Jake LaMotta once read a newspaper story about 40 hang gliders falling from the sky in a single week. But come to think about it, maybe that number was wrong, and maybe they didn't all fall in the same week. Could be they fell over a whole month, but who the hell's keeping count?

"What I think," he says and slaps his hands together, "I think we should abolish hang gliding. You read about that in the paper? It happened a few months ago. Forty people dead . . . You want to get rid of boxing, you have to get rid of everything."

LaMotta, who is 62, has been hanging around the fight crowd at Caesars Palace all week, talking up the show that has given boxing a "nice little booster shot in the rear," as someone here put it. To help promote Marvelous Marvin Hagler's middleweight title defense against Thomas Hearns Monday, promoter Bob Arum said he agreed to pay "The Bronx Bull" $10,000 to spend two weeks on the road, bouncing from city to city, selling what most everyone has come to know simply as "The Fight."

"At first, I thought paying him that much wasn't a very prudent deal," Arum said. "But when people saw Jake, they went crazy. He was all over the papers and TV plugging the fight. I more than got my money's worth."

LaMotta, who still believes he "could have whipped anybody if I'd a wanted," said picking a winner in the fight "has been very, very hard. I'd only be guessing. You know for one thing it's gonna be a war. These people don't like each other."

Under recent attack by the American Medical Association, which continues to push for its abolishment, and in light of sagging television ratings, the fight game desperately needs Hagler-Hearns. Not since Sugar Ray Leonard first fought Roberto Duran in 1980 has the sport enjoyed such world-wide attention.

More than 700 closed circuit and pay-per-view outlets will televise the bout, to begin at about 10:50 p.m. (EST). Foreign broadcasts include Lebanon, West Germany, Korea and Japan. In England, more than 30,000 spectators are expected to crowd 14 outlets at about 4 a.m. in anticipation of what most agree will be a true fighter's fight, high on strategy and not without incentive. Arum hopes for a closed-circuit attendance of about 2 million, which would surpass the record mark of 1.6 million set by the Ali-Frazier fight in March 1971.

"It's hard to get it all into perspective," Irving Rudd, a fight press agent for more than 47 years, said the other day. "This fight has transcended the boundaries of the sport. We've had more than 1,000 requests for press credentials and have been able to give out only 780 . . . It's monumental. At first, I was saying the fan interest matches Leonard-Duran. But now I'm saying it matches Ali-Frazier, the granddaddy of them all."

In the past few years, the blitz of alphabet champions -- that anonymous herd holding top rank on the World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Council (WBC) or International Boxing Federation (IBF) lists -- so diluted interest in boxing that a mercy-killing of the sport might have come as a blessing. Champions such as heavyweight Larry Holmes, the merry capitalist from Easton, Pa., bored and frustrated the boxing public with talk of enormous, million-dollar purses for bouts against pea-hearted contenders.

But now, after more than three years of trying to make it happen, Arum has succeeded in putting the two best fighters in the world in the same ring on the same night. Oddsmakers are calling it even, and both Hagler and Hearns are saying it will end with a third-round knockout.

"This is the kind of attention that Muhammad Ali was getting all the time," Hagler (60-2-2) said. "When a fighter fights a world championship, it should be a major event. It should overrule baseball, basketball -- everything. The Super Bowl gets its time. Baseball has the World Series. This is our time." Earlier this week, word that Holmes had signed a contract worth about $3 million to fight Michael Spinks later this spring drew a mighty yawn from most everyone but a few bookies. Less than one month after saying he would never fight again, Holmes, who has not lost in 47 professional bouts, revealed his intentions to take on the light heavyweight champion and "go for" Rocky Marciano's 49-0 record. Given the timing of the announcement, it appears Holmes has decided to capitalize on the terrific swell of interest surrounding Hagler-Hearns.

"The euphoria that this fight has created will mean my brethren in boxing will rope in the suckers and put up inordinately large amounts of money for fights that have no chance to bring it back," Arum said. "What Marvin and Tommy have done is this: they've elevated boxing once again to a sport that attracts the public attention and respect. Therefore, this fight will help make big paydays for fighters who don't deserve the money they'll demand."

Hagler is guaranteed to make $5.6 million for the scheduled 12-round bout; Hearns, who, at 26, is four years younger than the champ, will make $5.4 million. Both fighters will earn a percentage of the gross "after we go over the $14 million mark," Arum said. "Hagler gets 45 percent, Hearns gets 35 percent and we (Top Rank Inc.) get 20 percent. From what we have in so far, we are already into the percentage. Even on a worst-case scenario, we'll hit $17 million. I believe, realistically, that we'll make $20 million, but I'm hoping to do $24 million . . . If we get that much, Hagler could end up taking home about $9 million for one night of work, and Tommy just under that."

Hearns and Hagler, although more than delighted with the payday, would probably go at it for nothing. Talk of glory always precedes any mention of money, and the fighters, both of whom hope to become "movies stars" after giving up the ring, have even been heard to argue over who is better-looking.

"Tommy Hearns is an ugly guy," Hagler said. "If an acting job came along, they'd pick me over him. Plus, I'm a lot brighter than Thomas. On the (promotional) tour, he said he would be hitting my little bald head. I said I'd be hitting his, too, but there wasn't much up there for me to hurt. He didn't seem to like that very much."

Hearns said, "Wanting to act and disliking each other is all we've got in common . . . I just want to beat the man the world says is invincible. I don't care how funny-looking he is."

In 41 fights, Hearns' only loss was to Leonard in September 1981. Although stepping up from the 154-pound junior middleweight division, Hearns has carried as much as 168 pounds in the last six weeks of training -- eight pounds over the limit. Now at 165, he says he should have no problem making the 160-pound limit at the weigh-in Monday morning.

"The key is that Tommy's already had four big fights like this one," Emanuel Steward, Hearns' manager and trainer, said. "The rumor we've been hearing is that Marvin trained too hard and peaked early. He'll be all punched out by the time he gets into the ring."