Perched on the ring apron like a barn owl, wise old trainer Eddie Futch was carefully watching Riddick Bowe spar at the Round One Gym in Tuxedo. For two rounds Bowe had dutifully trudged through a drowsy routine of herding stocky David Bey into corners and slapping at him with soft combinations. Here in the third and final round, Bowe anchored himself and began launching muscular shots that smacked off Bey's headgear like acorns on an asphalt road.

There's a din common to all boxing gyms: The ratta-tatta-tatta of the speed bag, the steady raindrops of a man skipping rope. That's simple ground clutter. Nobody pays much attention to it. But heads will pivot at the sharp crack of a big punch.

"Think of Mike Tyson!" a young boy hollered excitedly at Bowe as the sound echoed through the gym. "Think of Mike Tyson!"

Bowe and Bey remained locked in their furious dance for a few more seconds, until the bell ended the round and Bowe's formal preparation for Friday night's fight against Pinklon Thomas at UDC.

"Time!" yelled Hedgemon Lewis, Futch's assistant.

Separating, Bowe and Bey exchanged respectful pats. Futch appreciated Bey's skills, and was pleased Bowe had him as a sparring partner. Five years and some 25 pounds ago, Bey went 10 rounds with heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. He was substantially ahead on points until Holmes drummed him about 15 straight shots, and the referee stopped it. Futch worked Holmes's corner that night.

Futch remained on the apron as Bey climbed out of the ring, leaving Bowe alone, shadowboxing dreamily. Futch regarded his young man this way, and smiled privately.

"He's just a baby," Futch said, leaving Bowe's calisthenics to Lewis's care. "Just turned 23. I don't expect him to mature until 26 or 27. And still, right now I don't think he's more than a year, a year and a half from a title fight. By 25," Futch said matter-of-factly, "he should be heavyweight champion of the world."

Granted, every trainer says his boxer will be champion; if nothing else, it might pump the kid up when he reads it. But Futch has credibility in this area. Among others, Futch trained Holmes, Joe Frazier, Michael Spinks and Ken Norton, heavyweight champs all. Indeed, having Futch in his corner confers credibility on Bowe.

Originally Futch wasn't interested. When Bowe's manager, Washington's own Rock Newman, asked Futch to train Bowe, Futch hastily said, "No thanks." He'd heard stories how Bowe was lazy, crazy and heartless, a windbag. Everyone knew of the "Ridiculous Bowe" incident at the Olympic boxing camp where U.S. Coach Ken Adams grew disgusted at a pacific sparring session and hollered at Bowe: "Get out of the ring and go shadowbox," and Bowe told Adams he should go shadowbox himself.

Watching Bowe's disinterested effort in the 1988 gold medal bout -- following a stout first round against Canada's Lennox Lewis, Bowe became listless and was excused from the fight in the third round -- persuaded Futch the stories were true. Drawing on their longstanding acquaintanceship, Newman implored Futch to at least speak with Bowe before passing final judgment. "I was more nervous calling Eddie to work with Riddick than I was asking my wife to marry me," Newman confessed.

Newman spent two hours selling Futch on Bowe. He told Futch to discount the Olympics. Bowe was a one-armed, one-legged boxer in Seoul -- his right hand hadn't recovered from an operation, and he had a stress fracture in his left foot. If he had no heart, Newman argued, how did he get to the gold medal round? As an amateur, Bowe was knocked down seven times, and five times he'd gotten back up and knocked out his opponent. If he had no heart, wouldn't he have stayed down?

Futch agreed to see Bowe. "I got the impression," Futch recalled, "here was a man who needed direction. He was cocky, but it was inoffensive. . . . I felt there was definitely something there. He was a big fellow. A big man who can box." Futch's voice trailed off reverentially and his eyes grew cloudy. "A big man who can box," he said breathlessly, going off on a fanciful comparison. "Bowe's bigger than Ali. He has great mobility, a good, quick jab -- a hallmark of Ali's style. But Bowe has the kind of power Ali never had. I worked against Ali six times; I never had a man on the floor. Bowe can take you out with one shot."

Invigorated by the possibilities, Futch was willing to train Bowe -- providing Bowe would work hard. Futch told Bowe directly: "I'm 78 years old. I don't have enough days left in this world to waste any."

Futch is 79 now. He's still in Bowe's corner, and Bowe is 18-0 with 16 KOs. Granted, we haven't heard of any of the 18, which brings us to Friday night and Pinklon Thomas. Him, we've heard of. Four years ago, he was the WBC heavyweight champion, and although he lost his most recent fight -- to unranked Mike "The Bounty" Hunter -- he's lost only three other bouts in 36, and he was hardly disgraced in losing to Mike Tyson, Trevor Berbick and Evander Holyfield. A conservative man might wonder if by making this match Newman and Futch are foolishly rushing to see how much Bowe knows about boxing.

"It's not too early for Bowe," Futch insisted. "I've worked against Pinklon Thomas. I was in Trevor Berbick's corner when he took Pinklon's title away, and Trevor was an in-and-out fighter. I feel this is a good move."

By then Bowe was back in the ring, up on his toes, skipping gracefully. A small crowd watched eagerly: Local men, Bowe's lawyer and some of the partners who'd invested in Bowe's potential, his handlers, and, of course, the wise old owl, Futch. They had the look of stars in their eyes, and Riddick Bowe, they sought to convince themselves, had the look of a champion.