Thomas Hearns is looking for an image. He doesn't want to be called "Hit Man" anymore because that nickname reminds people of mobsters and, when you are from Detroit, that doesn't play.

He can't be "Sugar." That image is already taken. But he has to fight Ray Leonard, the Olympic champ, the media's favorite, the guy with the magic smile and cute son.

And so, Hearns must find an image he can call his own.

His record inside the ring is 32-0, with 30 knockouts. No flaws there. Outside the ring he speaks smoothly, softly.Most of what he says makes sense. But he's not funny. He doesn't have a magic smile. Richard Nixon had John Kennedy, Hearns has Leonard. Image. Like it or not, they're going to call him "Hit Man." And they're going to call Leonard "Sugar," as in sweet.

Leonard has been dealing with the media for five years, since the 1976 Olympics. He is comfortable with the press, maybe more comfortable than any big-name athlete. He remembers names, faces. It is all new to Hearns, who became the World Boxing Assoication welterweight champion less than a year ago at age 21. Too many questions make his handlers nervous.

Hearns, who'll be here for a Touchdown Club luncheon today and will work out at Capital Centre at noon Thursday, is a nice guy, a solid citizen. He works as a volunteer policeman in Detroit. He has bought his mother an opulent house. He talks to street kids, telling them to get the education he didn't, to stay in school even though he dropped out.

But Ray Leonard is America's hero. So in the weeks before he fights Leonard Sept. 16, Hearns will try to develop an image.

He is going to be sold as "the people's champion," a welterweight Joe Louis. It will be as much a part of his training for this fight as the running and the punching.

The workout was over, the light bag had been beaten to a pulp. The smooth-talking man in the charcoal-gray leisure suit who wanted to set up the champ with a couple of women that night had been politely brushed off -- "I got to concentrate on my boxing . . . but thanks for offering, man."

He invited some youngsters into the ring, six of them, ranging in height from about four feet to five feet. The champ stationed them in corners of the ring and led them through basic exercises.

He smiled as he worked with the kids, his delight apparent as the smallest struggled through his sit-ups. The scene had all the makings of a 7-Up commercial.

The fighter at work here was not Sugar Ray Leonard. It was Hearns, working on the image.

"I work with the kids because it's fun; I enjoy it," Hearns said. "It's a nice change of pace for me after a workout."

Hearns is at home in the ring, at home with the kids. Outside the ring, in public, he rarely smiles.

With his wispy mustache and goatee and his wide, dark eyes, he has a youthful appeal. But when he moves inside the ring, the youth disappears. The eyes narrow and every move is calculated. This is not just a boxer but an all-around athlete, an outstanding basketball player who would just as soon shoot hoops as do anything else.

In another time, another place, another weight division, Hearns would probably not need the image-polishing or protection of manager/trainer/guru Emanuel Steward.

Hearns is an undefeated champion, a man blessed with a devasting knockout punch, good looks and the kind of natural talent that makes boxing's hardened veterans say things such as, "Gee whiz."

But this is 1981 and the reigning kink of boxing is Ray Charles Leonard. Fans pay to see Leonard, who will earn about $8 million for the fight and who is the main reason Hearns will be paid $6 million.

Hearns is second in the public eye, not the champ but a champ, another step for Leonard in his march to immortality. Hearns and his people don't see it that way, but they know at least until Sept. 16, they must live in Leonard's shadow.

"Let's face it. Right now, Ray Leonard is America's sweetheart," said Jackie Kallen, who quit a sportswriting job to become Hearns' publicity manager. "To a lot of people, Tommy is still an unknown quantity. After he beats Ray Leonard, though, everyone in America will know him. He'll be a national hero."

One does not become a national hero simply by knocking out a national hero. Steward and Kallen know they have a few weeks to create a heroic image. In Houston, the youngsters, mother being pulled into the ring seconds after the victory over Pablo Baez -- they were just the beginning.

Hearns has proven himself inside the ring. Now comes a much more difficult job -- proving himself outside the ring, an arena where Ray Leonard has never been touched.

"I would sell Thomas Hearns as the consummate fighter, the quiet man who proves himself with deeds, not words. The Western gunslinger. But don't let him get into a verbal battle with Sugar Ray Leonard." __ Promoter Bob Arum

"i hope they don't try to make the kid something he's not. I hope they just let him be what he is, the strong, silent type. A nice person, a good fighter." -- Leonard's attorney, Mike Trainer

"you don't create an image overnight. It takes time and it takes talent.

Ray's a natural, the all-time natural. Thomas Hearns is marketable, no question, but not like Ray Leonard. In an image battle. Hearns would be the loser." -- Leonard's public relations man Charlie Brotman

Hearns was nowhere to be found the morning after he and Leonard had won title fights in the Astrodome in June. His absence marked the seventh time in two weeks he had failed to show for a scheduled appearance with Leonard.

"He doesn't want to appear with Ray because he knows when they walk into a room together, Ray is going to get 90 percent of the attention," Brotman said. "I think that would crush his ego."

Hearns has had embarrassing moments. When he did a cover for Ring Magazine dressed up in a hit-man outfit, complete with Tommy gun, no one thought it clever. When he threw a rubber chicken at Leonard's feet after the second Duran fight, nobody laughed. Hearns is still learning.

"His critics can say all they want now," Steward said. "That's fine. Because after Sept. 16, Ray Leonard's going to be out of boxing anyway. He won't want to fight again after Thomas finishes with him."

Steward, 36, has trained Hearns since the fighter was 14. Hearns showed up as a gangly youngster at Steward's Kronk Recreational Center in Detroit and didn't begin to show anything beyond average talent for several years.

"He was good, always good, but it was when he was about 17 that you could tell he was special, truly special," Steward said. "He went from being one of the weakest kids I've ever seen to one of the strongest. He started knocking out people he hadn't been able to handle before, just destroying them."

Hearns had grown into his body, the perfect welterweight's physique at 6-foot-2, 147 pounds. In spite of his slender build, Hearns has never been knocked down. Agter a 155-8 amateur career, he turned pro in 1977. One of his first jobs in the fall of that year was to spar for a week with Leonard.

"He was good," Leonard remembered, "a good athlete. I liked him then, I enjoyed working with him."

From there, Hearns took off, devasting one opponent after another -- a welterweight with a heavyweight punch. Last August, Jose (Pipino) Cuevas, the WBA champion, defended his title for the 10th time. Hearns destroyed him in less than two rounds.

That victory convinced many of Hearns' ability. "Before that fight, when we went outside Detroit, a lot of people would say, 'Tommy Who?'" Kallen said. "After that, it began to change."

But while the public wanted Hearns in large doses, his people wanted him exposed in small ones. They were, and are, cautious. Leonard may linger after a press conference; Hearns is bustled out. Chase him, ask him a question, he will always answer. But his bodyguards make sure he keeps moving.

"Thomas is a shy, quiet kid by nature," Steward said. "He's come an awfully long way in the 10 months since he won the title. He improves every day. But in a lot of ways he's still a child. His instinct is still to look to me or his mother to get everything done for him.

"I think he's grown up more slowly than the average kid."

Hearns was born in Memphis. The third of nine children, but the oldest boy, he moved with his family to Detroit at the age of 6 after they had been abandoned by Thomas' father, Lois Hearns worked two jobs, as a clerk and a beautician, to support her children. Her oldest son always promised her he would change that.

He found himself drawn to boxing when he was 10 years old. He first learned the sport at the King Solomon Gym, but when the coach he had worked with for four years left, he looked elsewhere. He landed at Kronk with Steward.

From age 14 on. Hearns was single-minded about his sport, training and fighting constantly. His only goal was to be a champion, and only when he became one at age 21 did it occur to him that it takes more than a punch to become recognized.

Kallen says it has taken hours of discussion to convince Hearns that being a good boxer is not enough.

"He's come so far it's amazing," said Kallen. "He's learned to enjoy making public appearances. We took him to a hospital in Detroit that has a closed-circuit TV studio, and Tommy went in there and just answered questions for hours, didn't want to leave.

"It's all coming now -- the major magazines, the TV talk shows. They're all coming to Tommy Hearns. They all want him."

But part of the reason they want him is because he is fighting Leonard.

"A lot of people, including Tommy Hearns, resent me because of my notoriety," Leonard said. "What they don't realize is that I'm paving the way for them to make money they could never make otherwise. How much money could Hearns get for fighting someone besides me? Nowhere near what he'll get for this fight."

"I don't have any problems with Ray," said Hearns. "He's a kind person and a good fighter. But he's in my way. He is someone I have to eliminate to achieve my goals." b

Hearns' goals are quite clear. He wants to beat Leonard to unify the welterweight title, move up to middleweight and fight Marvin Hagler, then become a light heavyweight. That combination of titles has never been achieved. Hearns plans to do it in three years. Then, he says, he will retire, perhaps coach or teach, but always with a hand in boxing.

Beating Leonard is the first step. Steward admits that even those close to Hearns see him as the hunter and Leonard as the hunted.

In the next few weeks, the hype will build, the words and threats will be exchanged.

But, as Hearns says, "On the night of Sept. 16 I'll have one goal. I'll be in that ring to show Ray Leonard and the world who is the best." CAPTION:

Pictures 1 and 2, Thomas Hearns connects with a left in victory over Sansaek Miangsurin, UPI, design by Alice Kresse -- The Washington Post; Picture 3, Thomas Hearns says he has but one goal -- to show Sugar Ray Leonard and the world who is the best. UPI