In a dubious way, the love that grows between fighters in the ring is the best thing a brutal sport has to offer.

Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns began their evening of mutual punishment here Wednesday, one that ended with a battered and exhausted Leonard mounting an unanswered 20-punch assault for a technical knockout in the 14th round, with an ugly and shallow disrespect for each other that showed in every gesture and grimace.

Snarls, sneers, mockeries, hails of punches after the bell, hip wiggles, faked bolo punches, glove laces in the face, backhand punches -- all the trappings of a bad club fight --marked the first five indecisive rounds of this world welterweight championship fight, with the biggest single-event gross in sports history ($35-36 million). The next time Leonard steps into a ring, he expects it to be against Aaron Pryor, junior welterweight champion.

By the midst of the Leonard and Hearns hostilities, after the heart-testing sixth and seventh rounds, the mood between the two men changed to respect as they stared at each other quietly between rounds.

By the end, with Leonard's left eye swollen almost shut, with Hearns' cold eyes sinking as a drowsiness of left hooks crept upon him, their relationship had been transformed into an uneasy respect, not unlike that shared by Ali and Frazier.

As they passed at each round's end, each would pat the other softly on the stomach with the palm of the right glove. They had long since passed theatrics, passed the need to impress judges or con the foe. They were no longer those callow cash commodities: Sugar Man and Hit Man. They were elemental men, fierce friends with a serious question to settle.

It is a curiosity of man that he only gives his deepest respect after some sort of combat. Whether the struggle is physical, emotional, intellectual or whatever, we save our strongest ties for those with whom we have shared the hottest fires.

We all know how closely love and hate cohabit, but that doesn't mean we understand how one usurps the other's place. It is more than ironic, more than odd, that in boxing, the most horrible of our games, initial hate is almost always transformed into growing respect. Even pugilists, rearranging each other's features for chump change, have an indisputable dignity in their prime and, within their own hard fighting fraternity, often find a true, caring community.

Go to the smallest hole-in-the-wall gym -- Hearns' Kronk in Detroit or Finley's in D.C. or Leonard's Palmer Park -- and something powerfully decent is growing in the midst of the poverty and suppressed violence. Out of man's worst, an ambiguous hint of man's best.

In its aftermath, this fight left that familar sense of richness and bizarre human elevation that follows a vicious evening.

"This fight will go down in history. It was a great fight. It had tides and those tides kept turning," said Emanuel Steward, the guru-manager of Hearns, who was touched with uncommon grace this morning when he spoke.

"We have no qualms about the decision," said Steward, shocking the boxing world that cynically assumed that, since Hearns practically had the fight locked up on points if he had remained vertical for another 4 minutes 15 seconds, the loser's camp would scream robbery. "Tommy was hurt and in trouble. It was close enough to call either way. There's a fair chance he'd have survived the (14th) round. But maybe not.

"The fight changed in the sixth round," said Steward. "There was a flash exchange and both guys threw their best left hook at the same instant . . . what we'd call two 'clean-up shots.' Leonard's landed, and with a lot of leverage.

"I never thought I'd see Tommy Hearns hurt, but he was. He was never really the same after that . . . Once a fighter has been hurt by a punch, he's very vulnerable to the same punch . . . If Hearns hadn't been in the best shape of his life, I don't think he could have stayed up after some of the shots he took. Even at the end, he wasn't tired. He was just hurt and never got over it.

". . . We saw a lot of strange things . . . things we never thought we'd see. Hearns hurt and Leonard outboxed," concluded Steward. "From the eighth round through the 12th, Tommy boxed to pick up points and won every round. Leonard couldn't figure him out or land anything. But give Ray credit. In the last two rounds, he was exhausted and fighting from his heart."

Today, Leonard and Hearns, standing shoulder to shoulder, both in the camoflague of huge sunglasses, talked at length -- seriously, then humorously, but like lifelong buddies. In a day, they had made that familiar transformation from cultivated dislike to admiration.

"I hit him with right hands, but not the real hard right hand. He kept slippin' 'em at the last instant," said Hearns. "He never caught my best."

"Jeeeeez," said Leonard, looking down and away into his coffee cup in a comedian's best gimme-a-break voice. Then Leonard, who has never been off his feet as a pro, gave his laugh, the nervous laugh of respect for Hearns' right hand. "Until we got in the ring, I didn't realize the sucker was so big," said Leonard. "He carries power in both hands."

Next, it was Hearns' time for that nervous, telltale laugh when the subject turned to Leonard's famed speed.

Asked why he hadn't seen the lightning score of punches that ended the fight, Hearns said, "I didn't say I couldn't see 'em. They weren't that fast. I said I couldn't do nothin' about avoidin' 'em. The man hit me some good shots at the end.

"But don't go sayin' I couldn't see 'em," said Hearns. And then came that same laugh, that said he barely saw them.

The core of this question of the cord between fighters is not a matter of tactics or particular skills. It is the issue of courage under duress, the ability not only to withstand pain and risk unconsciousness, but, at the instant of greatest danger, to stick your face into the line of fire of the other man's fists and answer fire with fire.

In the sixth and seventh -- two of the best action rounds in a championship fight in years, better (and much cleaner) than the best rounds of Leonard-Duran I -- both fighters saw to the bottom of each other.

"In the sixth, Tommy buckled, and I went in for the kill," said Leonard. "He proved to me he could take a punch, and that's what I thought this fight was all about. I've proved I can take it (against Duran), but Hearns never had. He took my best shot."

After Hearns survived his two-round test, after his head cleared and his legs regained their pedaling power, this fight reached its final plateau. A mutual touch of gloves after the eighth round, instead of the earlier cheap shots, was testimony that both men knew the evening would be long.

The eighth through 12th rounds were almost a long gasping pause for a final wind. Leonard faced the consternation of chasing a center-shot foe who, with his unheard-of reach and retreating jab, not only regained his strength, but progressively closed Leonard's eye.

At last, by the 13th, it was time for a settling. Hearns had regained his aggressiveness -- perhaps a strategic mistake since that allowed Leonard to operate in his natural style as a counterpuncher.

Leonard created the final turning of the tide. He greeted Hearns' attack with a series of combinations of such wild, risk-everything speed that, suddenly, Hearns was retreating on all fronts, Leonard's head on his sternum.

The first time Hearns went down, it was a simple mauling push by Leonard. But it was a symbolic push, the same kind that Duran used to effect in intimidating Leonard in Montreal.

The next time Hearns met canvas, it was the real thing, no matter that referee Davey Pearl called it a push, too. It was a left hook from the balcony kind of push. Perhaps the man closest to the scene as Hearns tumbled through the tangled ropes was Joe Carnicelli of United Press International. "Hearns' head was practically in my lap and he was out cold," said Carnicelli. "The thing that saved him was all the time it took them to get him untangled."

Soon, Hearns was back on the same ropes, this time sitting on the bottom strand. And, this time, officially knocked down.

The end was a question of time. Leonard, oblivious to the occasional right that found his left eye, swarmed with a speed no man should have in the 14th.

As Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns walked off the stage today, not knowing when or if they would meet again in a ring, they did not shake hands. Instead, eyes slightly averted, they met in a hesitant half-embrace. Each gave gentle pats to the other's back.

They parted, for now, firmly entrenched at this hour as the greatest enemies, and friends, in sport.