The virtuoso Ray Leonard will confuse Thomas Hearns and defeat him decisively Wednesday night. This one may end sooner than Duran II. Hearns' hope, that of every big hitter, is that he lands the one punch necessary for victory before Leonard beats the bejabbers out of him. That hope will go aglimmering by the eighth round, after which Leonard's maturity will produce complete domination.

The telling past performance is Hearns' 13th-round knockout of Randy Shields this April. Shields couldn't use his left hand because of a shoulder injury. Yet the crafty journeyman pug went 13 rounds one-handed. Before being stopped on cuts, Shields put his feather-duster punches on Hearns' chin a dozen times.

Whatever a Randy Shields can do to Hearns, a Ray Leonard will do in triplicate. And he will do it not with a feather duster but with punches so quick and so strong they intimidated the lion of Panama, Roberto Duran. Everyone knows Hearns' last eight victories have been by knockouts; well, so have Leonard's. As frighteningly good as Hearns' numbers are -- 32-0, with 30 kayoes --Leonard's are as impressive at 30-1, with 21 kayoes.

"If you win, Thomas . . ," someone said at a press conference this week.

"What?" Hearns said sternly.

"If . . ."

Interrupting, Hearns said, "Repeat that."

"What Thomas means is 'when' he wins," said the fighter's trainer, Emanuel Steward.

"You hear that?" Hearns said, this time allowing a tiny, cold smile to escape from under a baleful stare.

Here I confess to two biases: I always like a slugger against a boxer, and I like a man who acknowledges the word "if." To deny the reality of doubt is to seek help from voodoo dolls. All week, Hearns has denied this fight's real drama. He is relaxed, he says. He doesn't care what Leonard says. He isn't talking much, Hearns says, because he only wants to be a great champion, not a big-mouth showman.

By such denial, Hearns reveals an undeniable anxiety.

The anxiety was obvious to 500 reporters at a morning press conference Monday. Leonard sat beside the lectern on a two-tier dais. A seat was left for Hearns on the lectern's other side. Hearns didn't show up until Leonard left the room.

"Because I wanted to be late," Hearns said when asked why he was late.

He was late because he didn't want to hear Leonard, just as he avoided an earlier press conference featuring the corner men. At that one, Leonard sat in the audience, applauding, while Hearns stayed in his room, waiting.

These are small things, but if Hearns has trouble with outside-the-ring pressures, it is reasonable to doubt he can make the necessary adjustments in the ring against a gladiator tempered in the fires of two Duran wars.

Leonard has suggested as much.

"Thomas Hearns is strong, fast, mean and has no brains," Leonard said. "I don't mean he is a dummy. No brains in the ring, I mean. He has never had to rely on experience. He has been so successful that he has it drilled into his head that once he hits a man with that right hand, it's doomsday. And that's all he can do, is hit."

Hearns' trainer, Steward, whether in self-aggrandizement or in studied characterization, has called his fighter "a robot" because Hearns does precisely what he is told, and nothing else.

And what will happen to the robot when confronted by a fighter strong enough to maul with Duran, quick enough to move with Wilfred Benitez and smart enough to handle Ayub Kalule's best?

"He'll blow a fuse," Leonard said.

To give Hearns the best of it, this catalogue of small things could mean he is a cut above average, fully capable of ignoring the maelstrom of hype. These clues may signal the arrival of a fighter on such a single-minded crusade for greatness that he gives the back of his hand to this frivolity. These clues could mean Hearns fully believes he is Leonard's superior and grudgingly tolerates the frivolity as the necessary bullfeathers before the real business at hand.

Ferdie Pacheco thinks so.

"I go with Hearns," said the doctor who worked Muhammad Ali's corner a dozen years and will do the commentary on the closed-circuit telecast of this fight. "My gut feeling is that it is show business against boxing, Joe Louis against Ali. Leonard is thinking of the Carson show and Hearns is thinking of boxing. That single-mindedness gives Thomas the edge. He'll be throwing bombs at Leonard all night, and one will connect. He only needs one while Leonard will need a hundred."

Joe Frazier disagrees.

"I'm a Leonard man," the old heavyweight champion said. "Hearns is too much off-balance when he throws a punch. He can't ever throw two punches, bam-bam. He has to get his balance back. He doesn't have the foundation, the solid base, that you need. His raw power won't be enough, because he won't get to hit Leonard enough."

Aaron Pryor, Hearns' longtime buddy and a contender who has challenged the winner to a championship fight, said, "I hope Hearns wins."

Walking away, Pryor added softly, "But I think Leonard will."