It took this little gambling oasis 72 years to attract another world championship fight. It took Sugar Ray Leonard fewer than three rounds to end it.

Leonard successfully defended his world welterweight title tonight by knocking down Bruce Finch three times before the fight was stopped at 1:50 of the third round, giving him a technical knockout.

In his first defense of the unified title he won by beating Thomas Hearns last September, Leonard coasted through the first round, then came out of the corner to knock down Finch twice in the second and end any hopes the lightly regarded challenged harbored.

Early in the third round, Leonard caught Finch with two rights to the head and a left to the ribs. The 27-year-old former club fighter from Milwaukee fell hard and rolled over.

Just as he did in the second round, Leonard was slow going to a neutral corner, but this time it didn't matter that Finch beat the count. Referee Mills Lane had seen enough.

"In the second round, his neck was still strong and he could still protect himself. I thought he deserved a chance to continue," Lane said. "He had good focus in his eyes to start the third round, but when he went down, I knew he couldn't continue."

This was Leonard's fourth victory in a row since losing to Roberto Duran on June 20, 1980, and raised his record to 32-1. He earned approximately $1 million for his short night's work before a sellout crowd of 7,330 that brought a gross receipt of $584,000 at Centennial Coliseum.

It was Reno's first championship fight since 23,000 watched Jack Johnson defend his heavyweight title with a technical knockout of James Jeffries in the 15th round on July 4, 1910.

"I warmed up for 20 minutes in the dressing room and was ready," Leonard said about his slow start. "Then I found out the fight was going to start late. I had to stay loose, but I was a little cold.

"I couldn't get started," the champion admitted. "That's why I was sort of retreating in the first round. But I'll say this. Nobody ever fought me as hard in the first round. Hearns didn't fight that hard in the first round and neither did Duran. Bruce tried to make me respect him right away. He came out swinging."

Finch (30-4-1) was the early aggressor, backing Leonard up for most of the round. He did very little damage, however, as the champion continually danced out of range.

Early in the second round, Finch muscled Leonard into a neutral corner and kept him pinned against the ropes with body punches.

Suddenly Leonard landed a series of lefts and rights that stunned Finch. A hard right to the head put him on the canvas and the count reached nine before he got to his feet.

"I let him get me in the corner mainly to see what he had to offer," Leonard said. "He didn't hurt me, but he made me realize he was serious and that made me get more serious.

"The left to the chin dazed him, and I knew he was in trouble before I landed the right. I couldn't get to his body because his arms are so long, so I went for the head."

When asked why he was so slow going to a neutral corner after his knockdowns, Leonard said it was a psychological ploy.

"It's a little mind game I was playing," he said. "When he went down, I stood over him. Sometimes when you stand over a guy it makes him not want to get up, but he came back strong."

Leonard didn't do much dancing after the first round, as if this was merely a tuneup for a strong opponent. He often seemed flat-flooted and willing to slug it out with Finch.

"I fought flat-footed because he stands up so straight," Leonard explained. "His left hook comes from North Carolina and I knew the closer I got to him, the more effective I would be."

Finch, his streak of 11 straight victories ended, said he erred in failing to follow up when he had Leonard pinned in the corner.

"I didn't follow up, that was my big mistake," he said. "You learn from your mistakes, and I learned a lot from this fight. Ray is one of the fastest guys I ever fought."