What a fighter wants to do after 15 rounds of getting hit is get out of his body. He wants nothing to do with the poor, aching, incredibly inadequate hulk. His face hurts, his belly hurts, his gums hurt. Ali retired after every 15-rounder, once saying it was as close to dying as he wanted to go. So, at about 11 p.m. here last night, Sugar Ray Leonard sat in a tub of warm water, hurting from the egg-bump on his forehead to the knucles on his hands.

Mike Trainer, the Silver Spring lawyer who makes Leonard's money deals, came to the fighter's tub and said, with a little smile intended to help the Sugarman through the moment's pain, "Doesn't it make you feel good to know you don't have to do this anymore if you don't want to?"

Leonard will do it again, of course, no matter that at age 23, a professional less than three years, he has eared nearly $4 million, including a flat $1 million for taking the welterweight championship from Wilfred Benitez last night.

Leonard will do it again, but not another war for a while. The Benitez fight was tougher than he expected. He wants to rest. He has fought nine time this year. "A lot of rest involved," Leonard said when asked what's next. His face hurt when he smiled. His face was swollen today around the cheekbones. A little bandage held together a cut at the corner of his right eye. An uncommon darkness marked Leonard's face. For 15 rounds, he had been hit.

Everyone has a match in mind for Leonard. There is Tommy Hearns, the Detroit destroyer. There is Jose (Pipino) Cuevas, who owns the World Boxing Association welterweight championship to Leonard's World Boxing Council title. There is Roberto Duran, the fearsome Panamanian who vacated the lightweight championship to try the welterweights.

A rematch with Benitez is a possibility too, perhaps five of six months from now -- after Leonard defends the championship against a lesser opponent, someone such as David Green, a hard-hitting Briton.

In any case, Trainer, who would close any deal, is proceeding carefully.

At a victory party put on by Leonard's people here last night, Trainer took the fight's promoter, Bob Arum, into a corner. They talked earnestly. Dollar bills floated over their heads.

Trainer acknowledged that the two talked of Hearns, Cuevas, Duran, Green and Benitez.

"But we don't want to burn Ray out now," he said. "Ray's a young guy with a lot of years ahead of him. We have to be careful. I mean, every time out Ray gives 180 percent. If we put him in with a heavyweight, he'd die fighting the guy before he gave up. With Ray, you have to treat him like a thoroughbred race horse. You don't run him in the Kentucky Derby every week."

A guess, then, is that Leonard next will go against the Briton Green early next year. The would come Benitez again, followed by Duran next fall. e

The Duran fight is one Leonard's people should be eagerly awaiting. Leonard himself has said Duran would mean a $5 million payday. A legend of invicibility came to Duran years ago when he knocked out everyone in sight. These days, however, he trains fitfully, is often overweight and is a shadow of the fighter he once was.

Only noboby knows it. They still think Duran carries the "hands of stone" that made him famous. Against welterweights, though, Duran, while winning, has not been impressive. On his last appearance here, Duran was booed when announced as the winner of a 10-round decision over a mediocrity.

There is talk here of a Leonard-Duran fight on the same card with a Larry Holmes-John Tate heavyweight championship bout in September. That's not likely to happen, what with either fight being able to stand on its own merits, but it is significant as further evidence that Leonard has arrived as the biggest name in boxing box office.

"Last night was one of the greatest moments of my life," Leonard said at a press conference this morning in which he also said he was not the least bit disappointed with his work against Benitez.

Some people had been disappointed. One sportswriter called for Sugar Ray to give the name back to the real Sugar Ray -- as in Robinson. Some people saw Leonard missing Benitez as often as he hit him. They believed Leonard spent too much time trying to knock out the guy with a right hand. They couldn't believe how much Benitez, not considered a strong puncher, hurt Leonard.

"I'm not disappointed at all," Leonard said. "I fought a great champion. You have to expect those things, the misses. He dodged. I don't care about the punches I missed."

But weren't you stalking Benitez, measuring him, trying to knock him out with a single right-hand punch?

"Yes," Leonard said with a wry smile. "I tried to catch him with a right. My corner kept telling me not to do it, that he was going to slip it. But he looked so clear, so close. I wanted to prove my corner wrong for the first time. But, whoosh-whish . . ."

Here Leonard simulated his shoopshing right hand flying harmlessly over Benitez' head.

"That's greatness on Benitez's part," Leonard said.

Fighting the undefeated champion was like fighting himself, Leonard said.

"Starting off the fight, it was as though I was looking into a mirror," he said. "I've never been exposed to a fighter who could slip punches like that. But to be the champion, you've got to go through the mill. And now I've been through the mill."

Then Leonard put gravel in his voice, a la Sylvester Stallone and said, "I kinda feel like Rocky, y'know"?

Leonard went to a doctor last night for a look at the first knuckle on his right hand. Nothing broken. But whole lots of things hurt, and someone asked Leonard if he was surprised at getting hit so often.

"Why you want to say that?" Leonard said, laughing. "Very, very, very few guys are able to deliver punches like Wilfrez Benitez. He showed me remarkable speed, remarkable stamina, desire. He taught me so much in 15 rounds, more than I had learned in my other 25 pro fights. I'll use it in my next fight."

Would Leonard be better the next time with Benitez?

"I hope so," the champ said. "I better be."