No, he says, it never comes to mind, dying in the ring.

He'll tell you: if you dig a hole right under your feet and keep going down to the molten core and beyond, to the other side of the world, you'll find a fellow running along a dirt road with his hand smacking at the air. And that man will fight him.

"I just want to box," Brett Summers says. "It's what I do, just like what you do is what you do."

Summers is a 22-year-old lightweight from Marysville, Wash., who fights for Emanuel Steward's Kronk Boxing Team of Detroit. Although he has fought and won only six times professionally, Summers had 380 amateur fights, losing only 40 of those bouts in a career that started when he was 9.

He had been scheduled for his seventh professional fight a week ago Friday against Oscar Huerta of Miami, on the same night and in the same arena where Thomas Hearns would fight and defeat Wilfred Benitez.

Two days before, Summers sat in a hotel lobby and watched the aficionados of the fight game suck whiskey sours in the Gazebo Bar. For every woman, there were 100 men, most of them sporting ridiculous mustaches that hid their lips.

They wore shirts bearing silkscreened likenesses of fighters, or silk jackets that, when caught by the right light, shone like the bellies of brook trout.

By the way these hounds of the manly art opened and closed their fists, checked their hard gazes in the mirror behind the bar and ran their thumbs over the zippers of scarred flesh on chins and brows, it was easy to see they still considered themselves noble warriors. Maybe they were once champions. Their battles, however, were no longer with men, but with the bottles of bourbon.

Summers took it all in, and then talked about his own upcoming fight. "I can't even pronounce the guy's name on Friday," Summers said. "I think it starts with a V; he must be from Mexico. It's crazy, but I wish he would walk over here right now. I don't know if I could tell him anything. What is there to say? I would just want to look him in the eyes. There is this anger, this hatred. God, I don't know; I don't know what it is, but it's in me."

It is not a pretty game, this fight business. When a fighter cuts deeply, over an eye or on the cheek, the blood explodes from the face, leaving sportswriters, photographers and celebrities near ringside speckled red. Your first instinct is to stand on your seat, gaze at the downed fighter and shout for him to rise, rise, man. If he doesn't, sprawled with his eyes shut to the ring lights, your only thought is whether he will survive the beating.

But those are not the thoughts of the people in the fight game. Larry Holmes, the undefeated heavyweight champion, said: "I plan to stay around the fight game until there are no more opponents for me to tear out anymore. I'm going to keep doing what I'm paid to do -- defending my title and defending my life. Why not, anyway? I like beating up people, especially when I get paid for it."

"Very seldom are fighters afraid for their lives," said Holmes' trainer and cut man, Bill Prezant, who has spent 40 years working corners. "They are trained to fight so they give their heart and soul. Not even before the fight, there's no fear. You get edgy, but that means you're ready. If a man is scared, he shouldn't be fighting. You need to have one thing in mind, and that's to go out and beat the guy down."

"Oh, I guess it's like playing checkers. You've gotta be smart. You gotta walk in the ring and put your gloves up. You can't think about dying -- you can't. So you don't. I knew this one guy who lost his stomach before every fight, always running to the bathroom. But he wasn't scared. It was something else, nervousness, maybe. But if he's scared, he shouldn't be in there."

Former lightweight champion Hilmer Kenty said, "Your primary goal is survival, which is winning. Most fighters fear losing more than they do the opponent. It's losing that kills you. I hate to lose. Everybody does."

"I cut my eye real bad, but I never thought anything like that would kill me, even though the memory of the pain was lodged in my subconscious. What can you say about dying in the ring? It's not just the punches that kill the fighter. There's a certain degree of exhaustion that steals in late in the fight, say around the 13th or 14th round. A man gets so exhausted, his brain doesn't get what it needs. There's no oxygen to keep him going. Then he might die, only then. And still I think he was meant to go if that happens. It was just his turn."

Boxing promoter Don King, who scheduled the card at the Superdome, said, "Boxing is a violent business, occupationally violent. When an athlete trains and prepares, you see fewer deaths in the ring. I won't belabor the point of tragic occurrences in boxing because I consider the positiveness. Many people have risen from obscurity and poverty to recognition and wealth. I think of where they came from and where they are now.

"Death is inevitable," King went on. "It's the true and only equalizer. So let's deal with the facts at hand: you're born to die. Do you abolish cars because men die in cars? You're just as dead taking cyanide-laced Tylenol or making a movie and falling from the sky in your helicopter. Boxers are like soldiers on the battlefield. Sometimes they die. I often weigh whether death in the ring is noble or not. It is part of the trade. I think if you die driving to work in the morning there is very little difference."

Nineteen seconds into the 14th round of his WBA lightweight title bout with Duk Koo Kim, Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini landed two fierce rights to the 23-year-old South Korean, knocking him on his back only inches from the ropes. Kim died as a result of injuries received in the fight. "Why do I do it?" Mancini asked after the fight. "Why do I do this?"

Kim's body was sent to the province of Kang Won-Do, where his family farms rice and ginseng, for burial.

Immediately after the Kim-Mancini fight, promoter Bob Arum made this suggestion: "Suspend boxing for a few months." Less than two weeks later, King staged the largest card in the sport's history, a scheduled 112 rounds, a show that ran more than seven hours.

"Once, I broke a guy's jaw," Brett Summers said last Friday morning, watching the lobby crowd. "I felt pretty bad about it. Along the way, there were a couple of broken noses, too. Maybe I'm too soft-hearted for this boxing game. Maybe my heart's too big."

During the Roman George-Toney Powell welterweight fight -- after Hearns had beaten Benitez -- Superdome workers got under the ring and began the arduous task of disassembling it. An official in a tuxedo announced that there would be no more fights. It was late and time to go home.

The official smelled the rose in his lapel and waved to the drunks jeering the end of this blood-and-guts day from high in the mezzanine section. But what about the Brett Summers' fight?

"I came to fight, I came to fight," Summers was saying, "I want to fight." Exhausted by the marathon card, the arena crew folded the tiers of scaffolding for the lights and cameras. Janitors swept the aisles.

Summers, bobbing and weaving, punching the shadows with vicious hooks and jabs, still wanted to fight.