Tom Langley Jr. can make leather sing. The drifters at ringside of the Hillcrest Heights Recreation Center say Langley is a thoroughbred boxer. He'll fill your face with jabs and your mind with escape routes.

Langley is 80 pounds, 13 years old and winner of 27 of his 30 fights.

Harlan Hoosier, at 13 and 71 pounds was voted "champion of champions" for his tournament victory in Lenore, W. Va., Jan. 12.

What do the two have in common? Everything short of a pulse.

The champion of champions died of brain contusions six days after his last fight. Hoosier was the fourth boxer to die from ring injuries since October. f

Undaunted, more than 200 boys filed into the Hillcrest Heights center yesterday, signing up to fight in the regional Golden Gloves competition in February. There were tiny 8-year-olds and chunky 17-year-olds. There were smooth, unmarked faces and grotesquely flattened noses. There was a boy with eyeglasses thick enough to be bullet proof. And, there were parents. b

Catherine Sharps' son Ken, 17, has been fighting five years. "I get scared all the time," she said, "but not as much as I used to. Sure, when I hear about that boy who got killed, I think about it. Sometimes Ken gets some real blows in the head. You can feel them yourself."

Mrs. Sharps' reaction is more severe than most. The purist boxer doesn't want to think about someone dying in the ring. They all have the same basic answer. It starts sounding like an alibi after a while.

"He (Hoosier) got killed for a reason," says Ken Sharps. "He didn't wear headgear. That's ridiculous. No one should take that much punishment to the head."

When he gets slightly more pensive, Sharps says, "I think about it. Maybe it might be me one day, but that won't stop me from boxing after all this time."

Langley has an immediate answer for the Hoosier tragedy. "It was the adults' fault. They should have never let him in the ring without headgear."

Langley and Sharps both say they never worry about getting hurt. Langley says he and his friends "don't discuss that kind of thing."

Tom Langley Sr. looks at his son and says, "He's good. He's sharp. I'm not scared. We always decided if Tom was taking unusual punishment or abuse in the ring, we'd reevaluate the situation. I think if you have the talent it shouldn't be wasted. But when you start to slip . . . get out."

Langley Sr.'s view of the Hoosier death has a familiar ring. "I think that's criminal and the adults should be held responsible. How can they let the kid go in without headgear? And, to me, there seems like there was something wrong with the kid to start with.

Mike Lee, 17 and statuesque, concedes that Hoosier's death made him "wonder a little bit." Lee goes on fighting because "I enjoy the punishing . . . and getting punished."

In 11 fights, William Jones Jr. says he's never been punished. Jones is 8 and small for his age. The sheer weight of boxing gloves seems enough to separate his shoulders. He heard about Hoosier when "my mother told me. She just wants me to keep in shape for my fights."

The most candid of these fighters is 11-year-old Alton (Boots) Davis Slay III. "When kids get killed in the ring it's almost a part of you being killed. I collect articles about boxers and I saved everything about that (Hoosier). I felt said but I got used to it and I realized it could happen to me but it's a chance I have to take . . . I like boxing."

By his own estimation, Slay is husky and when he fights, he overpowers his opponents. "When I get someone in the corner I just keep punching."

His mother and stepmother both encourage his boxing. "The word I've ever had in the ring was a bloody nose. Outside, I've had 82 stitches. My mothers know what kind of kid I am. They'd rather have me in the gym than jumping creeks or something and getting stitches."

Brenda Davis has two sons, Demetrius and Victor, 11 and 13. Her husband Adrian once was the fourth leading welterweight in the world. After three operations, Adrian is blind in one eye. Brenda Davis says, "I worry about all those things. Victor is 13 and has won three Golden Gloves. He can get hurt a lot easier as he gets older."

Victor also gets headaches. Brenda wonders what causes them.

Tom Langley Sr. sums up the basic attitude of parents. "Kids get killed playing football. Kids get killed crossing the street. Am I going to stop my son from crossing the street? You can't live your life thinking you're going to get knocked off tommorrow."