For years, it was said of Roberto Duran: if only Muhammad Ali had blessed another generation, if only he had fought in another time frame, or somehow managed to cast a slightly less stifling shadow, this primitive ring master would be seen in properly heroic form. The masses worshiped Ali; the devotees revered Duran.

A year ago, part of what Duran fought to achieve came to him. With Ali, he was honored as cofighter of the decade by judges as responsible as any. Then something even nicer happened. He found he could be esteemed -- and also rich -- with the fight of his life against a small Ali money machine, Sugar Ray Leonard.

Now Duran and Ali are linked again, though scarcely in the manner either ever imagined. The fighters of the '70s in the minds of nearly everyone are the fighters of the '80s almost no one wants to watch. This feeling is out of pity for Ali and out of disgust for Duran.

Ali has been too long in the ring for so many years it is becoming increasingly difficult to recall his splendor, the last time he truly earned his money. There have been so many Ali cons, so many times we endured him against assorted Jimmy Youngs and Alfredo Evangelistas simply because Ali was Ali.

No more.

That pathetic effort against Larry Holmes settled it. Ali might have landed a half-dozen punches Holmes felt. Had the man he once paid to practice-punch on not shown so much compassion, Ali might have been carried from the ring, helpless. For going into the ring, he already had been certified senseless.

Or perhaps Holmes was not as kind as we imagined for pulling his punches. Or trainer Angelo Dundee as bright as we first thought for throwing in the towel and stopping the embarrassment before the 11th round. Hard as it may have been, allowing Ali to suffer a beating might have been the only way to get him out of the ring permanently.

He has said he will fight again. There are whispers he will try to convince California officials to allow him a fight against somebody once unworthy of lacing his shoes but who might now kill him. Or that he will hustle a bout in England.

The talk, of course, is for us. As always, Ali is measuring us, seeing if we care enough to pay again to watch him. If enough do, if enough money can be mustered, somebody somewhere will let him fight again.

There is one way -- very likely the only way -- to avoid that, to keep Ali outside the ring, to force him to maintain at least a slight bit of dignity. And that is simply to do what Dundee did on a grander scale, to throw in the emotional towel and say to Ali: "We won't tolerate this any longer. It's long past the sad stage. You might be as close to a hero as anyone in sports ever gets, but now -- at 39 -- you're not even a curiosity in the ring. You might call a press conference to announce a fight, but nobody will come.

"If you're not strong enough to walk away from boxing, we're strong enough to walk away from you as a boxer -- not because we don't care about you but because we in fact care a great deal."

Still, on the night of his boxing nadir -- so far -- Ali at least kept trying. Somebody else made him quit. Roberto Duran walked away on his own, with an ache in his tummy and a smirk on his face. He denied so many the exact moment for which they paid so dearly to see.

Nobody expects artistry from Duran, in the manner that nobody expects Beethoven's Ninth from Lawrence Welk. With Duran, you pay to see nearly raw animal, sort of the ultimate boxing creature, ugly, but appealingly so against a cutie-pie such as Leonard.

In Montreal five months ago, when he showed himself Leonard's superior in most -- of not all -- eyes, Duran was memorable, intimidating, swarming, willing to accept whatever needed to deliver the blows necessary for victory. For pennies and prestige through-out his 73-bout career, Duran honed an image as the ultimate tough.

For about $8 million, guaranteed and apparently in hand before the rematch eight days ago, Duran became the Panama Pussycat. You and I quit a fight with a tummy ache; Duran quits if somebody sneaks a greanade inside his trunks -- maybe. For $8 million, you and I train as though our last breath on earth depended in it; Duran also worked hard -- at becoming a heavy-weight. o

Each day, Duran's prefight weight problems become increasingly outrageous. Ten weeks before the fight he weighed more than 160 pounds, it was said at the weigh-in. That was revised to more than 170 pounds the day after the fight and to more than 180 pounds the day after that.

Roberto the Blimp became Roberto the Limp.

Wonderful. Retroactively, Duran was saying that anyone who paid up to $1,000 to see the fight in person and up to $50 to watch it on closed-circuit television was going to see a once-obsessed man who no longer even had the will to keep in decent shape.

That would have stung, though not too hard given the nature of boxing and the instant excuses after a loss, especially one that sets up a third match for perhaps twice as much money as the second.Duran's animalistic nature, the contrast with Leonard, could have been emphasized even more by his handlers insisting he would be caged inside his room, fed reasonably and at reasonable intervals.

But the customers knew they might be getting at least a slightly out-of-shape Duran. And by the thousands of empty seats in dozens of closed-circuits sites about the country, promoters realized they had exceeded the limit of greed, that there is a point where most folks will not pay to see two little guys whale at one another.

The bottom-line dollar for Leonard-duran was what would happen when Sugar Ray turned sour and took control of the fight. Nobody imagined Leonard using the taunting tactics he offered in the seventh round, but they did heighten the excitement about what Duran would do in retaliation.

How would Duran react to losing? How would he react not only to adversity but also to humiliation? What are the instincts of this animal cornered and being beaten?

To quit.

Day by day, Duran comes closer to admitting that truth.

"I was beginning to feel terribly weak and I was in pain," he said Monday from Panama City. "Rather than be knocked out, I felt it was wiser for me to quit because as the fight went on I felt I was in for terrible punishment from Leonard."

He added: "If I get back into a ring, it will only be to fight Leonard and no one else."

Will Leonard give him that chance?

"No," said his lawyer, Mike Trainer. "That is not in the best interest of boxing and not in the best interest of Sugar Ray Leonard. We can't do anything to inflame the cynicism surrounding boxing after the last two fights (the Ali-Holmes fiasco being the other).

"What he (Duran) did in the eighth round destroyed his reputation -- and now he wants Ray to help him reagain it. Duran's quitting should not spill over onto Ray."

What Duran did to Leonard should not tarnish what Leonard did to Duran. Nor should Duran get another chance to reestablish his manhood. He thought being knocked out would be the worst possible humiliation. He is finding out, quickly, that the pain from punches lasts only a short time.