An hour before his man, Sugar Ray Leonard, would try to unscramble the boxing alphabet and make the welterweight title all his own, Angelo Dundee asked a friend who had been in the ring about the temperature there.

It was hot. Very hot. Sweltering.

"Great," Dundee said, and he rubbed his hands in anticipation. "Wonderful."

It was and it wasn't.

Though the night ultimately was his, though he later hit the Hit Man into submission, Leonard was losing to the heat as the seventh round ticked to a close. Thomas Hearns was Jello-kneed, an easy target, almost defenseless against a corner of the ring. And Leonard could not muster the energy to deliver the decisive blow on his night of "Deliverance."

You could see the will churn inside Leonard, the killer instinct since this was the moment to crush Hearns. You could see this, and also feel that every bit of courage could not move arms that surely must have felt redwood-heavy just then.

Leonard's mind demanded a knockout; his arms never got the message.

So Hearns escaped, not only to survive but, in fact, to gain the advantage of a fight he once controlled. Remarkably, he seemed to control the ninth round, and two of the next three. He kept pummeling that left eye Leonard had hurt during training.

"The heat and the lights were a factor," Leonard later admitted. "But stamina and conditioning paid off."

To some, his relaxing through that ninth round, when he should have been hurting Hearns even more, was seen as arrogance, the Leonard cockiness again on display. Not so. He was sapped, saving himself for another flurry. And the important question became:

Who would grasp his second wind soonest?

Hearns. But when he needed it most, Leonard's second wind was strongest. He saw Hearns though one clear eye, with one eye growing uglier and more like a slit as the 12th round grew. In the 13th, the fight became his; in the 14th, all doubts ended when referee Davey Pearl waved Hearns finished at 1:45.

There was no leap of ecstasy this time; no somersault, no hop onto the ropes, for the simple reason that Leonard had no energy for anything beyond a wide smile and upraised fists.

So others became Leonard-like.

Trainer Janks Morton grabbed Hearns' WBA championship belt and waved it over his head, and a young aide grabbed Morton and paraded him around the ring. Others danced and hugged each other. Leonard answered questions while holding an ice pack to his eye.

As he walked through a crowd that had booed a fight both brutal and boring at times, Leonard waved and was pushed toward his dressing room, the eye nearly closed. For his postfight press conference, he wore dark glasses. And had his wife Juanita on one arm.

All his public relations instincts had recovered.

When did Leonard know he was in trouble?

"I knew I was in trouble the moment I signed the contract," he said.

Leonard still sees himself as lacking respect. Sometimes he seems to invent critics, especially in his home. Perhaps this is part of what drives him. Again tonight he said:

"I brought this up from the guts, from the heart. There were people at home who wanted me to lose too bad. I had to do it for Sugar Ray Leonard . . . I did this tonight for myself."

Part of why he was so evasive early on and after that eighth-round lost opportunity, Leonard said, was that left eye.

"I never felt Hearns had the edge," he said, "but it was too close for comfort."

The rounds Leonard lost were close; the ones he won were landslides. The referees are very amateur-oriented here, inclined to equate all blows equally. So a series of Hearns' jabs that jolted Leonard were judged as significant as the Leonard haymakers that had Hearns lightheaded against the ropes in the eighth and 13th rounds.

Both men almost literally kissed and made up after the fight. They apologized for all that hype talk. Leonard shook Hearns' hand when the loser joined him at the press conference, and later raised it. Juanita even kissed Hearns on the cheek, where her husband earlier had clobbered him so often.

Would Ray give Hearns a rematch?

"Yes. Most definitely."

This public respect for Hearns (Leonard had called him an idiot) translated itself to areas the champ knows well.

"I take my hat off to Mr. Hearns," Leonard said. "He's now a marketable commodity" . . . his voice trailed off, as if he suddenly realized this was not the place for that sort of talk. Then he said: "You know what I'm talkin' about."

Leonard said his eyes went from "half to three-quarters shut" as the fight went on.

"But I psyched him," Leonard said. "He landed solid shots and I didn't go down. I surprised a lot of people by putting him down."

Their styles were contrasting. Hearns at one point one-upped Leonard with a limp-wristed wave of his right hand after Leonard had similarly taunted him. And he kept flicking that left-handed piston at him.

As he and Juanita walked into the press conference, Leonard was greeted by " . . . and now champion, no ifs, ands or buts."

Was Leonard concerned at being behind on all three cards?

"The end result is all that mattered."

Anybody with half an eye could see that.