For a reason he wouldn't explain, Thomas Hearns would not appear in the same room with Sugar Ray Leonard today at the first formal press conference before their welterweight title bout here Wednesday night.

After Leonard, again wearing his sailing outfit complete with commodore's cap, dazzled his media audience with his wit and his ad-libs to the most tedious questions, Hearns appeared in a gray suit, white shirt and tie.

When asked why he was an hour late for the session and wouldn't appear until Leonard and his party had departed, Hearns said firmly: "I wanted to be late" and then gave the inquisitor a long, give-me-your-lunch-money-kid stare.

Hearns, a cold, calculating fighter with little personality or charm, stands firmly in Leonard's path to the undisputed world welterweight championship. And he's not about to budge an inch.

"I want this fight so badly I can taste it," he said the other day. "When I eat my breakfast I think of Leonard; when I eat my dinner, I think of Leonard. I look at it that Leonard is trying to take something away from me that I've earned (the World Boxing Association title) and there's no way he's going to do it."

While Leonard has freely discussed his strategy (work inside and avoid the right hand), Hearns has steadfastly refused to divulge his plan of attack.

"I'm keeping my strategy a secret," he has said many times. "If I have to change my style, I will. I've done it quite a few times during my career and have had no problems."

The style that has brought Hearns 30 knockouts in his 32 professional fights has been as cold and efficient as a Detroit assembly line. In an almost mechanical manner, he has pounded 24 of his opponents into submission before the fifth round.

Although his outspoken trainer, Emanuel Steward, has flatly said: "Thomas will knock out Ray Leonard sometime around the fifth round," Hearns has avoided any predictions about Wednesday night's battle.

"It's not my style to do a lot of talking, make predictions, run off at the mouth all the time," he said in an obvious reference to Leonard's courtship here with the huge press contingent. "If Leonard is trying to put a psych job on me, he hasn't gone a good job.

"I don't think the fight is going to be that tough," he continued. "Leonard has never met anyone as big as I am."

The main reason why the fight still is rated even here (6-5 pick 'em) is Hearns' impressive knockout record and his imposing physical attributes. He stands 6 feet 2 1/2 and has an extraordinary reach (78 inches).

"Thomas is a great physical specimen," Steward said. "He has small legs and a small waist (30 inches), but he has a large upper torso and a bull neck. And he has the punching power of the middleweight."

Ah, the punching power. That's what Hearns is all about. He may not look fancy in the ring, he may not be able to dance and box with Leonard, he may not have the balance and poise, but he has the potential to knock Leonard unconscious with a single punch -- and Leonard knows it.

"I feel I have three advantages," Hearns said after a recent workout. "First of all, my reach is very important. Leonard says it's not important because he doesn't have it, but it's a big advantage to me.

"My punching power is something he has to respect. He knows I can end the fight anytime he gets careless. Also, I think my all-round ability is an advantage."

With all these assets, and an undefeated record, Hearns should be surprised that he's not the favorite. In fact, up until a week ago, he was a 2-1 underdog.

"Sure, I was the underdog when I got here, because Leonard had been here a week and was doing all that talking," he replied. "But once people got to see me, once the word spread about my workouts, people started backing me. Now I think that Ray is very much surprised that he doesn't have the edge."

Hearns doesn't seem to be concerned with Leonard's punching power, perhaps because he says he's never been knocked down. He believes he will be the aggressor and control the pace of the fight.

"I don't think he's capable of being the aggressor," the 22-year-old native of Memphis said. "He talks about the early rounds, but I don't expect him to take the fight to me. I'm very strong and I can take any punch down low."

The consensus here as the workouts wind down and the hype revs up is that Hearns can win by a knockout, but if Leonard can avoid the right hand, he can dance his way to the decision.