In another time -- and in another frame of mind -- Wilfred Benitez was a champion.

Benitez won his first boxing title at 17 and is one of only six men to have held titles in three divisions. Before he lost the World Boxing Council super welterweight title to Thomas Hearns on Dec. 3, 1982 in New Orleans, Benitez said that he would knock out Hearns and, "if he dies out there, that's good." Later, he said retired welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard, who won the title from Benitez, shouldn't return to the ring because if he did, Benitez would "kill him," too.

When Benitez, 26, appears tonight at the D.C. Convention Center in a junior middleweight fight against Danny Chapman (14-5), Benitez (46-4-1) won't even be at the top of the card. That spot is taken by District lightweight Darryl Tyson (21-1), who will fight Melvin Paul (20-5) in a 12-round bout for the vacant Continental American Championship. The seven-bout card is scheduled to begin at 7 o'clock, with Benitez-Chapman the next-to-last fight.

Since losing to Hearns, Benitez has lost two of five fights. On July 14, 1984, Davey Moore knocked him out in the second round of a fight in Monte Carlo. In his only fight this year, March 30 in Aruba, Benitez scored a second-round technical knockout of Mauricio Bravo. He is scheduled to fight Kevin Moley Aug. 21 as part of a tripleheader at Madison Square Garden in New York.

As Benitez's status has changed, so has his philosophy. There is less of the bravado that characterized him in the past.

"In Washington, I want to show my class and ability as a boxer," Benitez said. "I want to prove, not to myself, but to God that I can do what I want to do, and that is to be a champion again. Since I've opened the Bible, I've seen a new way to the right life after boxing.

"I've been training hard. In the beginning of my career, I used to win by knockout. But this time you'll see a different boxer. You'll see a dragon boxer -- draggin' all of them behind."

Benitez has a new trainer, Emile Griffith, a former welterweight and middleweight champion, who also trained James (Bonecrusher) Smith.

"He's a changed person," said Griffith. "Before he had problems. But now, he's really working hard and is in good condition. We didn't come this far to play."