Sporting an oversized purple-and-white "Bowe Knows Boxing!" button and an extra-large T-shirt, a futile attempt to contain his bulging biceps, Riddick Bowe cut an imposing and popular figure Monday night in Rockville. Intending to be no more than an interested spectator of the local card at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, he could not escape the recognition that accompanies a boxer of his rising stature.

It didn't trouble this self-proclaimed "champion for the people" in the least.

Fans of all ages approached Bowe seeking an autograph, an analysis of the night's bouts, or a prediction of his future. Bowe knows how to work a crowd. He was most obliging -- despite the patrons crowding his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame -- cracking at once a sly remark and a slight but genuine smile, relaxed and thriving in what's become his element. Bowe's prospects are bright, as the winner of an Olympic silver medal readies himself for the next step to heavyweight glory.

"I want to be the most popular champion ever," Bowe said. "People motivate me. I want to be loved by everybody, even the fly on the wall."

"Riddick never met a microphone or a camera he didn't like," said promoter Rock Newman. "Or a scribe."

Today's heavyweight class is far from an easy one in which to make one's name, much less earn a title bid. While champion Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield prepare for an Oct. 27 bout to decide the crown, Mike Tyson awaits his chance to regain the title. Bowe won't secure an invitation from any of them without a few more tests, the next of which will take place Sept. 7 against ex-champion Pinklon Thomas at the UDC Physical Activities Center.

Bowe, one of 12 siblings raised in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., streamed through the amateur ranks with a 204-7 record with 146 knockouts. Accolades and awards flowed without pause: four-time New York Golden Gloves champion, 1985 junior world champion, 1987 National Sports Festival titlist, a bronze medal in the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis.

However, his super heavyweight Olympic gold medal bout against Canadian Lennox Lewis was stopped. Bowe was declared knocked out although he wasn't knocked down; the gold medal belonged to Lewis, and Bowe was portrayed as "lazy and crazy," an overrated fighter with questionable work habits.

He dismisses such a belief, lightheartedly and without exploring the topic further: "Talk is cheap; it don't cost you nothing."

Bowe's professional career was launched March 6, 1989. Promoter Rock Newman has Bowe on an intense schedule: He faced 18 challenges in 17 months. He still hasn't lost, and only twice did Bowe not score a knockout.

Bowe is trained by famed Eddie Futch, who has handled 16 world champions, including Joe Frazier, Michael Spinks, Larry Holmes and Alexis Arguello. But according to the man Bowe fondly refers to as "Papa Smurf," Bowe may be the best.

"He has the size, being one of the tallest heavyweights around," Futch said. "Plus the mobility of a middleweight, a great left hand, and a devastating right. He has the potential to be the best of the heavyweights I've had."

Ask Futch how Bowe rates, though, and the fighter is too impatient to wait for a " Smurf's" response. He pokes an outstretched finger into the air, signifying number one in the eyes of his entourage and himself.

"Me and Papa Smurf are headed for greatness," Bowe said. "My dream is to hear the ring announcer say, 'The new, undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.' "

Turning serious for as long as he is capable, Bowe recalled two tragic incidents in his life. His sister was murdered just before the '88 Olympics and a brother died in a drug-related incident five months later.

"I've been a changed man since then. Everybody dreams of a lot of attention, and I know I can be a role model," he said. "I tell kids not to do drugs, stay in school and stay out of trouble. I don't even take a breath of fresh air for granted."

Bowe recently moved his family to Fort Washington, Md. Now a vital ingredient on the D.C. boxing scene, he and wife Judy are ready to raise a family in a quieter locale. His three children (Riddick Jr., age 4; Ridicia, 2; Brenda, 3 months) are probably too young to realize the presence of a world-ranked heavyweight in their household.

"I'm just Daddy to them," Bowe said. "Riddick Junior will say, 'Come on, Daddy, let's fight.' He always wins."

Just like his Daddy.