"This fight could either ruin Leonard or gain him recognition as one of the greatest fighters in history, right up beside Benny Leonard." -- Ray Arcel

Sugar Ray Leonard and Robert Duran have told us nearly everything except what they cannot answer until they go at each other here Friday night: whose soul will be toughest when the fight gets primitive?

Sport is not supposed to be as easy as Leonard has made it seem during his three years as a pro. No athlete has leaped higher more quickly, earned so much money so soon or gained so much glory with so little suffering. Or managed his career with so much thought.

Leonard's comet-like leap to the WBC welterweight title in three years has been almost exactly what every athlete in every sport dreams -- but never achieves. He is bound by nothing except his ability and imagination: he has eliminated all the leeches that suck at success.

For being able to grab a sport that exploits athletes like no other and twist it to his advantage, Leonard demands affection and admination. But Duran will be his toughest opponent.

Leonard has an Ali-like flair for attracting and coveting attention. But these last few weeks have been an unsettling experience even for his special energy, with geometrically more distractions and obligations as the champ who commands millions. Whether he can cope with the Super Bowl-like atmosphere and still devote enough time and thought to Duran is worrisome to his fans.

When Leonard explained his less-than-awesome performance in beating Wilfred Benitez for the WBC title in November, some veteran Leonard watchers tensed up. The media spotlight interrupted his concentration, he said.

Hmmmm. The media spotlight has been much more intense for the Duran fight. Has Leonard worked hard enough to whip a once-peerless fighter who still sees the essence of mean in a ring?

"Duran's never been hit where he lives," said Angelo Dundee, the man who hones Leonard's skills before each fight. "His body is available. He's never been abused downstairs. He hasn't done as many calisthenics as my kid.

"My guy will be picking up steam from the first round. You let a guy pick up momentum, you're asking for trouble. You let him get the jump and he'll dominate. Duran has no weaknesses. He's not a great chin (although Dundee wants it with fewer whiskers).

"But he's never been hit like my kid can hit. My kid has a left jab like a right cross. Like when he knocked out Benitez, people thought Benitez's feet were crossed. No. It was a sensational punch."

The left that floored Dave Green in Leonard's one title defense was frightening.

Still, Duran seems to have the edge in the important mind game. His career has been almost totally opposite Leonard's. Few fighters have been more skilled -- and more anonymous -- than Duran.

As the fighter of the '70s to many, Duran existed in the overwhelming shadow of Ali. You would go into a two-ring New York gym to watch a fading Ali train not long before the Ken Norton fight in Madison Square Garden and almost no one would pay attention to the fellow working in the other ring: Roberto Duran.

"He hasn't gotten nearly the acclaim he deserves," said trainer Arcel. "If he were an American and boxing in this country, he'd be recognized properly. Ali was able to sell himself; Duran would go back to Panama.

"Duran could have been champion of any lightweight division we've ever had. He has so much natural ability. But there's been a strong language barrier. It's like putting me" -- Arcel has handled 18 champions in his career -- "on a young colt who's never been broken.

"Duran as a welterweight? That's what we'll find out Friday. He's a very sensitive kid, inspired by this. He hasn't been so far (as a welterweight). I have a feeling Sugar Ray Leonard made a mistake with that I'll-kill-him talk. Roberto Duran is the guy who does the killing.

"He copes with the speed. Duran slows you down."

Whether as promotional hype or genuine anger to stir his emotions, Duran has taunted Leonard whenever they have appeared in public together this week. In a matador-like gesture, Sugar Ray has blown Duran sweet kisses.

"We hope he's frustrated enough to fly around the ring," Dundee said. "The more frustrated he is, the easier it will be for Ray. We also know Duran has a tendency to drop his right hand. He's vulnerable to a left hand.

"He couldn't be as good as a welterweight. Why? 'Cause he was hitting smaller guys. But he's gonng be at his best. And I don't think he'd retire (if he lost to Leonard). That's not reason enough, to lose to the champ."

Pressing for whatever psychological edge possible, Dundee had demanded that Duran shave his beard before the fight. The Montreal boxing officials will examine the matter sometime around the weigh-in, they said.

"I'll bring the barber," Dundee volunteered.

"The questions with Leonard." Arcel said, "are stamina and quality of opponents. He's only had ordinary opponents. Benitez was just another fighter. Bur Duran is one of the best fighters who ever lived.

"This kid is mentally tough, with loads of self-determination and a ring sense he's developed himself. No one can teach that. It's instinct, like you find in true artists and writers. He is so good at coping with any situation."

Just to make sure everyone had the proper tone, Arcel added. "I'm speaking of Roberto Duran."

As he suggested, Arcel might also have been describing Leonard. But whoever can cope best Friday night, whoever's life has prepared him best for a moment neither is likely to endure again, whoever is properly fit physically and mentally and at the proper time will win.

If the heart cannot keep from leaning toward Leonard, the mind still whispers: Duran.