In 1976, Sugar Ray Leonard voiced his great resolve to go to college, probably to nearby University of Maryland. He would not trade on the gold medal he had just won for his country in the Montreal Olympics. He would not turn pro.

"Bully for Sugar Ray," said his friends and admirers. This was the intelligent thing to do. An education is important, and the young man had made the proper decision.

For another, unspoken reason it was the right thing to do, in the minds of many. Out there in that other world were certain ruffian types dominating the high rankings in boxing's lighter divisions. They would welcome to their business the amateur, unstyled Leonard and they would savage him. has a reputation as a knocker-out and is the new, unbeaten welterweight champion of the world.

Back there three years ago Leonard finally decided college could wait. He determined to gamble on his natural, if unprofessional, skills, with the object of making some money for himself and his ailing parents and newly born child. The speed with which Sugar Ray has turned his penniless position around could command the admiration of the wolves of Wall Street.

At 23, Leonard is now one of the nation's newest multimillionaires. As sole owner of Sugar Leonard Inc., he's his own man, has no manager of record, splits his fat purses with nobody, and from his attorney, Michael Trainer, gets a Xeroxed printout every month on the state of his prospering realestate and money market investments. He's working on his fourth million.

His fee for spending just short of 15 rounds in the ring with Wilfred Benitez recently in Las Vegas, before knocking him out, was a flat $1 million. That sum is now merely a benchmark, a beginning price for Sugar Ray's next purse as defending champion of the world.

A schedule of five fights at three-month intervals has already been scheduled for the new champion by his attorney-agent, with the cable firm, Home Box Office, having joined the networks in the bidding for Sugar Ray's favor.He's now the boss, who dictates to the networks as well as to the eager challengers who want a piece of his big draw, and cash flow.

Leonard's next opponent will be the Britisher, Davey Green, in February if Green redeems himself meanwhile in a rematch with the Dane, Jurges Hansen. After that, in May, slugger Roberto Duran will get his shot in the much-wanted matchup that should bring in a fiscal gusher for Leonard. Then in late summer, a rematch with Benitez. Tommy Hearns, the unbeaten Detroiter, is to get a bout before the year's end, and then a big one with Jose Cuevas, who claims a piece of the title as the WBA champ.

Nobody else brings the television networks running with such gobs, of heavy money offers. The two so-called heavyweight champions, Larry Holmes and John Tate, are languishing in the shadows for lack of lucrative job offers from the networks, their titles not very negotiable.

Leonard has charms not only for the promoters. He is verging toward status as a ceritified American hero. He is modest, he is handsome, and he is quiet-spoken, even endearing, and he can hit hard with either hand. When he flurries, it is boxing's best show.

It was hardly presumed that a mere 147-pounder could move into the vacuum left by Muhammad Ali when he retired. This would be the role of the next colorful heavyweight to come along. But there are no colorful heavyweights, with the exception of hapless Earnie Shavers, who throws punches from right field and left center and dosen't win the big ones. The others are without even the pose of bravado, and Sugar Ray has put them all on the shelf.

At Las Vegas, Benitez was in Leonard's debt before the bout started. He owed the $1.2 million purse he was getting, to the drawing power and TV ratings of Sugar Ray. His take was five times more than his best previous payday. But Benitez did not fight likethe grateful one. He gave Leonard a very hard time, was as fast as Sugar Ray, even more polished a boxer, and he ment to keep that title.

Much was made of the butt that brought blood from Benitez's forehead in mid fight. "Leomard butted Benitez," it was written. That was wrong. As the slow motion, replay showed, there was a butt, but it was mutual, with Leonard the one that didn't bleed.

It was close going into the 15th round, with Leonard only slightly in front on all cards, a fight that was close to epic. Then, Sugar Ray decided to challenge the champ, with that last continuous flurry that produced the exciting give-and-take of the final seconds. The one who weakened was Benitez, who was led to his corner by the referee with only six seconds left in the fight. Later complaints held that the referee might have let the champion go the limit, but the referee does not keep a clock in his head.

Leonard had the title, indisputedly, the goal he had set for himself. Of all the reportage on the fight, that of the New York Times was the most astonishing. "Leonard's showing called disappointing," said the Times. It was pointed out that he had missed too many punches. Against the wily, shifty, nimble Benitez everybody misses many punches, the Times could have added. Plus the other pertinent fact that Benitez never had been hit with so many left and right hands as he was that night, by a fellow who wanted his title.