All the writing, from Hemingway down to the sports columns, suggests an uncommon electricity surrounding a boxer's last moments before a big fight. The old trainer Ray Arcel took pugs up the steps to meet Joe Louis. "They'd see Joe across the ring, they'd wilt like tulips," said Arcel, who carried so many hunks of beef out of the ring they called him Meat Wagon.

So over lunch, someone asked Sugar Ray Leonard what it's like out there when he walks that last 100 yards and climbs into the ring for a fight that means millions of dollars and will be seen by millions of people, perhaps even Pia Zadora.

For the first fight against Roberto Duran, you should know Leonard was bedazzled by technology that put his picture on a TV screen over the ring. "I wanted to wave to myself," he said. For Duran II, no such foolishness. "I kept cool." And when Ray Charles sang the national anthem, hugged him and said, "I love you," well, hot damn, "I was like on top of the world, in complete control."

That night Leonard was preternatural, even if he says so himself. "Duran would make a move at me, and I was gone halfway across the ring. My feet were reacting before my mind. They'd move and my mind would say, 'Yeah, that's what we want to do.' "

The feeling before the Tommy Hearns fight wasn't as positive. To explain, Leonard rose from the lunch table. He wore a creamy beige suit and silk tie. Only a strong man could have lifted the four gold rings on his fingers. Yet he transported us, with his sound effects and beguiling charm, to ringside at Las Vegas for Hearns.

"When you walk out there, first of all the crowd hits you," Leonard says. He blinks, as against the noise of the Vegas highrollers. "They go off and they either can go with you or against you. If they boo you, that's already a negative sign. Or they cheer you on and that has a tendency to work in an opposite way because you tighten up."

Now he is in the ring. "You see the guy you've called names."

Uh-oh. "You know he's going to take it out on you."

Leonard laughs. "With Hearns, I knew what I'd said about him. So I'm standing there. And now I realize how big Tommy is."

He sneaks a peek. "It just dawns on me, this is the same guy I've been calling this and that. So now I loosen up and try to be cool. I'm walking around the ring. I'm trying to see who's who at ringside. I watch people's facial expressions, like this (a frozen smile) is, 'You got it now, you SOB.' "

He studies. "Tommy had an expression like, 'I'm not sure, but I know I'm gonna kick your butt.' Like, 'I'm confident, but I'm a little shaken because this is a big thing.' So now I'm looking at the height advantage."

He peeks up again. "Now it's already registered on me that he's got at least four inches on me (6-2, 5-10). So I started jumping up, right? So now Tommy can never tell how short I am."

Here, with his chocolate mousse waiting at lunch, the multimillionaire world welterweight champion in his beige suit, silk tie and four gold rings is hopping up and down for the august assemblage of editors and writers, all of whom are enchanted.

Now it's fight time. "And the worst feeling is--well, the ref has told you, 'All right, you're both professional fighters . . . ' You go to your corner, your trainers get out of the ring, they're saying, 'Do it, bring it home.' I'm like this now."

He gets this determined, rugged, mucho macho look. "And all of a sudden, you feel like you gotta go to the bathroom."

Less macho now. "But it's just your mind playing tricks with you. When the bell says, 'Bing!' the same time your heart says, 'Bing!' And I go out there."

For an hour the other day, Leonard bounced around the ring sparring with Post pugs who asked:

How'd you get started? "It was Joe Saunders who pretty much got the boxing started at Palmer Park, although my brother Roger brought the interest. He used to walk around with gloves on his shoulders and beat kids up."

Who do you like in Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney? "Cooney. He's a nicer guy. I've got personal things against Holmes."

Would you be disappointed if your son, Ray Jr., wanted to fight? "Not really. He's already into other sports, though. Whatever he wants to do, as long as it's legal."

Will you know when to retire? "I'll be the first to know, because when you lose it, you lose it here first (tapping his head). Your desire, your discipline . . . People say, 'Ali said it, Joe Louis said it, all the great fighters said the same thing. What makes you so different?' Time will tell."

What do you think of Ali's twilight career? "I feel that an athlete on top is forgotten a lot quicker than an actor who's on top and also goes down, because he's criticized more and he's looked upon as being a dummy, really . . . People looked at Ali as being so intelligent, and all of a sudden those same people are calling him dumb . . . I don't think Ali is broke, I just think he was searching for the adulation and all the attention he once gathered in."

Does Ray Leonard need that attention? "Now that I've had it, I don't particularly care for it."

In retirement, what? Politics? "Nooooo. You take more punches there."