In hell, boxing would be the national pastime.

In the worst of all possible worlds, prize fighting, awful as its basic premises are, would be dignified and almost ennobling compared to what surrounds it.

That is to say, in that world, where the large majority of people were poor, uneducated, inured to violence and general hopelessness, to be a boxer would be to wear a valid badge of honor.

In a place that offered no realistic hope of escape, where ideals were debased by the over-riding amoral realties of the struggle to subsist, a man who raised his fists and proclaimed the four corners of the ring a refuge of rules, a haven f brutal justice, would be a moral prince.

Since, in our midst, in many cities, we tolerate just such pockets of hell, then have we not given sanction to the fight game -- a charter that we cannot yet withdraw?

And those deaths in the ring, like Willie Classen's last month, instead of reserving them for closed-circuit telecasts, as New York has done, shouldn't they be shown on the evening news as a symbolic distillation of everything ineradicable in our society from which we wish to turn our eyes?

Boxing, and especially the sport's central logical implication -- death -- sends a shiver through polite society.

If the legal death penalty appalls the populace so much that, after centuries of public hangings, our cyanide tablets are now dropped behind closed doors, then what must our reaction be to the public execution by battering of an innocent man?

That, of course, is what Classen's death -- on Nov. 28, five days after he was punched into a coma at the Felt Forum -- amounts to when reduced to its starkest terms.

Two men agreed, as part of their contractual agreement with the consuming public, to try their best to knock each other unconscious by means of hitting one another with maximum force in the head with their fists.

The state approved. Tickets were sold.

Since the line between unconsciousness by bludgeoning, or death, is never a clear one -- certainly not, for instance in a murder trial -- we should be forced to face boxing's logical implications.

But we never are.

Twenty-five years ago, only the names were different. Ed Sanders and Ralph Weiser were New York's boxing victims of 1954.

Jimmy Cannon wrote: "The bums who get rum money for selling their blood to banks do it privately with only a nurse to watch them. Even they can regard the tortured act, this deformed philanthropy, with pride. But pugs give their blood publicly and for money alone. Oh, it's a beautiful racket."

Once again, just as when Kid Paret died in 1962, a commission has met and this week released its handful of safety reforms. Now, after "discontinuing" boxing in New York for a month, the fight game will be free to resume its trade in the new year.

The New York State Athletic Commission has reformed boxing, man's second-oldest profession, in a month. That's like throwing a shoe at a family of roaches in a kitchen corner, then turning the lights off and saying, "Well, they won't be back."

No plans have been made on whether to throw the other shoe.

The commission's major reform, in its report to Gov. Hugh Carey, is to institute an eight-hour course for ringside doctors and referees to recognize the early signs of neurological trauma.

Will there be tests? Will anyone lose a license if they don't master the nuances of neurological trauma? Who's kidding who? Make sure there's somebody to wake these guys up and send them home after the lecture's over.

"You've got to remember, I don't find doctors lined up outside my office wanting to be panel physicians," said the commission chairman Jack Prenderville.

No, indeed, not for $50 a night to oversee 60 rounds of boxing. Not when the medical director of the State Athletic Commission -- the man who okayed Classen to fight -- was, at the time, under a year's suspension by another state agency for submission of false bills and allowing unlicensed employes to give treatments.

Not when the two ringside doctors the night of Classen's beating -- one a urologist, the other a pediatrician -- now say they never saw any of the punches in the ninth round that led to Classen's death.

Only two commission steps are ameliorative: forcing any fighter who has been knocked out to be inactive for 90 days rather than 30, and a study of the possibility of switching from eight-ounce to 10-ounce gloves.

People who have lived the fight game, however, know that rules and commissions and licensing qualifications barely touch the reality of the sport.

"I'm glad to hear they've gone from 30 days to 90 days. That's the way it is here in D.C.,"said Sugar Ray Leonard's lifelong trainer, Dave Jacobs. "And I think they should go to the 10-ounce gloves. The ones we use now are like nothin' on your hands at all.

"But these rules and regulations don't change the game or help it. Boxing can't be too strict, or it won't survive. Crack down on qualifications and, hey, who's going to be left, especially at the club level? You'll kill the roots of the sport.

You can't put responsibility on the doctors and referees. They don't know a fighter's personal history or how much punishment he can stand. They look to the corner -- the manager and trainer -- to see when it should be stopped. It's always been that way.

"It's all on the shoulders of the fighter's own people, and always will be. If you don't care for your own man, he'll be destroyed anyway.

"It only takes seconds to scramble a man's brains," said Jacobs, one of the most respected manager-trainers in boxing. "The only people who have an idea of when a fighter's still got his right mind and when he's all of a sudden helpless are the people in his corner who've watched him all his life.

"They should know that you always stop it a few seconds too soon, rather than a few seconds too late."

And that, as long as boxing exists, will be the totally unregulatable line of demarcation between sport, maiming or death -- a few seconds.

Willie Classen lived in hell and died trying to fight his way up, if not out. Classen, who would have been 29 last Sunday, spent time in jail, suffered periods of heroin addiction, was convicted of statutory rape of a woman who later became his first of three wives and had a three-inch scar on his neck from a broken bottle swung by a girlfriend.

He was arrested at various times for robbery and assault. He also had periods of momentary redemption from his life in New York's El Barrio and the South Bronx -- months when he kicked the yellow snow, held a job as a security guard, ran in the mean streets before dawn for conditioning and made himself into a tough enough banger that he battled current middle-weight champ Vito Antuofermo to a split decision before losing.

"Good?" said Jacobs. "I saw him on TV once. The kid was dynamite."

Good enough that he once fought in London. But, of course, that fight (for $3,000) was on 48 hours notice as a stand-in. He was out of condition. He was battered unconscious.

After midnight, his manager asked him if he'd rather go to the hospital for a brain scan or get some fried chicken before the last fast-food place closed.

Classen chose the fried chicken.Six weeks later, New York certified him fit to fight. And one week later, he was dead.

By the standards of hell, Willie Classen led a decent life. And boxing, which killed him, was the best part of it.