You could hear it all over town yesterday, as if the city had taken a left hook to the gut. It's a particular kind of grunt you give involuntarily when you hear bad news that's a complete shock yet completely expected, too.

"Oh, no. Not him, too."

That's what thousands of us, maybe millions, said when we heard Sugar Ray Leonard wants to come out of retirement to fight Marvin Hagler.

Isn't the sight of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Roberto Duran -- what's left of them -- enough to convince anyone that prize fighting is as dangerous an addiction as any street narcotic?

At this moment, nothing would be easier than to call Ray Leonard every kind of fool. And plenty of people are.

He was supposed to be the one great fighter of his generation, almost the only one ever, to make a clean break. He has wealth, health, respect, reputation and youth. Imagine being blessed with millions in the bank, almost superhuman vigor, a bright mind and a loving wife and sons.

What wouldn't we dare to dream for ourselves? In fact, just about the only thing we could not possibly imagine doing would be to get in a ring with Hagler, who has premature senility in one fist and slurred speech in the other.

From his bald head to his southpaw style to the swift sleep he brought Thomas (Hit Man) Hearns, Hagler is the embodiment of the fighter we don't want Leonard to fight.

With his middleweight size and love for punishment, Hagler hurts you. He changes you. Permanently.

Worse, what if, once in each other's thrall like Ali and Frazier or La Motta and Robinson, Hagler and Leonard decide to dance three times? With tuneups, or dates with Hearns, in between. When all that's done, how much sweetness will be left in our Sugar then?

Don't say it can't happen. It has to other men -- as good as Leonard. Great fighters fall in love with each other and live to hate their mirror image. Once Hagler, 31, and Leonard, 29, agree to disagree, one tussle will never be enough. Twice may not suffice. The more perfect the foils, the more inextricably they're bound.

If we were Leonard, we would act more wisely. But we aren't. Only he is. And, besides, this isn't about wisdom. It's about heroism and history. It's about the difference between those whose goal is a long and happy life and those, like Leonard, who live to act and leave a mark. No matter what the cost.

For years, we cheered Leonard for being himself. A great fighter. A blend of speed, courage, heart and style. We cheered in the 14th round in Las Vegas when, one eye punched shut, he stormed Hearns and knocked him out. Now, for his own good, we wish Leonard were some other person. Somebody safe like us.

But he's not. Not even close.

"I'm in my prime -- be 30 this month. It's now or never. Marvin and I aren't getting any younger," said Leonard yesterday. "Once we went out with our wives for dinner and we talked about what it would be like if we ever met. The best against the best. Man, it might be the fight of the century.

"I don't need a fighting career. I just need this one fight. People talk about ring rust one Leonard fight in four years . But that will all disappear, because he will bring out the best in me. I know it. . . . This is for once in a lifetime. He's never really been beaten since he reached his peak years . I'm the last ray of hope."

It's a rare man who can force himself to be more than the thing that he does. And the better he does that thing, the more difficult it becomes to be anything else. So, until we're better ourselves, we should be slow to judge.

No one feels the torment of Leonard's decision more than his lawyer, manager and friend, Mike Trainer.

"It makes me mad when people say, 'How could you let him do this?' " said Trainer. "Ray is a grown man who makes his own decisions, has his own wants. . . . He has a right to attempt it.

"Ray's not a fighter who loves to fight. What he loves is the mountain. He's gotta be challenged. That's what gets him up in the morning. And who's to say that's wrong?" said Trainer, who says that Leonard has "never touched the principal of the money he's made in fighting. He's lived off the interest."

Leonard's two-year retirement has been restless, though tolerable. "Ray can be entertained," said Trainer. "He does lots of things well. But, unlike the rest of us, there is something he can do better than anybody in the world. And he can prove it. He can be singled out and acclaimed for it.

"In any other area, whether it's acting or TV commentary, even if he's good, it's not the same. You move into the gray. People have different opinions. . . .

"I'm not so sure Ray is ready for the station wagon, the dog and six kids. People who don't know what makes him tick think they know what he ought to want." Trainer thinks he hears the true ticking.

"All he has is a huge desire to beat up Marvin Hagler," said Trainer, his somber mood turning to laughter. "Someday Ray's 40, weighs 185, we're sitting in a bar and he says to me, 'You know, Mike, I could have beat that SOB Hagler. One more fight. What difference would it have made? And now I'll never get the chance to prove it. You steered me wrong.'

"What would I say then? 'Ray, I didn't want you to be another Ali.' You know what his answer would be? He'd say, 'Mike, this is me, bud. We came up together. Don't you know me better than that? I just wanted that one guy because I knew how to beat him.' "

Every addict goes to the gutter one needle at a time. And every punch-drunk former champion got there the same way -- one last fight, one unretirement at a time. Back to the spotlight and the pay window. And back to the hour of battle.

Just one more glory fix, please.

Even Trainer said: "There are times when I wish that Ray didn't receive the amount of attention he does -- people always asking about a comeback."

Ali hung on one fight too long, then, his judgment eroding, it was a half-dozen fights too long -- each one uglier and more brutal than the last -- until, finally, he wasn't Ali anymore and, to this day, still isn't.

"I have more faith in Ray than that," said Trainer. "He's not Ali. His whole career has been handled differently. . . . I'm not Elijah Muhammad.

"People don't hesitate to try to live public figures' lives for them. Why not just appreciate him?" said Trainer. "It's a hell of a big jump from one fight with Hagler to seeing him as a 40-year-old stumble bum who doesn't know when to stop fighting. And I don't think it's fair to make that jump. . . . We have a better track record than that. . . . Ray and I have talked a lot about this. We have an understanding."

Said Leonard: "The people who compare me to Ali and think the same thing will happen, those people don't know Ray Leonard."

He has the last word. For now.