As the countdown continues, there is a remarkable contrast in the way Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns are preparing for their world welterweight championship fight.

Just as some basketball coaches get ready for the season by constantly scrimmaging full-court and others stress drills and execution, these two boxers are approaching their Sept. 16 meeting here from widely divergent paths.

Today's workouts at Caesars Palace were a perfect example of the training procedures the two have been following the past three weeks.

Leonard arrived promptly for his 12 o'clock workout. After a brief warmup, he went to the ring, where he shadow-boxed for several three-minute rounds, constantly dancing, moving, flicking jabs. This was followed by a rope-skipping session in front of a full-length mirror to the tune of "Sweet Georgia Brown." About 10 minutes of sit-ups ended the brisk 30-minute session.

Hearns, in contrast, showed up 40 minutes late for his 2 o'clock appointment, as the fans who paid $2 fidgeted. Following a Cecil B. De Mille-type command performance arrival, when he entered surrounded by eight sparring partners to the music of "Rocky," Hearns went through a brief warm-up, then climbed into the ring and sparred 10 one-minute rounds with three partners. Once that was over, he shadow-boxed a few minutes outside the ring and was finished.

It would appear that Leonard has the self-discipline to work himself hard without trading punches with hired hands, but Hearns needs the stimulation of hitting people to get into the proper state of mind.

"Thomas doesn't like to jump rope, he doesn't like hitting the heavy bag," said Hearns' trainer, Emanuel Steward. "Thomas likes to fight, so he spars, 10, 11, 12 rounds a day. It's his way of getting into shape."

"I feel better after a workout if I've done some fighting," Hearns said. "You can do all the bag work and jumping rope you want, but you still got to get used to hitting and getting hit."

Steward has hired at least a dozen sparring partners for Hearns and says it helps keep his fighter mentally alert.

"I think it's important that Thomas sees a lot of different fighters, a lot of different styles," Steward said. "Now he's ready for anything. It keeps him fresh. If he fought the same two or three guys, he might get stale."

Leonard has an opposite theory of staying fresh, particularly at the end of a long training session that began a month ago in Los Angeles.

"After a few weeks, training gets old," said the 25-year-old from Palmer Park, Md. "It's the same routine over and over again. I don't think it's important to spar at this time.

"This is a critical time in my preparation," he continued. "I have to pace myself now, make sure I'm in perfect shape for the fight. I probably won't spar more than four of five rounds the rest of the way."

Angelo Dundee, naturally, agrees with his fighter, although the veteran trainer admits that he handles each fighter differently and wasn't about to knock Hearns' approach.

"Hearns always did a lot of sparring, that's his style and how can you argue when the man is unbeaten?" he asked rhetorically. "Ray doesn't need it. He works hard enough outside the ring. He has great mental discipline.

"Once you get your guy in shape, an overdose of sparring doesn't do any good," Dundee continued. "These last four days, the idea is to start recharging my man. He's ready right now, so you have to rest him, keep him primed."

This contrast in preparation is expected to carry over into the main event. While Leonard is dancing, darting, flicking jabs and calling on all his skills, Hearns is expected to be more flat-footed, aggressive and throw more punches.

Only when the scheduled 15-rounder is over, either as the result of a knockout or a decision, will one fighter be able to say that his method was best.