Few distinguished boxing careers have ended more badly than Ken Norton's did tonight as he was blasted into pathetic unconsciousness in 54 seconds by Gerry Cooney before a disgruntled, disgusted crowd of 9,436 in half empty Madison Square Garden.

On the other hand, few careers have ended more luckily.

Norton is alive and apparently unhurt.

For perhaps five terrifying seconds that seemed like five minutes, it appeared that Norton might not leave the center ring as a whole man.

Few fights have had as blood curdling an ending as Norton's demolition this evening.

The frightening part wasn't the body attack of left and right hooks by Cooney in the early seconds, an attack that brought amazement to Norton's face and lowered his guard. That has happened many times to the 25 victims of the unbeaten 225-pound Cooney, whose fondest pride is his ability to rip out ribs with his hooks.

The scary part wasn't the short, almost unseen left hook that sent Norton to a standing dreamland. Many fighters keep going when they're out on their feet.

It wasn't even the Cooney upper cuts that snapped Norton's head back, making it look like a cork bobbing to the surface, as the 35-year-old was driven back into his own corner.

No, the horrible part came when Norton tried to fall, when he tried to go to sleep, when he wanted to collapse to the safety of the canvas and collect his $850,000 for a minute of unworthy work, then return to the retirement from which he had emerged only six months ago.

When Norton needed to fall, he couldn't. He slumped back against the ropes, unconscious on his feet, and stuck there as though some death loving demon of the ring has slipped a stool under him.

There Norton "sat." His face was at Cooney's waist level, exactly at the height of those vicious body shots that have made Cooney the No. 1 heavyweight contender in the world and have earned him a shot, in September or October, at the WBA title held by Mike Weaver.

This is what boxers call a "tee shot," a chance to "tee off" on a defenseless, stationary and open target.

And, in that awful five seconds, Cooney hit four home runs.

Right hook, left hook, right hook, left hook.

All four blows hit Norton flush on the face.

Fortunately, none hit him perfectly or this might be an obituary.

Referee Tony Perez rushed to the rescue, stopping the fight, but not until Cooney had had time to load, pause and fire from the floor four times.

The concern in the minutes afterward was not for Cooney's increased reputation. It was for Norton's health. When was the last time hardened fight fans left the Garden questioning whether a 54-second fight might not have been allowed to go on too long?

"I stopped the fight because one or two more punches would have been fatal," Perez said, emphasizing "would."

This memorable minute of fighting, in which Norton did not land one punch, will provide ammunition for folks of two dramatically different persuasions.

Those who believe that Cooney, with his 21 knockouts, will be a future heavyweight champion of mythic dimensions can point at this slaughter. He walked through Norton with total self-assurance, then finished the kill without mercy.

"I was a little bit frightened because I was hitting him and he was unconscious on the ring (sic)," said Cooney, whose nickname is Gentleman Gerry and whose robe was emblazoned with a three-leaf clover bearing the words, "Gerry, Mon, Dad."

"He was just sitting on the ropes, I guess.

"My trainer (victor Valle) told me 'Don't waste no time. The faster you get out of the ring, the better,'" continued Cooney, who collected $1 million for this fight and will get $2.2 million for his title meeting with Weaver. "I hit him with a right hand to the jaw, then I went to the body. I hit him with another right to the jaw, then I went back to the body again.But it was the left hook that hurt him.

"Then, I was just hitting him."

The second body of opinion concerning this fight will be that Norton was simply another of the oldies, not goodies, who Cooney has emulsified -- previous has-been victims include Ron Lyle (knocked out in one) and Jimmy Young (knocked out in four). Of all Cooney's victims, only Norton is in Ring Magazine's top 20.

No one will ever know if Norton, who retired with good reason in 1979 after successive disappointments against Larry Holmes (15-round decision), Earnie Shavers (one-round knockout) and Scott LeDoux (10-round draw), was simply showing up this evening for a fat payday and a quiet exit.

"He surprised me with almost everything he did," Norton said, looking composed and unruffled after an experience that had shaken ringsiders. "Even the right hands that missed . . . hear the wind.

"I started backin' up and got hit by a couple a good shots. His punches are harder and and quicker than I thought."

Was the fight allowed to go too long?

"That's a very good question," Norton replied, slowly and seriously. "I'm well (healthy) now.So, I guess, everything's cool. I was kinda semiconscious through it all, I think."

Norton's eyes were open, if glazed, through it all. They worked. It was his legs, the legs that wouldn't fold, that failed him.

As is customary after his almost effortless victories, Cooney was asked when he will be tested, when he will prove he can take a punch, when he will prove that his knock-knee and funny-looking legs will carry him through a 10- or 15-round fight.

"I just had a nice win. Why do people keep talking. . .?" asked the native of Huntington, N.Y. "I fought 25 times and I've never been tested. I hope I retire that way. Never tested."

If Cooney found a bit more glory at the beginning of his career on this one-minute work night and Norton found a bit more gall at the end of his, then the Garden had the bitterest taste of all. The gate (200 for a ringside ticket) was scaled for a $2-million take. Instead, the gross was $777,121. Best estimates are that the Garden promoters, even after $500,000 from HBO, will sustain a loss greater than the purse of either fighter.

At fight's end, when Norton, after almost five minutes, finally was helped back onto his stool, voices in the crowd began harping: "Get a job, Norton."

Cooney was of another mind. "Let's give Ken Norton a round of applause for comin' out here tonight," Cooney said at his press conference.

Cooney's apprasial was closer to the truth.

The casual observer may think $850,000 is high pay for remaining vertical for 54 seconds. But they don't know the truth. Not tonight.

The wind that Ken Norton heard whistling past him in the final seconds of this fight was not only the sound of Cooney's gloves. As referee Perez knew, it was the sound of the wind from the river Styx. And only dead hear that.