names and live. I could call by pallbearers before I call my publisher. Have to be a novel."

Wolf stood in a safe spot in the Starplex.

Right in front of the ticket windows.

No stampede there.

"Oh, yeah," a ticket seller said when someone asked if he had sold any of those $60 monsters. "One, two, 10 maybe."

Fifteen or 20 years ago, a local promoter named Vince McMahon looked over his crowd of 250 customers and pronounced the show a disaster. "But whatcha' gonna' do with the Russian ballet in town?" he said. Denson's promotion met considerable opposition, too, what with air available lots of places besides in the Starplex.

At 1:46, Wolf walked out of the building.

"I'm going to bring Jones here so he can see the chaos," the manager said.

Denson, promoting his first fight floated through the Starplex like a butterfly, and newspapermen could not pin his wings long enough to find out anything.

"Jim, a reporter told Denson, "Wolf says the title fight is off."

"Wolf's not promoting this fight," Denson snapped. "I'm not saying the fight is off. Wolf's been saying a lot of things. He's the biggest problem we've got."

Oh, no. Hardly. The biggest problem is that Denson tried to sell a product nobody wanted to buy.Wolf said he had extracted a guarantee of $35,000, for Jones, whether or not the show went on, and Denson will be lucky to have taken in $15,000 at the gate. Denson estimated his losses at $100,000.

Was this, then, two promotions for Denson -- the first and the last?

"Oh, no, I'm going to have fights," Denson said. "Championship fights."

At 2 p.m. yesterday, Denson a vessel of optimism if ever floated such a boat, still was hoping for ticket sales to bring in enough money to get the champion his contracted $60,000. He kept putting off the champion's manager, Zabala, who wanted his dinero now.

But practically no one came to the ticket windows.

Maybe the Russian ballet was in town again.

So Zabala finally cornered Denson in a Starplex office.

"We come here," Zabala said, "and ask him where is money? He say he no have the money."

At 3:15, with the champion refusing to work, Denson had his ring announcer recite that fairy tale about "problems" and "physical condition," and then the show, such as it was, went on.

God would punish me if I wrote more than five more paragraphs about this trash. But I have to tell you that Too Tall threatened to stay in bed, too, if the promoter allowed television news cameras to film him in action (Wolf retained exclusive film rights, much as NBC, say, does with the Super Bowl).

They argued about this for a while. And while they argued, the ring announcer treated the customers to introductions of celebrities. The referee, for instance, once was the light heavyweight champion of Finland (honest).

Any, WRC-TVtook down its ringside camera and Jones came in to face the Mexican, Fernando Montes, identified as a former heavyweight champion of his country.

Montes, it was learned later, speaks no English. Neither, apparently, does he speak bell. Because the bell rang and he stood with his back to Jones for about 10 seconds, finally awakening to this 6-foot-9 presence behind him.

It took four punches. "Fernando, he overconfident," the fighter's manager said afterward.

Is this how Alice felt going through the looking glass?