Dwight Braxton is a little guy -- 5-feet-7 1/2, 172 pounds. He's so short that when he fought lanky Matthew Saad Muhammad for the world light heavyweight title in December, knowledgeable ring fans were convinced, "His arms too short to box with Saad."

One short person who didn't believe that was Braxton. "I'm a rebellious guy," he said this week. "Rebellious in a constructive way. I took that and turned it around.

"I refuse to accept that I was created not equal. They told me, 'You're too short,' but I developed a style that made the tall guy at a disadvantage.

"It's simple. I make them come to me. I set traps for them."

In the 10th round of the nationally televised World Boxing Council title fight Dec. 19, Braxton's traps put a weary Muhammad against the ropes, where he was being pounded. The champion's handlers stormed out of his corner to stop the fight, and suddenly the little guy was the big guy--the new WBC world champion.

It's a feeling Braxton hasn't quite grown used to in the ensuing weeks. "There's something about the title," he said. "It's like a big office or a high position. It's like you are growing into confidence. People keep asking, 'Did it hit you yet?' Not yet. Not fully. But I feel it."

Part of being a champion is traveling around taking care of business deals, which is how Braxton came to be in Washington, relaxing in a plush hotel suite.

His has been a long voyage in a short time.

Four years ago Braxton was in Rahway (N.J.) State Prison, serving an armed robbery sentence.

The term was 11 to 15 years. He served 5 1/2 years before being paroled at 26.

In prison he earned his general equivalency high school degree, took a semester of college courses and learned air-conditioner repair. But there were no jobs and no college waiting to welcome him when the prison doors opened in March 1978.

One of 13 children from a broken home, Braxton determined that he needed to do something to make money. Although he had never had an amateur fight or any formal ring training, he knew he could box. He went to a gym.

A month after his release from Rahway he was a professional boxer, fighting his first six-rounder in the Washington Armory against one Leonard Langley. It was a draw. Braxton earned $150.

That was no pot of gold but Braxton figured it was a start. At least he was doing something he liked.

As a child growing up in Camden, N.J., Braxton had loved to exercise. In between run-ins with the law, he found his relaxation running or doing sit-ups and push-ups: "anything to relieve the tension."

As a boxer he was doing it for a living, at least until he got cocky.

Here's a story Braxton tells on himself. In November 1978, he had a six-rounder scheduled against Johnny Davis. Braxton was undefeated and thought it would be an easy match. He neglected his training.

In the ring that night, "I was doing fine until I started getting tired. Then, after the fourth round, I'm looking down at my feet and telling them, 'MOVE.' But they won't move."

Braxton lost the fight by decision, creating the blemish in the middle of his ring record of 17-1-1. But he learned a lesson. "I said I'd never forget that," he said. "And I didn't."

At 29, staying in shape is Braxton's No. 1 mission, "because I can keep beating these big guys if I stay in shape, but if I'm out of shape, they'll put a whalin' on me."

Life is starting to be sweet for Braxton. He earned $50,000 for the Muhammad fight. He said his purse for his first title defense, scheduled for March 27 in Atlantic City against Jerry (The Bull) Martin, should be close to $200,000.

He's wearing lizard-skin shoes and tailored suits these days, although Braxton insists, "That's not me."

Who is Dwight Braxton, then?

A guy who can smile, maybe. A guy who scratched his way out of a perilous maze of poverty and deprivation.

Of his upbringing, Braxton said, "At first it depressed me, but I learned to step over it. It was hard breaking that ice, seeing through the cobwebs." For Braxton, help finally came in the form of Islam, although he insists it could have been any religion, that all religions teach essentially the same thing.

The revelation came in prison "when I went to bed crying because I couldn't get out then. I know I ain't ever coming back. But I couldn't get out."

The city fathers in Camden have proclaimed Feb. 2 "Dwight Braxton Day." It will be the kickoff of the Dwight Braxton stay-in-school drive.

The plan is for Braxton, who never got past seventh grade, to show movies of his title fight at schools around the city. When they get to the seventh round, where Muhammad rocks the little man with a torrent of blows, the film will stop on a frame showing Braxton staggering.

And the champ will tell the students, "I could have quit then."