A glaring spotlight has been cast squarely upon heavyweight contender Riddick Bowe as he prepares for approaching stardom. The promoters for his bout on Friday have played up his appeal: the cheery smile, the wry comments, the vast potential.

But there remains one obstacle for Bowe: To reach the next step, he must first win the fight.

And to do that he must hold his own with Pinklon Thomas, the former heavyweight titleholder who has sat in patient silence, in the background, away from the limelight.

"I remember when I was up and coming," Thomas said yesterday, promoting his 12-round bout that will headline a 7:30 p.m. card at UDC's Physical Activities Center.

"A lot of guys who were up and coming lost quickly. Bowe's fought nobody and he hasn't proven himself. I'm proven and I'm prepared."

Thomas, 32, won the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship Aug. 31, 1984, by a split decision over Tim Witherspoon in Las Vegas. He held the title 19 months, defending it once against Mike Weaver, and set his own singular sartorial style. Playing off his unique name, he appeared in the ring clad in pink trunks and pink shoes.

This was a down era for heavyweights. Larry Holmes was fading and few had heard of a young man from upstate New York named Mike Tyson.

Thomas became lumped together with journeymen that included Tony Tubbs, Trevor Berbick and Greg Page, all heavyweight champions once. Thomas lost to the ordinary Berbick, surrendering his WBC title on March 22, 1986.

After the Berbick setback, Thomas triumphed over Narcisco Maldonado, William Hosea and Danny Sutton. He seemed once more on the verge of a title chance, but his once-potent left hand became but a wistful memory as, in May 1987, he found himself on the receiving end of both Tyson fists and on the losing end of a sixth-round technical knockout. His career in a tailspin, Thomas dropped out of the public eye.

A teenage heroin addict in Pontiac, Mich., Thomas (30-4-2) turned to drugs once more, falling into cocaine dependency.

Another harsh dose of reality (a seventh-round knockout) was administered not so kindly by Evander Holyfield in December 1988, followed by more drugs.

The demons continued to nibble away at Thomas's psyche, rendering him a has-been two years after his title days.

It was then he decided to get some help, entering Michigan's Eastwood Clinic. He said he kicked the addiction within 30 days.

"This month I've been 19 months clean," Thomas said. "I've never been beaten like that before, in any fight. I've had women problems, but Lady Cocaine was the worst."

Thomas wants to present himself as a role model in a locale that, he says, is longing for one.

"Bowe can only do boxing," he said. "I can do more, with my drive and desire to stay clean. D.C. needs a role model real bad and I know what it's like to be up and down."

Thomas says his newfound spiritual dimension helps him keep his career in perspective. With God and longtime trainer Willard Barber in his corner, Thomas says, Bowe had best not be overconfident.

"He's a cocky and confident young kid," Thomas said. "There's no luck involved, I made my luck to get here. If he wins, I'll give him all the credit in the world. But he better not expect an easy time."

Added Barber, who replaced famed Angelo Dundee in Thomas's corner following the loss to Holyfield: "People are going to be in for a treat and in for a surprise Friday if they forget about Pinklon."

Thomas, at once burly, reflective and still confident, refuses to surrender to the conventional wisdom that Bowe will dominate Friday's bout. And if you question this belief, he'll remind you once more in a deep voice as robust as his once-famed left jab.

"I know it's the most important fight of my life," Thomas said. "His corner's hair is going to stand on end when I'm done.

"Did you get that? Write that one down," he reminds onlookers. "You're not writing that down."

Promoter Rock Newman says Thomas likely will fight a comebacker older than himself, George Foreman, this fall if he can survive Bowe.

Thomas, who refuses to discuss his strategy for the Bowe fight, will not even glance at the horizon. There's only one thing on his mind, for now.

"I'm just thinking about Bowe," he said. "Nothing else.

"I'm older and wiser and in the greatest shape of my life.

"I'm in just the position where I want to be."