Rodney Byrd, 13 years old, 90 pounds, fighter.

"Did you bring your money?" demands his fast-talking coach, Pepe Correa, whom he idolizes.

"Got it right here," says Byrd. He pulls out a handful of crumpled dollar bills, his required AAU insurance money to fight in the Golden Gloves juniors later this month.

The little guy starts counting the bills. He fumbles, starts again.

"Here," says Correa, acting exasperated, "let me count it for you." He grabs the money and starts counting. "One, two, three, four, five. . ."

Correa is not exasperated. He is angry. His fiery dark eyes light up. He thrusts the money back at Byrd and whacks him on the shoulder. "Don't ever let anybody count your money for you. It's your money; you can count it. And wipe your nose."

Byrd starts counting with a grin. He's been had. He sniffles.

"Did I say sniff?" Correa snaps. "I said blow your nose."

Later, after his nightly three-hour workout is over, after he has fought four rounds in the dirty ring, skipped rope and pounded the heavy bag and the speed bag along with about 20 more of Pepe's fighters, Rodney Byrd, 13, explains why.

"I heard Pepe was the best coach. A lot of people said it and now I know it. He stay after you; he make sure you do right. He make you good."

Pepe makes you good. He keeps you out of trouble. He makes sure you don't get hurt. That's what they say at the Latin Connection, the boxing club Correa founded three years ago on a wing and a prayer in a corner of a dingy gym in a Methodist church on Columbia Road in the heart of the ghetto.

Pepe makes you good.

"Where did I fight before? No. 2 Boys Club, then Lorton. I was the best in Lorton."

Shane Wilson, 27, ex-street dude, ex-convict, fighter.

Wilson, whom everyone calls Rags, came straight to the Latin Connection when he got out of Lorton. Why?

"To stay out of trouble and to keep the little people in the gym, where they're supposed to be."

Why Pepe's, and not some other club?

"This place is more together; there's more young kids, no black-and-white thing. Everybody believes in Pepe because he's doing God's will. They're in here every day. As long as they do their homework, come to the gym, they're all right. It's something different than being slick and hardheaded. That ain't where it's at anymore. This is 1981."

This is 1981, and the kids who come to Pepe's gym are not slick and hardheaded. They are almost unbelievably polite. They are clean. They don't swear here. They don't squabble.

They come to this sad excuse for a gym, a dim corner in a dim basement, five nights a week, sometimes six, 12 months a year for three hours at a crack. They work -- shadowboxing, heavy bag, situps, speed bag, sparring, the bags again, shower, home. Road work on their own. No shucking, no jiving, just hard work.

Maurice Blocker, 17, 145 pounds, fighter.

"This club is No. 1," he says with a smile. "We the best."

"How come?" somebody asks.

"DIS-CI-PLINE." He drags the word out, as if he loves to say it.

Blocker, 6 feet tall, an 11th-grader at Theodore Roosevelt High School, calls himself "the thin explosion." He's been with Pepe a year; he's had about 20 fights, lost two.

"When I was small I threw a lot of punches and got in a lot of disagreements," he says, the gold chain around his neck glinting each time he moves his head.

"I got to liking boxing. It was nice, like I thought it would be. So I stayed and it got more and more interesting. A man named Joe told me about Pepe. Pepe spent a lot of time with me. He saw, you know, potential in me.

"I like him because he's straight. If he has something to tell you he'll tell you. He treats you like a son."

Jose (Pepe) Correa, ex-fighter, charismatic leader of a little band of lean, clean kids who work hard five or six nights a week to be fighters, the only Latin in the Latin Connection.

"Pepe's crazy," says a man familiar with the inner-city fight scene. "And those kids are crazy about him."

Pepe is in his late 30s, in perfect shape. He has the boxer's body -- thin, muscular legs, tiny hips, a great V of a torso that culminates in massive, rolling shoulders; shoulders so big that when he fought professionally in his native Puerto Rico, he could duck behind them to ward off blows to the head.

He was a fighter, sure. The long scar across his nose proves that. So did the embarrassing moment last spring when Pepe decked Sugar Ray Leonard's adviser, Angelo Dundee, after a successful Leonard title defense at Capital Centre.

"Pepe's hotheaded," said a D.C. promoter. "He was a good fighter, you know." Like a lot of good fighters, he never got a break.

Now the kids come to him looking for a break. Sometimes they come cocky and tough.

"They setle down quick. Boxing does it," Correa says. "They reach a point where they don't have to prove anything on the street. They have something to do.

"Say you're upset with something. You come and bang on the bags for 25 minutes, then you bang on each other in the ring. You're not upset anymore. How could you hold it?"

In the daytime Pepe is a supply technician for the federal government. At 5 o'clock every weekday afternoon, he jumps in his black van and hurries to the gym in the church at 1459 Columbia Road NW., where a crude sign over the ring reads: "Don't Quit."

He charges the fighters $10 to join and $1 a week dues, the money going to buy equipment and cover expenses. "This team is not funded by anyone," he says.

The rules are posted on the wall alongside a huge, tattered blowup of Muhammad Ali. No cursing; respect other club members at all times; no absences without excuse; no playing; keep the gym and shower clean; no squabbles and no fighting outside the ring.

And this strange rule: "What you do here, what you see here, what you hear here, see that it remain (sic) here when you leave here or you will leave here."

Violators are fined except in the case of two mortal offenses punishable by expulsion: "No member shall strike, push or injure any other member; no theft of team, team members' or church property."

Pepe arrives nightly with a flourish, usually late, usually held up by work. Events are already unraveling under the direction of his right-hand man, Ray (Bay-Ray) Bullock, the club president.

Everybody's working, everybody's waiting -- waiting for the great man. Pepe appears, supercharged, flinging his jacket and firing off the first salvo in the steady stream of banter to which the fighters will dance for the rest of the evening.

"Keep that hand UP!" he exhorts, slapping the wrist of a boy working on the heavy bag.

He's late. There's so much to do, so many fighters that need attention. He hangs on the ropes of the dirty ring, barking orders at Simon Brown, 17, who is so smooth they call him "Mantequilla" -- which means butter.

"Where's the left? No left hook behind the right hand. Turn your fist under. UNDER!"

Brown looks up, confused by the instructions. The other fighter backs off for a moment, sparking new anger in Correa.

"If he look away," he tells Brown's opponent, "hit him!"

So goes the long night, Correa barking hard orders and the fighters responding. When one sparring session ends, another begins. The retiring fighters pat each other on the rump and stumble off, exhausted, only to reappear moments later for more work on the punching bags.

Late in the night comes the turn in the ring for Les Johnson, 12, Rockville, fighter. Correa calls him "White Lightning." His mother says proudly, "Pepe says Les is the only white kid he ever saw who has the moves."

"Most kids are trying to get out of the ghetto," says Nancy Johnson as her son bangs away at Rodney Byrd in the ring. "We come to the ghetto every day."

A year ago she had both her sons enrolled in a Montgomery County boxing program. They had all the equipment, a raised ring, a van to travel around in. "But the coaching wasn't there. That's why we came to Pepe. You see, if you have the right coaching, you don't have to worry about them getting hurt."

And the Johnsons made some friends in the ghetto. "These are the best kids," says Nancy Johnson. "The big guys walk me out to the car every night. I'll tell you something; there isn't a guy who works out in this gym that I wouldn't take home with me."

It's 8 o'clock; another day is over. The fighters are saying their see-you-tomorrows. They are clean and pretty, scoured, splashed with cologne. sThe creases in their jeans are so sharp you think you could shave with them.

Pepe sits back and pontificates. What's in it for him, coaching a bunch of amateur fighters, trying to keep his humble equipment intact, struggling?

"When one of these guys goes in the ring and the man says, 'The winner, from Latin Connection,' I feel like I won the fight.

"We're the No. 1 club in the East. I have other coaches sending people to my corner to hear what I'm saying to my fighters. I'm outthinking the man in the other corner, outthinking the other fighter."

Wouldn't he rather work with pros?

"No, these are my fighters," says Correa, gesturing at the young men filing out. "They're lean, they got a clean mind and they got one thing on their mind when they come to myself -- learning how to box."