For a great athlete, or anyone who's been praised and productive in his work, perhaps there's no such thing as a completely satisfying retirement.

The man who wants to be world champion so intensely that he makes his fantasy come true is not usually the sort of fellow who, in the words of Thoreau, could find happiness living the rest of his life in a hollow log.

Yet every athlete must retire sooner than either body or soul would choose. The question is always "when," not "if."

In that sense, Ray Leonard has embarked on the ideal athletic retirement.

If he can't pull it off--given all the advantages in his corner--then who ever will?

For Leonard, these are the first months of the rest of his life.

Ever since childhood, Leonard worried about being the best welterweight boxer on earth. Now, with the ring firmly, though not quite unequivocally, behind him, Leonard wakes up with different notions on his mind.

Sugar Ray mischievously admits that, many times during the three months since he retired, his first action upon arising in the morning has been to stand in front of his mirror and throw a cascade of punches at his image.

"Still got it," he says, caressing the security blanket of his great skill.

It's reassuring for a young man of 26 to know that any day for the rest of the 1980s he could, with a snap of his fingers, bring the ogling world to his door simply by saying, "I'm back."

The knowledge that his athletic skills remain sharp is Leonard's cushion. "It sticks in my mind that I still am a champion in some sense," he says.

However, that cushion is not his life. Now, Leonard has other things on his mind: shoveling the snowy driveway with his 9-year-old son; worrying about his wife's major surgery this morning in Holy Cross Hospital; exchanging quips with Dick Cavett on TV; learning to play golf; raising money for local charities; even figuring out how to peddle fried chicken "without making myself look like a billboard."

The best of retirement is watching Little Ray grow up. "When it snowed on Sunday night," says Leonard, "we shoveled out the whole driveway. And we've got a real driveway. We started about 9 at night and I don't know when we got done, but we were tired.

"Of course, then it got warm the next morning and melted it all anyway."

For a father and son, working together was hardly a waste of time.

The worst thing on Leonard's mind these days is his wife's impending surgery. "Excuse me, my mind is elsewhere," said Leonard yesterday when his thoughts drifted during an interview.

"Juanita has a fibroid tumor . . . bigger than a golf ball," explains Leonard. "It's a common disorder in women. It's definitely major (abdominal) surgery, but the tumor is not malignant, just a growth . . . I'm taking Little Ray out to see her this evening."

Are children allowed in the hospital the night before an operation?

"Who's gonna stop us?" says Leonard, laughing as though knowing how to throw a punch might finally have some practical application.

"I think I'll stay at the hospital with her the night after the operation. She stayed in my room after I had eye surgery," says Leonard. "That's what it's about."

Leonard's overriding concern in his first year of retirement is to find new outlets for the reserves of energy which make him fidget and drum his fingers in any idle moment. "You should see my schedule. The rest of February is full," said Leonard. "But I'll still full of unused energy. My adrenaline starts to hit me a couple of times a day and I just can't stay still."

Few other mortals could survive at Leonard's pace, much less feel underworked. He commutes to New York two or three times a week for business, including a monthly hour-long pay-TV show called "HBO Magazine," which he cohosts with Cavett. He plays basketball every Wednesday with Sugar Ray's All-Stars to raise money for high school athletic programs in Prince George's County. He's hoping to line up a kids' TV program "like the one Johnny Bench does on 'The Baseball Bunch.' "

When Leonard isn't doing public service announcements or giving interviews or doing color commentary on fights, he's making commercials or public appearances for his various endorsements.

"I'm interested in Hollywood," he says. "But I'd want something that's me, not the first thing that comes along. And I'd want a supporting cast that's good. I don't want to be out there alone and fall flat. You've got to start from the bottom in anything."

Leonard doesn't hide the fact that he wants to be as famous in retirement as before it. He knows the enormous advantage of retiring at 26 with his looks, his brains and his champion's image intact. He also knows that it's much easier to fall on your face at 26 and recover than at 36--the age when most pro athletes think about second careers.

Every new Leonard connection, such as a seven-year deal announced yesterday for him to endorse and help market the local franchise for Church's Fried Chicken, is scrutinized to make sure Leonard isn't putting himself in the same sad light as Mohammad Ali did in retirement. The mention of Ali's various commercial choices in recent years--such as roach spray--makes Leonard cringe.

"When you start declining, you'll go for anything," says Leonard, speaking of fading stars in general. "With any celebrity, you go for what's offered to you. Maybe it's not what you want, but you say to yourself, 'It's not going to get any brighter.' You end up taking what you can get."

Leonard thinks about this familiar "Electric Horseman" syndrome, then says, "I'd prefer to be in oblivion . . . just be a (regular) person . . . Of course, (if fame disappeared) I'd probably be back home beating my head against the wall saying, 'Where'd I go wrong?' "

That seems only a remote possibility now.

"I'm bigger now than I was when I was fighting," he says. "You get more respect if you retire as a champion. Like Bjorn Borg . . . just walk away."

Will Leonard ever fight again?

"Hell, no."

How many more years does he expect to have to answer that flattering but annoying question?

"How many letters are there in 'Hell no?' Six? That's about right . . . six more years."

By then, Ray Leonard should have this retirement gig about licked.