This one wasn't pretty, this was the beginning of a war.

Roberto Duran, as brave a warrior as ever went to combat, carried a battalion's arsenal up the hill toward Sugar Ray Leonard tonight. He used all the weapons well, mortar shells thrown from far behind the lines, machine-gun fire done at close range.

He won this battle.

The war will go on.

Many people will believe forevermore that Leonard won this fight. What they saw in Duran, they saw in Leonard. How misleading to call him Sugar. He is Steel. Fearless under fire, courageous on the attack, Leonardbrought no dancing shoes to this one, did no clowning -- he came with hand grenades.

For 15 rounds, these little men pounded at each other's body and soul. They found no weaknesses. One judge had Duran winning by two points, the other two by a single point. Had these mighty gladiators gone another 15 rounds, it would have made it no more clear who the better man is.

The scorecard here showed Leonard winning, 145-141. It had Leonard sweeping the last six rounds in as gallant a fight as has been seen since Joe Frazier, that night in 1971, ended Muhammad Ali's undefeated streak at 33.

And there was Frazier tonight, sitting at ringside near Leonard's corner, perhapsseeing in the relentless little bull Duran something of the Frazier that knocked Ali off his feet in the 14th round and won a unanimous decision.

Now, for the first time in 28 fights, Leonard is a beaten man, beaten by a man fighting with supernatural fury. As Ali and Frazier fought three times, so too will Leonard and Duran go again.

Through nine rounds tonight, this was Duran's fight. Leonard admitted it. In the third round, Duran seemed ready to end it when he crashed resounding lefts to Leonard's ribs as the champion was pinned to the ropes. "Break the foundation and the building crumbles," said Duran's trainer, Freddie Brown, 73, who used to tell Jack Dempsey that.

Leonard sagged under the wrecking balls of Duran's fists.

Why didn't Leonard move? Throughout his golden amateur and pro career, Leonard has used quick footwork to get out of harm'sway. But not tonight. With Duran raining damage on him, Leonard stayed against the ropes. And those who have seen him dance, who have seen him move those tasseled shoes in a blur, wondered why the sweet man stood so still.

He stood still because the referee, Carlos Padilla, was more a spectator than a workman, failing to do his job.

It is Padilla's international reputation that he does not allow fighters to work inside. The selection of the Filipino was seen as a plus for Leonard's side, in fact, for Duran fights only one way -- charging inside to deliver his hellish firestorms. Padilla, it figured, would keep Duran within the bounds of legality, which bounds he often ignores. w

But Duran got away with too much tonight.As if in reaction to his reputation, Padilla allowed Duran to swarm all over Leonard, mauling him with forearms, pounding shots to the champion's back.

Leonard did not dance away, then, because Duran was leaning on him, preventing the escape. Leonard's only defense in the wrestling match was to clamp down with his elbows and pin Duran's gloves next to his body.

This effectively made it Duran's fight. An American champion was in enough trouble with judges from England, France and Italy (the Italian, incredibly, scored 10 rounds even, surely a record for gutlessness under pressure). Add to that a stadium crowd of 46,317 vociferously in favor of the Latin challenger. And then, factor in the Filipino referee's manner that took away part of Leonard's game.

On this night when he got no breaks, Leonard needed at least one. He needed, too, all his gifts. He needed the feet that Duran and Padilla turned to stone. For on this night, Leonard was in the square jungle against a champion whose greatness is unquestioned.

Twice now in 100 years, for the first time in 47 years, a lightweight champion has become the welterweight champion. As Frazier rose to mighty strength against Ali in 1971, so did Duran become more than himself tonight. It could be argued, in fact, that all of the fight's wrestling was Leonard's doing, that by clamping down on Duran's gloves he stopped the action of battle. Without such holding tactics, it could be argued, Duran might have left Leonard senseless as he has 55 others in 71 fights.

Certainly the Panamanian had Leonard in trouble. Through the first nine rounds, he seemed one punch from victory. When Leonard refused to crumble in the third, when Leonard in fact forced the raging Duran off him with a flurry of short hooks and crosses, it never caused Duran to think of safety, to call retreat.

A Duran jab, his weakest punch, crushed into LeonardS face in the fourth round. This was not a face of Sugar. This was no sweet smile. As Ali took on a survivor's grimness that night with Frazier, so did Leonard's countenance tonight reflect the controlled fright of combat. He never blinked.

How quick that jab was. How strong. His weakest punch. It sent Leonard staggering. And in the fifth came a Duran hook, thrown from Panama City, that stunned Leonard in midring., As Leonard lurched sideways, his brain colliding with the skull, here came a long right thrown overhand, crashing against his temple.

Through nine rounds, the fight was all Duran's. Occasionally, Leonard, to break the grimness, would smile over Duran's embrace to assure his handlers he wasn't hurt. But by now he was cut between the eyes and he was sore and his punches, once rapiers, had become great sweeping scythes.

As Ali proved forever his courage against the indommitable Frazier that night in 1971, Leonard stamped himself great in the last six rounds tonight. On this card, Leonard won all six.

He paid dearly for the victories, though. If he hit Duran 300 times in those rounds, Duran hit him 297. They came to the 15th in the midnight chill, their breath making clouds as the great engines of their hearts beat for three more minutes of a war that is just beginning.