Only seconds before the start of the 10th and final round in the first preliminary bout June 20 at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, former Canadian lightweight champion Cleveland Denny turned to his manager and uttered what would prove to be his last words.

It had been a close fight so far, Denny had been told. More likely than not, the outcome would hinge on the final round.

The 24-year-old fighter said he was ready.

"I'm going out there and give it all I've got," he told his manager, Dave Campanile.

Twelve seconds before the final bell, referee Deegan Baillargeon stopped the fight. Denny lay slumped on the canvas, pummeled into unconsciousness by final moments of the fight would show Denny absorbing 12 hard punches to the head in seven seconds.

Rushed to Montreal's Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital, Denny underwent brain surgery that night to relieve the pressure of a blood clot while an audience of millions gathered before a closed circuit television network to witness the evening's main event: the welterweight title fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran.

Seventeen days later, Denny died at Maisonneuve-Rosemont without ever having regained consciousness. According to wire service tabulations, he was between the 340th and 350th fighter to die of ring related injuries since the end of World War II.

He was at least the fourth fighter to die this year, a list that includes a 13-year-old boy who died of head injuries suffered in an amateur fight in West Virginia in January.

Born in Guyana on Nov. 9, 1955, Denny came to Montreal for the 1976 Olympics, but he chose to sit the Games out in a show of sympathy for a boycott called by black African athletes.

Denny was a dedicated, hard working fighter. Before his professional debut on Dec. 14, 1976, he had won 63 fights as an amateur and lost twice.As a pro, he had won 14, lost once and had three draws before June 20.

Hart was the only man ever to beat him as a professional, in April of 1978, and it was a defeat that stuck in Denny's craw.

"We all thought Cleveland should have won that one," said Campanile. But the judges thought otherwise. That decision cost Denny the Canadian lightweight title that he had won just five months earlier by beating Jean Lapointe in 12 rounds on Dec. 1, 1977.

Not long after his defeat at Hart's hands, Denny left Canada for California, where he spent two years fighting and training before returning to Canada this spring.

He was not originally scheduled to fight June 20. Bob Arum, chairman of Top Rank Inc., the New York fight promoters who organized the card, had originally scheduled a bout between Hart and Claude Noel, a highly rated lightweight from Trinidad, for the first fight of the evening.

"The Olympic Installation Board in Montreal had asked me to use as many Canadian fighters on the card as I could," recalled Arum.

"I picked Gaetan Hart because Hart was French Canadian, and he was a pretty big attraction in Montreal boxing circles. Originally, I had wanted to select an international opponent for him, so I picked this fighter from the Caribbean and I obtained a telegram from his manager accepting the fight against Hart."

But when he went to Montreal to complete final arrangements for the fight in April, Arum said, Canadian authorities suggested a Hart-Denny rematch instead.

The June 20 fight would be the third meeting of the two young fighters, who had each won one in a hard-fought series.

Six weeks earlier, Hart had knocked out Ralph Racine, sending Racine to the hospital for removal of a blood clot. Racine is now undergoing rehabilitative therapy in a nursing home.

Jean Yves Paronne, the general manager of the Olympic Installation Board, which runs Montreal's Olympic Stadium, said Denny, despite his two year hiatus in California, was still well-known and popular with Montreal fight fans.

Andre Nadon, Hart's manager, said he would just as soon have pitted his fighter against Noel. "We had nothing to gain in ratings by fighting Denny," he said.

It was a different story for Denny, however. Campanile said there had been hints that a victory might lead to a shot at a title fight.

And this fight offered an opportunity to settle the 1978 score that had rankled for two years. Jackie McCoy, a West Coast trainer who worked with Denny while he was in California, said Denny was always after him to watch films of his 1978 bout with Hart.

"He was always saying he got robbed when he lost to Hart," said McCoy.

There was also the issue of money. Married and the father of a 6-month-old son, Denny had a family to support. The $18,000 he had coming for the fight June 20 was nothing compared to Sugar Ray's purse, but to a family man it could go a long way.

By all accounts, the fight was even -- up until the last minute of the 10th round. As required under Quebec law, both fighters underwent EKG and EEG examinations, testing the heart and the brain, before the fight. Doctors pronounced both men in top physical condition.

Exactly what happened in that final minute of the fight is still a mystery, but what had been an even contest up until that point turned into a mismatch. For a period of about 20 seconds before the fight was stopped, a defenseless Denny withered under powerful and incessant pounding from Hart.

Arum recalls standing at ringside screaming at the referee to stop the fight. Murray Sleep, the president of the Canadian Professional Boxing Federation, agreed with Arum. "I thought the fight should have been stopped about 20 seconds before it was," he said.

Nadon also agrees the fight should have been stopped sooner, "but not 20 seconds sooner."

It was clear to Campanile that something had happened to his fighter.

"It happened so fast," said Campanile. "In a matter of seconds, he seemed to be hurt and we don't know from what."

Nevertheless, Campanile says he disagrees with contentions that the fight should have been stopped sooner. There was a chance, he said, that Denny could have recovered and won the fight.

Jean Guy Prescott, executive secretary of the Montreal Athletic Commission, said referee Baillargeon was in seclusion and would not discuss the fight. But the referee has the confidence of the athletic commission, according to Prescott.

"He did a good job," Prescott said.

By the time Denny reached the hospital, it was clear there was something seriously wrong, although how serious was not clear. Dr. Leo-Paul Landry, Denny's physician, would not discuss the case, but Campanile recalled some of the medical details.

After the operation to relieve the pressure of the blood clot, he said, there was hope that the fighter would regain consciousness and recover.

But after three or four days, the optimsm began to fade. Denny failed to regain consciousness and a swelling of the brain put pressure on the brain stem.

The brain stem is the vital link between the brain and such essential life-sustaining systems as the lungs and the heart. Any swelling or hemorrhaging that puts pressure on the brain stem can seriously compromise those systems.

In Denny's case, it soon became clear that his vital systems had been endangered. Artificial life-support systems kept his heart beating and his lungs functioning, but five days before he died a brain scan showed no brain activity and doctors said he was clinically dead.

For a time, Denny's family considered disconnecting the life-support systems, but eventually decided against it. Either way, the doctors said, death was imminent.

By last weekend, the ordeal had taken its toll. Denny's pulse and blood pressure were sharply reduced, and at 3:30 a.m. Monday, according to his wife, Clarine, "his heart simply gave out."

"He was a very fine person," said Campanile. "He was dedicated to his trade. He was a dedicated fighter. Training was his main thing. Once his training was over he would say goodnight to everybody in the gym and go home to his family."

Recently, Denny's wife told newsmen in Montreal, Denny had said he wanted to put the gloves on his young son, Cleveland Jr.

"I'll never let Cleveland Jr. fight -- never," she said.