Sugar Ray Leonard will defend his World Boxing Council welterweight title Saturday against a garbage man from Denver. Larry Bonds, ranked sixth by the WBC, has not fought in almost a year. He has kept in shape training every day and heaving trash.

"I would have been a lot easier pushing papers behind a desk," Bonds said. "But walking three miles a day and jumping on and off the truck does keep your body tone."

They call him the Fighting Garbage Man. He doesn't mind. "As long as there are people on earth, there's gonna be trash," he said. "The job is gonna be there."

Bonds, 30-3, earned $1,600 for knocking out someone named Cosello King in April, his biggest purse to date. He earns $12,000 a year working for the sanitation department. He will earn $85,000 plus $15,000 for expenses for the fight in Syracuse.

Just a month ago Bonds' managers, who get 50 percent of his earnings for the fight, called to tell him he had a fight, and not just any fight: a title fight. Bonds told himself, "This is it. It's like playing the horses. You've got to win, place, or show. I'm definitely gonna show. I'm gonna try to win. If it goes 15 (rounds, longer than Bonds has ever gone) and he wins, then there will be a place for me somewhere in boxing."

In January, he wasn't so sure. He came very close to quitting. No one wanted to fight a southpaw, he says, or a guy who couldn't draw a crowd. No one ever called him U.S. Bonds.

So the only fights he had were those with managers, Bobby Lewis and Carl King, son of electric hair promoter Don. "I had to wake some people up," he said. "Just to be in the gym got kind of frustrating. What's the purpose of doing anything? They'd say, 'We got something in the works.' Another month would go by and nothing. I was getting kind of mad behind that. I said 'Get me some fights or I'll just go ahead and get out of the game.'"

Despite his inactivity, he retained his WBC ranking. "I look at the magazine and see I'm ranked sixth. What's the big deal? I got no money in my pocket."

Jose Sulaiman, president of the WBC, says that weakness in the welterweight division, after the first five fighters, accounts for Bonds' ranking. "I agree it doesn't look good," Sulaiman said. "But it would look much worse if we rated somebody that we would be embarrassed by."

"It kinda surprised me that I was in the ratings so long after not fighting," Bonds said, "But I looked at the guys under me and I said, 'I'm better than them'"

WBC rules require a champion to defend his title three times in 12 months against fighters ranked in the top 10. In late January, Leonard told his lawyer, Mike Trainer, that he wanted to fight again before his June middleweight title fight with Ayub Kalule.

Leonard says Wilfred Benitez, Aaron Pryor, Randy Shields and "the invincible, incredible" Thomas Hearns turned down offers to fight him before the match was offered to Bonds. "He was the only guy who accepted to fight me, and I don't fight women," Leonard said.

Bonds says he got the fight because Leonard has beaten everyone else in the top 10 and because Home Box Office, which is televising the fight, wanted an American fighter.

"I don't think it's a joke and they (Leonard's people) don't think it's a joke," Bonds said. But still he knows how it looks: "Like he's (Leonard) already signed for his middleweight fight, and they need someone to give him a good workout, keep him busy, and Bonds is no threat, so you fight Bonds and give him a chance to make some money. If that's the case, I appreciate it. I appreciate the hell out of it.

"If I do 10 rounds, it's better than they (the boxing experts) expected. If I do 15, it's way better. Whatever I do, it's unexpected. They expect him to come in and run over me."

"With a guy like Larry Bonds, a guy of less noteriety," Leonard said, "the boxing people say he's not legitimate, he's not for real. If he beats you he's God Almighty. So this way, the only thing for me to do is knock him out."

Leonard remembers Bonds from their amateur days, when Bonds was the 139-pound Golden Gloves champion and, he says, more advanced then he. "He's a southpaw and he's unorthodox. I don't want him to pose any more problems for me than that. That's enough."

Of course, Bonds is nerous. And of course, he thinks he can win. What does he have to do to win? "Be better than Duran," he said.

Bonds, who has two knockouts among 14 TKOs, says he will try to outbox and outsmart Leonard, which is not easy to do. "Leonard ain't gonna have to look for him," Lewis said. "Two guys can't do the cha-cha-cha for 15 rounds. Someone has to make the fight. Larry's gonna jump right on his cakes."

Lewis, who is no slouch when it comes to hype, said, "There's a lot of upward mobility here. It's almost like 'Rocky.' The only difference is that Larry is black and Rocky was white.

He was doen on the bottom and he finally got his chance. Leonard is like Apollo Creed; he's the darling, the showboat."

Bonds, meanwhile, has been "scuffling," sometimes working three jobs a day. "It's just my nature to have things tough," he said, softly. "My first problem was coming out black. That was my biggest mistake. But I couldn't do anything about that."

But now, he says, "Things are falling into place for me, just like in the movie."

Boxing is, after all, entertainment. With ticket prices of $60, $20, and $10, it is no wonder that the Carrier Dome has already sold 17,000 tickets. Leonard will earn between $500,000 and $1 million for his first title depending on the gate sale. "You can't command that kind of money for an easy match," Trainer said. "We've never been able to fight jerks. That's the market system. You can't sell garbage."

He paused. "I wish I hadn't said that," he said.