Sugar Ray Leonard is the champ that nobody owns.

Because of it, the parasitical promoters, middlemen, and managers of boxing are afraid that he will succeed.

Already, some of them, particularly promoter Don King, are laying traps to bushwack him and take his crown if he won't buckle under and pay tribute.

Leonard wants to prove that a fighter with only a high school education -- and a couple of honest friends -- can bypass the grifters, own himself, make millions of bucks and handle himself with dignity.

This is a new idea in boxing. To many in the predatory sport, Sugar Ray Leonard Inc., looks more dangerous with a fountain pen in his hand than with a glove on it.

Now that he is welterweight champion, Leonard is finding out just how down-and-dirty his business is.

In the four months since he stopped Wilfredo Benitez, Leonard has struggled on several fronts to prove that there are no strings on him.

"People still see me as that kid with the Olympic medal around his neck and his hands full of play money," he said. "They mistake my kindness for weakness.

"But my kiddie days are over. I have responsibilities. I'm as grown a man as I'm ever going to be.

"If I could do, say, go like I did when I had nothing, I'd be the happiest man in the world. But I can't."

Sometimes, Leonard and his adviser-best friend Janks Morton will take a car ride at 3 a.m. just to think, talk, feel the road flying under them. Just to be free and simple again.

"We just ride," said Morton. "We've been all around that beltway in the middle of the night."

But when the car stops, Leonard always reaches the same conclusion. "I've changed. I'm older. I have to advance and find out what's next on the agenda."

Leonard has declared his independence -- his new agenda, his metamorphosis into the adult champ -- in several ways.

First, he assumed the responsibilities of a family in a full legal sense by marrying his childhood sweetheart, Juanita Wilkerson, in a ceremony with their 6-year-old son, Ray Jr., as ring bearer.

Then, Leonard drastically shook up his entourage.

"Basically, it's just Mike Trainer (attorney), Janks and me now," said Leonard. "We make all the decisions."

When he was a child, Leonard was swaddled with advisers. Now, as his own captain, he has trimmed ship.

"A couple of people had to learn who was working for whom," said Morton. "They worked for Ray, not he for them."

Eased to the background has been Leonard's childhood trainer, Dave Jacobs. "Dave just couldn't stop thinking of Ray as his little-boy son," said Morton.

Another person with lessened sway is Angelo Dundee.

"Angelo was pushing him to the front a little too much, or, at least, letting other people give him too much credit for matchmaking and career guidance that he knew he wasn't responsible for," said Trainer. "This show only has one star and that's Ray."

"I'm a lesser character in this play," Dunee said with a smile.

In that eternal boxing game of who-gets-credit-for-creating-the-champ, it is Mortona and Leonard himself who now get the accolades. "Without Janks, there wouldn't be any Sugar Ray Leonard," said Leonard.

In the ring, Leonard believes he is just beginning to find his true style. "Against Benitez, people didn't see me, just a shadow," said Leonard. "In the future, I'll be a better craftsman, and more artistic, too.

"(Mohammad) Ali called me the night before the Benitez fight and told me not to do anything flashy because the judges would resent me hot-dogging against a world champion. 'None of our stuff,' he said.

"I was a basic boxer that night, and very cautious. Now I can go back to fighting my way because I'm the champ. You have to take a chance to get a chance.I'm so relaxed now. No worries. I'm thinking clearer.

"That night against Benitez, I was almost psyched out in the ring. I felt hypnotized or lost. I went rounds without hearing what my corner said. I've never been so mentally exhausted.

"Now, I can go back to doing my thing."

Out of the ring, in his alter-ego life as a 23-year-old black businessman, Leonard has also shifted gears and given new orders to those around him.

The Leonard-Morton-Trainer triangle has decided to tone down Sugar Ray's galavanting, tub-thumping style as the challenger who would promote his fights with any PR gimmick.

"To do some of the things he used to do would be embarrassing now," said Trainer. "We've told some people who have helped us a lot in the past not to sell him so hard.

"I've told Roy that in promotions and advertisements, it you start cheap, you end cheap. Ray may have been caught into doing a few demeaning things in the past. That won't happen anymore. Everything goes past me now."

"Janks and Mike have told me, 'Don't sell your face for free. People can get sick of looking at anybody.' We're cautious. We observe. We're willing to wait and go for the big ones because I'm there now."

And, at last, the big ones are coming to Leonard, who wants very much to join O.J. Simpson as one of the few black atheletes who have become what Leonard calls "commercial men."

Endorsements from Ford, Seven-Up and a Boston sporting goods firm are already signed and a multiyear contract for more than a million dollars with Adidas is close to fruition, according to Trainer.

TV commentator work with Home Box Office, as well as a TV special with Shirley MacLaine are lined up.

"By not selling Ray cheap, we've waited until he was champ and had much greater leverage. Now, the offers that we were never sure would come have come," said Trainer. "I may feel like a genius now, but I could just as easily felt like an idiot."

Potential for considerable bitterness has been avoided. "The business angle of all this has been crazy and cruel," said Morton. "It's hurt Ray plenty."

Sensationalized stories about Juanita filing a paternity suit against Ray, when, in fact, she had merely filled out forms to get food stamps, long hurt Leonard's endorsement chances.

"It killed every commerical he could have gotten after the Olympics," claimed Morton. "Bruce Jenner puts his face on a cereal box. Mark Spitz, who can't even talk on camera, holds up an after-shave bottle. All he has to do is not drop it.

"Ray, who's a natural actor, has to work four more years after the Olympics to start getting major offers. It's better not to think about it too hard. Ray doesn't. I've seen him come from a dollar to a million with a smile."

Leonard has asserted his adulthood in many ways -- as father and responsible family man, as a fighter determined to define his own style and name his own advisers, and as a jock businessman with precious few years to capitalize on his fame.

His toughest, and most important battle of independence, however, has just begun. Leonard has taken on the whole structure of the boxing establishment.

Nobody owns a percentage piece of Leonard and never has since the day Morton brought in his buddy, Trainer, to make Leonard a one-man corporation who wouldn't be cheated or corrupted.

"I've seen athletes gypped and forgotten all my life," said Morton. "I have a high school friend who played 13 years in the NFL and made all-pro. Now he's in a car wash. For once, I didn't want the world to win."

Instead of selling percentages of himself, Leonard pays a flat fee for services rendered to him. He has been his own matchmaker and his own promoter. His lawyer negotiated his own private TV packages and his arena deals.

Boxing has never heard of any of this before. A legion of sticky-fingered middlemen were getting frozen out. "We work very hard to make money," said Trainer, who is retained on a flat hourly fee basis. "But we are making it for Ray -- not the matchmaker, the promoter, the arena owner, the agent, the manager, the trainer.

"All these do-nothing middlemen, who just make a few phone calls, are being asked, 'What's your cut?' It scares them to death. We offer them a fair profit. They want an under-the-table killng."

"Mike and I want to see the day when Ray only has verbal agreements with people around him," said Morton."That puts him in total control. He can fire anybody on the spot.

"After all, prize fighting is a very special sort of profession. When the bell rings, we all grab the buckets and stools and run out. It's Ray who has to take his life in his hands in the ring.

"Nobody should own a fighter.You have a contract or a license on a dog, not a person. It doesn't sound businesslike, I know. But if a man's word isn't good, what else is left?"

This new monster -- Sugar Ray Leonard Inc., which really means Leonard's fists, Morton's heart and Trainer's savvy -- unsettles boxing so much because it is uncontrollable.

"I never touched boxing before Ray, and the day he's finished, I'm finished," said Trainer.

"Nobody else in boxing will speak up because they all feel that they can be taken advantage of somewhere down the road when they're handling some other fighter or when they need a favor.

"I'll grant that Sugar Ray is a special case because of his TV fame from the Olympics. Nevertheless, we're trying to prove the ideal case of how a promising fighter can be handled with his own good at heart.

"To one degree or another, what we've done can be done with any quality fighter anywhere."

What do boxing's power say to this?

"Ray Leonard is ducking Roberto Duran, the No. 1 welterweight contender," said Don King, who "owns" the rights to promote any Duran fight. c"Leonard is turning his back on the American people. He's getting bad advice from Mike Trainer. If Leonard won't fight, we'll see that the WBC strips him of his title."

Of all Leonard's decisions in the last four months, his most far-reaching is to fight the powerful King tooth and nail. He's given Trainer the word to take off the kid gloves.

"We've offered Duran a $1 million guarantee, plus a percentage of the entire fight proceeds," said Trainer. "That's double his best fight purse.

"I've also made a fair and profitable offer to King for his services -- in a limited capacity. King can handle the foreign TV rights, the undercard contracts and the arena revenue at the second site for the undercard. If he worked it well, that cold bring him $500,000 to $600,000," said Trainer.

"But that's not nearly enough for King. He's seen this payday coming for years. In fact, he's bankrolled on it.

"To control Duran, King's paid him very well over the years -- more than he was worth, and maybe even some out of King's own pocket.

"King's little empire is getting shakier all the time. (Heavyweight champ) Larry Holmes is his stalking horse and if Holmes loses, King will have real trouble putting together cards. A promoter can't promote without a big name to build around.

"So, King's in a panic. Out of frustration, he's acting ridiculous and irrational about the Leonard fight. He's probably promised Duran $2 million, and counted on plenty for himself, too. It was a helluva shock for him to come to me and be told we didn't need or want him, but that we'd give him a cut to be friendly.

"King's position is that if he cannot promote the fight -- and at the profit the he deems fit -- it simply will not take place. Nothing to do with Leonard. But everything to do with King," said Trainer.

The Leonard camp has no illusion that virtue and Sugar Ray's handsome smile are going to help them through this briar patch of intrigue.

"King thought I couldn't buck him," said Trainer. "Or, he thought he could mesmerize me like he does boxing people with his ridiculous parables about tigers eating lions. Or he thought we'd buckle when he started slinging mud, like saying last week that I'd offered Duran $500,000 under the table to buy his contract away from King.

"We've learned that only one thing works with these people. If you don't have options, you're cooked. If they know they're the only game in town, they've got you.

"They've made me feel like I'm representing the challenger, not the champ, the way I've been phoning and sending letters for months with no response whatsoever.

"But we're going to crack. It's against every sound business principle we've tried to prove can work.

"This sanctioning and paying off is a farce. The day's coming when it will be abolished. Then these guys will be out in the cold. They've picked the wrong time for a test case. Sugar Rayis one of the few fighters who's powerful enough, because of his talent and popularity, to buck them."

Part of Leonard's growing up is his indoctrination in the simple lesson that the sport he once found so pleasant and easy is full of pitfalls.

"Everything I've learned and seen, I tell Ray," said Morton. "Athletes are the world's most easily forgotten people. You lose the grip you thought you had. Nobody wants you.

"My old friend Kenny Norton is in town . . . thought he was an actor. I don't see any more 'Mandingo' movies.

"Nobody likes to see you do too good. They secretly want to see you fall. Ray probably has more enemies in (home town) Palmer Park than anywhere else."

"What I have can get away so easily," said Leonard. "I try never to forget it. Before every fight, I think about the same thing: what I have to lose."

Leonard still has his ebullience, but he also has a dead-sober streak now. He sits in the same suite of rooms on the penthouse level that Muhammad Ali had when he defended his heavy-weight title here.

On the hotel door there is no number. It's been removed for secrecy. On the littered dining room table inside, where Leonard is autographing pictures, there is a stack of $100 bills lying casually beside a half-empty cup of coffee.

"I don't like to do the things I used to do," said Leonard. "If the little things that made you laugh don't make you laugh anymore, that doesn't mean you've 'changed.' It means you're older.

"I used to litter myself with jewelry. I found that I was losing myself. I was like a baby Sammy Davis.

"Now, I'm more conservative. I feel like I've been placed in a sphere where it's hard to know which direction to go -- north, south, east or west -- to create the least confusion.

"I just like to sit around and talk with friends. But I'm not like Ali with people always around him. Like parasites," said Leonard. "I'm more interested in a few people.

"The one thing I hate is when friends start asking me about my fame and money. And they get that look, just like the people in a shopping center when they're all waiting for the first person to ask for an autograph so they can all stampede. When the conversation turns like that, I get discouraged. That person has destroyed every bit of confidence and respect I had in him.

"He has put out the fire."

Leonard still has his enthusiasm. But he has drawn the protective circle around himself much closer. His wife and child, his parents, his trusted advisors Morton and Trainer, his brothers and sisters. Being a boxing king may not bo so different from being one of those uneasy Shakespearean kings.

Once, when Leonard awoke in the night, it was to stand in front of the bathroom mirror and throw combinations.

"I stand in front of the mirror firing as fast as I can until each punch is pefect, the way I imagined it," said Leonard in those first post-Olyumpic months when he turned pro. "I love perfection. I want to be a master."

Leonard doesn't do that anymore. "I know what I can do in the ring. I'm at ease with it."

When he wakes in the middle of the night now, it is for other reasons. As Morton says, "We just ride . . . we've been all around the beltway."

Those aren't sad nights. They are just nights of change. Nights of growing up. Nights to think about what it means to be champion of the world.