Thomas Hearns listened to the question, his face impassive. He looked bored.

"Ray says you have an easy fight," the questioner said. "What do you think?"

Hearns, without a trace of a smile, answered immediately: "Who's Ray?"

It has been that way since Hearns arrived here two weeks ago to prepare for his fight against Pablo Baez Thursday night in the Astrodome. Hearns and his people have gone to great lengths to remind people that this is a legitimate championship fight, Hearns' third defense of his WBA welterweight title.

But the hype hasn't washed. Hearns has been asked about one thing here time and again -- Sugar Ray Leonard. Because no matter what Hearns and his manager-trainer Emanual Steward say, they cannot wipe out Baez's mediocre 14-8-2 record; they cannot wipe out the fact that he has never beaten a fighter of note; they cannot wipe out the fact that he was unranked until shortly after the fight was announced in March.

But they're trying.

"There's no way I can look past this fight because Baez is a tough fighter," Hearns said. "He's very underrated. Ray (Hearns finally remembered Leonard) says I'll have an easy fight, well I think he'll have the easier fight. That's why he signed for it, because he knew it would be easy."

If truth be told, this card is little more than a payday for Hearns, something to keep him busy until Sept. 16 when he and Leonard are scheduled to fight, probably in Las Vegas. Baez is Hearns' answer to Larry Bonds, the journeyman Leonard fought recently.

The most interesting things about Baez have little to do with his boxing ability. A native of the Dominican Republic, Baez has lived in California three years. Several months ago when he split with his old manager, the man pulled a gun on him because, he told reporters later, Baez owed him $3,000.

Baez is 23 and only six months ago was offered his first chance to fight Hearns -- as a sparring partner. That is how highly he was thought of. Now, suddenly all the Hearns people are talking about how his career has turned around under new management.

"I've watched him fight and I've watched him train," Steward said, "and I guarantee you he's tough. A lot of people are going to be surprised. I haven't had any trouble making Thomas take this fight seriously because he knows what can happen if he looks ahead. He's ready to fight."

Actually, no one expects Hearns, or Leonard, to be anything less than ready for these fights. There is too much at stake for either man to take his opponent lightly, stumble and lose. Serious money would be lost.

"If Ray lost we'd have to sit down and look the whole situation over again," Steward said."We might go ahead with the fight anyway or we might just go right for (middleweight champion Marvin) Hagler."

Hearns has tried to deflect questions about the Leonard fight, but has failed. At his last press conference, no question was asked about this fight. fThe only person who brought up the name Baez was Hearns.

"I've thought about fighting Ray; of course I have," Hearns finally conceded. "I'll be rooting for him Thursday because I know how much a fight between the two of us will be worth if we both win. Myself, I just want to go out and look as impressive as I can in winning. I'm here to show people that Thomas Hearns is the best."

Hearns knows better. He is here to collect $500,000 and to help hype the Leonard fight by being on the same card with him. Hearns is only 22 and he is extremely ambitious. He says he wants to unify the welterweight title by beating Leonard, then go on to win the middleweight and light heavyweight titles.

"I want to move fast," he said. "I don't see any reason to wait, to stay in the same place I am now. I want to fight Ray and Hagler and then keep moving on up. I don't see any reason to hold back, to delay my progress."

But Baez is not a step up and Hearns knows it. He will enter what is expected to be a half-empty Astrodome looking for a quick knockout (29 of his 31 victories have been kayoes) so he can maintain the status quo and move on unscathed to the Leonard fight, a fight he says he is certain he will win.

"I'll have an edge on Ray, several of them," he said. "I will create a problem for Ray Leonard, big problems. I promise you that."

Hearns made no promises concerning Baez. He didn't have to.