Within an hour of the moment Sugar Ray Leonard knocked down Bruce Finch for the third and final time last Monday night, the results of the Great Highlights Caper of '82 were in.

Final score: George Michael, Glenn Brenner and Bernie Smilovitz, 1. Tim Brant, 0.

Pity the way these television sharpies take advantage of such a nice young college kid as Brant. Doesn't anybody play by the rules?

Here everybody tells Brant he can't use highlights of the fight on the 11 o'clock news; and being a straight arrow, he agrees. Then the sharpies run the highlights on their own 11 o'clock shows, and Tim is left standing at the gate. It was never like this in Broadcasting 101.

"I can't say I was surprised," Brant said forlornly.

"We got stuck by playing by the rules," added Dow Smith, Channel 7 news director.

In fact, the Great Highlights Caper was more complicated than a simple set of rules. You can't say that Michael, Brenner and Smilovitz are villains. They just got permission to run the highlights from different people than Brant.

Let's back up and set the scene.

Point No. 1 to remember is that Home Box Office paid about $1.25 million for exclusive live broadcast rights to this extravaganza. In other words, nobody else could show the fight live and any station that wanted to put on highlights needed HBO's permission.

Point No. 2 is that Sugar Ray's manager, Mike Trainer, had a separate deal with ABC involving delayed broadcast rights to the fight. ABC reportedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to air the fight on "Wide World of Sports" this Sunday.

Obviously, all four sportscasters wanted to go with taped excerpts as soon as the fight was over. They received HBO live via satellite in their tape-editing rooms, so all they had to do was make a few snips and put the tape on the air.

Just as obviously, Trainer and ABC wanted the stations to wait. After all, who would watch ABC's "Wide World" tape if they had seen all the knockdowns before?

Enter Tim Brant with his three-ring binder and letter sweater from the University of Maryland. He plays by the rules. Brant said he learned from HBO officials in New York that Trainer had kept total control of the highlights. Earnest as ever, he went straight to the source.

"No, you can't show 'em," Trainer is supposed to have said. "There's an embargo on the highlights. It's the same thing as closed-circuit."

"Mike, I'm gonna use 'em if anybody else does . . ."

"Don't worry," Trainer said. "I guarantee you nobody will have highlights in Washington."

By the end of the 11 o'clock news, Brant learned there was only one nobody in town--himself. Channels 4, 5 and 9 had shown all the action. Brant had shown nothing. He finally used the clips on the 6 o'clock news the next day.

"We always go through proper channels," Brant said. "We're definitely not going to pirate anything."

Does that mean Michael, Brenner and Smilovitz were operating on something less than scout's honor?

Here's where the case gets sticky. Five days after the fight, no one seems to know who had authority over the clips. Trainer, who could not be reached for comment, is in Arizona today trying to straighten out the mess. ABC is understandably angry. HBO still is pointing to Trainer. And the sportscasters who did use the clips look like the cat who just swallowed the bird.

The fact is that Michael, Brenner and Smilovitz had specific permission to air the highlights from Marquee Television, HBO's agent in Washington. Here's the catch: Marquee allows any station in Washington to use its clips, as long as that station isn't Channel 7.

Come again?

The problem, according to Marquee President Gerald Mattison, seems to be that ABC does not run HBO advertising. HBO has not clearly determined whether ABC or its affiliates (including Channel 7) should have access to the highlights, Mattison said.

As Alice found out in Wonderland, life gets more curious by the minute.

Mary Sanders, manager of sports promotion for HBO, said Mattison is wrong.

"We have a fine relationship with ABC," she said. "We borrow clips from them and we lend clips to them whenever possible . . . HBO did not retain the rights to release clips for news or any other purpose. As far as I'm concerned, they (Channels 4, 5 and 9) did not follow the proper channels" by going to Marquee.

What a mess. As Michael said when he heard about Channel 7's dilemma: "That's show biz, folks."

Still, Brant has to feel like the guy who got stood up for the prom.

"There's just a tremendous amount of competition right now for video (clips)," he said. "The other night, we ran the Virginia-Georgia Tech highlights and then came back to our office and monitored George. When he introduced the Virginia highlights, he said you'd be seeing them exclusively on Channel 4. That's ridiculous. We had just shown them . . . I don't think anybody has anything over anyone else right now."

For the final word on the highlights caper, we now bring you Michael, the uncrowned king of videotape in Washington.

"I don't know what they (Channel 7) have done. I only know that HBO withheld permission from a lot of people around the country because there are a lot of people who've treated them like dogs.

"To show the highlights, we had to be cooperative with them (HBO) . . . I'm not a pirate, believe me. I respect to the nth degree the rules against piracy and the use of highlights. I've never shown one illegal highlight. If you do it once--just one time--you're jeopardizing all the work you've ever done."