DERRIK HOLMES is on the comeback trail at age 24 after giving up boxing three years ago when he lost in the finals of the 1976 Olympic trails to a fighter he had beaten twice before.

"I ran away from the game and everyone associated with it," Holmes says now. "Not boxing was like having my heart cut out."

Holmes, whose life in many ways has paralleled that of his lifelong friend Sugar Ray Leonard, is back and his heart is very much in the game.

He improved his record as a pro to 12-0-1, including nine knockouts, Saturday by knocking out Livio Nolasco of the Dominican Republic (20-7) with a devastating right in the second round of their junior featherweight (118-122 pounds) bout, a cofeature to the Spinks-Evangelista fight in Atlantic City.

"The fight was easy because of the shape I was in," said Holmes, who earned 1,500 Saturday. "I knew I was talking a large step up the ladder and I've been training harder as I've gotten closer to a title shot."

Holmes will take on 21-year-old Ulises Morales (15-1) of Panama, ranked ninth by the WBA, in a 10-round cofeature to the Howard Davis-Zilomar Fernandez fight Feb. 23 at Resorts International in Atlantic City.

Perhaps after that he will get a chance for a championship.

Like many gifted athletes, the 5-foot-7, 123-pound Holmes exudes confidence, but his age and youthful appearance belie his ring experience and boxing accomplishments. He won North American amateur championships three times in diffeent weight categories, beating current WBC junior featherweight champion Wilfredo Gomez in the finals in 1974, on his way to compiling at 129-10 amateur record with 75 knockouts.

Twice he made it to the final eliminations of the Olympic trails, only to lose on decisions Holmes felt were unjustified. He also admits he was not in peak condition. After losing in 1976 to a fighter he had beaten twice before, Holmes says, "I felt discouraged and quit fighting for 18 months."

As his boxing fortunes declined, Holmes' home life began to crumble too. Holmes and his mother Charlene, who suffered from high blood pressure and asthma and could no longer work, lost their apartment. So he went to work as a computer technician at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt to help pay the rent.

While he was watching nationally televised bouts involving fighters he once had defeated, Holmes made up his mind "to stop retreating from the game and to act like a man."

"I decided to take a survey for myself," said Holmes, who also dabbles in photography and chess. "On day I wasn't working, I rode buses all over town and questioned people about Sugar Ray, who had just won the gold metal in Montreal.

"Then I asked them if they ever heard of Derrik Holmes. Some to them knew my name but nobody recognized my face." It was then that Holmes ran into Adrian Davis, a former welterweight contender who was working at the Bowie Recreation Center.

Under the watchful eye of Davis, the slender Holmes fought one more year as an amateur, honing his skills and learning he could dance less, conserve energy and still evade opponents' punches.

He won his professional debut in June 1978 on a fourth-round TKO and collected $500, a large purse for a fighter's initial pro bout, but hardly in the same category as his friend, Sugar Ray, who got $40,000 for his first fight.

Ironically, if not for Holmes, Sugar Ray may never have gotten involved in boxing. Holmes moved from the District to Landover when he was 12. Soon thereafter, Holmes was jumped by two street toughs who hurt his pride more than his body.

"I found one and got revenge on him," Holmes recalled. "I saw the other guy two years later, boxing at the Kentland Boys Club and learned that he has been the junior golden gloves champion for two years. I joined the team to get at him and every time I entered a ring with him, it was like a street fight.

"It was supposed to be a sparring session but when the bell rang, they had to pull me off of him. He quit the team and I took his place."

When he was 14, Holmes heard that the Palmer Park Recreation Center, which was closer to his home than Kentland, was starting a team and he tried to encourage Ray Leonard to try out with him.

"Ray didn't want to box but that meant we had to seperate by 5 o'clock because I wanted to box after school," Holmes recalled. "Two weeks later, he joined."

The two stayed on the team for years, waking up at dawn to run together, then sparring after school while being coached by Dave Jacobs, Leonard's current trainer.

Holmes graduated from Parkdale High School in 1974 and went on to the University of Maryland, where he studied prelaw for two years.

Leonard devoted all his energy to boxing and moved on to Olympic gold in Montreal and the life of a star. Holmes had to make ends meet modeling and working at the recreation center. He did not train properly for the 1976 Olympic trails, and lost in the finals.

Holmes took a job at Goddard and has now emerged under Davis. Every day he works out at the orange-walled Dynamo Boxing Club in Hyattsville. Five days before a fight, he goes to Philadelphia to work with veteran trainer George Benton at Joe Frazier's gym.

Benton, who replaced Jacobs (who was devoting most hos his time to Leonard) as Holmes' trainer in June, says Holmes is "one of the best prospects to come up in his division in quite a few years. He's a boxer-puncher who hits hard for a little guy and I think he has improved 100 percent since last year.

"He's doing most of the things a pro should do, but he needs to learn ring generalship which he will acquire with more experience. At this time in his career he's as good as Leonard was at the same stage in his professional career," added Benton, who has been involved in boxing for 35 years and was one of Frazier's trainers.

Holmes' parents were separated 15 years ago, and he says he intends to make sure his mother never has to work again. He also wants to give his 14-month-old daughter, Veronica, who lives with Derrik and his mother, a better life than he had. He hopes to marry his girlfreind, Denise Harley, once his boxing future is assured.

Holmes says he does not like the discipline involved in becoming a champion (he loves ice cream), but says it is a great joy to "perform in front of a large audience and captivate them with my hands.

"I hope that every time I fight, one or two kids in the audience will be motivated by my performance. They should know it is tough to make yourself a success. Realizing that will better prepare them to deal with each day."