At the end, Sugar Ray Leonard was flying. When the referee stopped the fight with six seconds to go, giving Leonard the welterweight championship, the Sugar man sprinted across the ring and leaped onto the second strand of the ring ropes. There, on his newly claimed throne, he raised his arms in the exultant V of glorious triumph.

It wasn't all that wonderful. We have seen Leonard work beautifully. Not tonight. Even the way the fight ended -- with the referee taking Wilfred Benitez's championship when he was on his feet with a bare breath to go -- detracted from the moment Leonard has been working toward since that day, a decade ago, when he walked into the Palmer Park Community Recreation Center and said he wanted to learn how to fight, could he?

"He was good enough to beat the guy," said Leonard's manager, Angelo Dundee, who now has worked the corner with eight world champions from Carmen Basilio to Muhammad Ali.

"Good enough to beat an undefeated champion," Dundee said. "And Ray is going to get better."

Any victory in a championship fight is wonderful, of course, and only hard-hearts with typewriters would pick at nits in Leonard's 26th victory without a loss. He dominated the fight. Benitez had won only four rounds on the official's cards when the referee stopped the fight shortly after Leonard knocked the champion down for the second time tonight.

But, as happened with Ali, Leonard has raised expectations to a high, perhaps unreasonable, level. Everyone thinks he ought to be Sugar Ray Robinson right away. Look at the odds here tonight. Against a superbly conditioned 21-year-old master boxer who had not lost in 38 pro fights, Leonard was a 3-to-1 favorite. Leonard himself predicted a knockout inside 10.

And he did do good work tonight. "it was one of the toughest fights of my amateur and pro career," Leonard said. He unloaded everything at Benitez, uppercuts from all angles, overhead rights from center field, jabs so mighty that one, in the third round, knocked Benitez down.

And yet --

--Yet Leonard has been so much better at other times. For stretches of four and five rounds tonight, he missed Benitez as often as he hit him. Rather than fault Leonard for that, though, Dundee praised Benitez, saying, "That guy's difficult to hit. Nobody's ever hit him the way Ray did tonight."

Three times tonight, Leonard had the champion in trouble. But only the referee could stop Benitez, who worked the last nine rounds with a cut near his forehead hairline that dripped blood between his eyes. Only the referee could stop Benitez, who from the moment he stepped into the ring showed he was unintimidated by America's sweetheart fighter, Sailin' Sugar, the Olympic hero.

Leonard's entrance into a ring is a piece of show biz. He comes in a shining white robe with red tassles at his shoetops. They play over the arena public address system his theme song, "Sugar Ray." The fighter bows to all four points of the compass and he dances to and fro, looking ever so pretty.

And here came Wilfred Benitez. He sought out Leonard, interrupting his little dance. Benitez stood stock-still, hands at his side, his eyes following Leonard until they forced Leonard to come to a stop, too. Nose to nose, they glared. No one blinked. The referee moved them apart.

They traded occasional glares after that, at a round's end, as if so much playground psyching could make a difference. It didn't, and by round eight, when Benitez had weathered an early storm of Leonard, the fighters patted each other's fanny at the bell. They were warriors locked in honorable combat now.

So serious were they be then, in fact, that when Leonard did the fight's only bit of Ali comedy -- faking a windmill uppercut while caught in a clinch -- many of the 4,700 customers at the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion booed the Sugarman.

The glares turned to an admiring wink after the 11th round. In that round, Leonard had Benitez in six tons of trouble, captured in a corner and unable to protect himself. But Leonard couldn't put him down and when the bell rang, Leonard winked at Benitez as if to say, "You didn't get to be the champ by quitting, my man. Nice going."

Neither did Leonard rise to the championship on a smile alone.

"Everybody keeps saying Sugar Ray Leonard isn't nothing but Hollywood," he said, "but I showed them tonight I'm determined to be a great fighter."

For 15 rounds Leonard never took a step in anxious retreat against an undefeated champion who had knocked out 23 of his 38 opponents. Leonard accepted the punishment -- "I'm sore all over," he said -- and dealt out more than he took.

"I think he knows I hurt him," Leonard said, "and I know he hurt me."

When his listeners laughed at that line, Leonard flashed them his glamor/Hollywood smile and said, "And it wasn't funny, either."

After early good work that included that third-round knockdown, Leonard for some reason no longer so avidly pursued the champion whose reputation as a counterpuncher often keeps his enemies hesitant.

It was unlike the Leonard who has been called (by Cus D'Amato who knows only everything) "the best finisher since Joe Louis." From Leonard's corner came constant exhortations to "Pick it up, Ray," both from Dundee and trainer Dave Jacobs.They wanted him on the move toward Benitez because they believed an opponent forcing the pace would be such a surprise the champion couldn't take it.

"And the challenger has to go after the championship," Dundee said. "The challenger has to take the championship he can't wait around for somebody to hand it to him."

So the 15th round was over. Both fighters landed heavy punches, in search of a knockout. A short left hook by Leonard took Benitez' legs away from him, the champion going down on both kn ees. Seconds later, Leonard was in the champion's face again -- and the referee stopped the fight with six seconds to go.

"We both landed shots that could have rocked a volcano," Sugar Ray Leonard said a half-hour later. By then, talking to the press, Leonard had his left arm draped around the shoulders of his old pal, Wilfred Benitez.