riday's world super welterweight championship bout could be just what boxing needs to end its troubled times, but the prefight hype has been exactly what the sport doesn't need.

After a month that included the ring-related death of lightweight Duk Koo Kim and the uninterrupted 15-round pummeling of heavyweight Randy Cobb, along come champion Wilfred Benitez and challenger Thomas Hearns to offer what fight observers expect to be a close, sharp battle for the World Boxing Council title.

The fight show will be carried live on Super-TV starting at 9 p.m. and at certain closed-circuit outlets, including Capital Centre after the Bullets basketball game, and the D. C. Armory after a live boxing show.

Now if they could just get Benitez under control. Twice the champion has spoken intemperately--once remarking that he would knock out Hearns "and if he dies out there, that's good," and later saying retired welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard shouldn't return to the ring because if he did, Benitez would "kill him," too.

Earlier this week first Benitez and then Hearns failed to turn out for scheduled public appearances designed to promote ticket sales. Later it was disclosed that both could have their purses reduced as as result of waning interest in this contest at the Superdome. They initially signed for $1.5 million apiece; now the minimum is $1.25 million. A crowd of only 15,000 is expected in the huge hall.

In another embarrassing twist, the top preliminary boxers, champion Wilfredo Gomez and Lupe Pintor, who will fight for the WBC super bantamweight title, got in an embarrassing war of words over nationality, Gomez saying, "I'm not going to lose to a Mexican," and Pintor responding, "I don't like Gomez. I don't like Puerto Ricans."

It all seems unnecessary and degrading for these fights, which should succeed on their merits.

Leonard, here to do color commentary for the HBO network, said today there is no way of predicting the outcome of the feature. He should know. Both Hearns (34-1) and Benitez (43-1-1) suffered their only defeats at Leonard's hands, and both lost their respective welterweight titles to the retired champion.

"This will be like (Aaron) Pryor-(Alexis) Arguello," said Leonard. "Whoever you pick is a good choice. Benitez can come on at any given time; his elusiveness is frustrating. Hearns has the power and sheer determination to win. I won't know until the first round who has the advantage, when I see who takes control."

Benitez, who won his first title at age 17 and who at 24 is one of only six fighters in history to have held titles in three different weight divisions, has not fought since Jan. 30, when he won a decision over Roberto Duran. The layoff may hurt him, since his strong point is timing.

He is a master of counterpunching, a defensive boxer who feints and moves and likes to loll against the ropes and lure his opponent into pursuing him there, where his counterpunching pays off. But Benitez is no slugger, having won slightly more than half his fights by knockout.

Hearns, also 24, has a three-inch height advantage and a remarkable eight-inch reach advantage, which may serve him well in holding off the champion. Also, his knockout punch has carried him to victory 32 of 34 times. Although Hearns has never gone 15 rounds, he proved in his 14-round title loss to Leonard that he can box as well as slug. "He surprised me," said Leonard.

The prevailing view is that if Hearns is to win, he'd better do it in the early rounds.

Both fighters regard this as a crucial bout. Both see their next major step as a move up in weight to fight middleweight champion Marvin Hagler. In Benitez's case that would put him in a position to do something no other boxer has accomplished -- win four titles in four different weight classes.