First, a friend took Simon Brown over to the little gym on Columbia Road.

A month or so later, Maurice Blocker wandered in.

Pepe Correa ran the place. He taught the two of them to jab and to finish a fighter. He liked the way they battled each other, as if they couldn't possibly be the friends they were fast becoming. Most of all, he liked the way they learned, and he took the two of them on the road -- to Atlantic City.

As many times as Correa drove up I-95 and across the flat Jersey stretches of truck gardens to the shore, Brown and Blocker won. This was in the early '80s, when they were teenagers with boxing desire, a true friendship and little money. "We'd split a penny if we could," Brown said.

After they'd win, Correa -- for safekeeping -- would take the cash they were paid until they got out of town. They always hit the road after the fights, in the dead of night.

"We want to take money out of here, not leave it," Correa told them. Down the road, he'd give them their money, hand it over the seat in the car. He drove, they sat in back.

They'd always be back there laughing about something -- a quick knockout, the money they'd made, the future. They always talked dreamily about becoming world champions. After a while, Correa wouldn't hear a sound. They'd fallen asleep.

Dreams did come true.

"Hey, champs," a bystander said the other day in a basement gym in Rockville.

Both turned around.

Both are champions -- welterweight champions of the world. Brown, 26, is recognized by the International Boxing Federation, Blocker, 27, by the World Boxing Council. The people around both say things like, "The town's not big enough for the two of them."

Friends still, they employ their own routine when talk turns to the possibility of them fighting each other some day.

"You've got a nice place here," said Blocker, surveying the newly painted gym in the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza where Brown works. "But it smells like strawberries." The hotel camouflages the smell of liniment with something sweet. "Strawberries? I don't know, Simon. You're getting soft."

"Mo. Let's get it on now. Now. Right now, Mo."

"Sweet-smellin' gym. Getting soft, Simon."

Brown hammered the heavy bag. In street clothes, Blocker gave him room.

"Strawberries," he said.

They both laughed.

Unlikely as it is that two current champions of the same weight class come from the same area, they share even more career parallels that have helped cement their enduring relationship. Both moved their separate ways from Columbia Road and Correa (he now trains Sugar Ray Leonard but remains close to both Brown and Blocker); both suffered a big-fight defeat; both endured idle, frustrating times out of the ring as they tried to straighten their careers; both came back and never lost a second time and have almost identical records (Brown is 32-1, Blocker 33-1); both won their titles early in their prime; both still dream of bigger paydays.

They're neighbors in Germantown.

Each is married and has two children.

One is always dropping in at the other's house. "I like to eat his food," said Blocker.

How could they fight?

"He's my buddy, but I'd knock him out," Brown said on another day when he was alone. "I'd like to knock him out quick, get it over, and come out of the ring the way we went in. Friends."

Of course Blocker sees the same ending -- with him standing over his friend.

"It'd be a hell of a fight," said Butch Lewis, Blocker's manager, on the phone from New York. "I guess it's up to me to throw down the gauntlet."

Then, in a booming voice: "Consider it down. Consider it down."

Blocker was considering it, in the Holiday Inn lobby, when in walked Brown's wife, Lisa, with daughters India, 4, and Crystal, 3 weeks.

"Ici, ici," said India, meaning Maurice, who's like her uncle.

Lisa gave the infant to Blocker and went off somewhere with India and some friends. Crystal, swathed in pink, and Blocker looked into each other's eyes as Blocker held her almost entirely with his large palms.

"She doesn't know whether to sleep or stay awake," he said.

Who could talk about fighting this girl's father at a tender time like this?

The boxer and the baby were still watching one another when James Cooks, Brown's adviser, walked past and observed, "They're softening you up."

Blocker had been talking about the things he might have done had he never gotten back into the ring after losing a WBC welterweight title fight in October 1987 to Lloyd Honeyghan. He said he might have done something with computers, maybe promote some local musical talent. Holding Crystal, he added: "I could have gone into day care."

But like Brown, Blocker knew he was best at boxing. Correa reminded him of that after the Honeyghan fight when Blocker and his wife went to see him and get his opinion about what to do next. Brown already had shown how to come back, having done it after a loss to Marlon Starling in a fight that was made a shade too early in Brown's career. Brown always fought with the hope of avenging that defeat but in the meantime won the IBF title -- which he's defended seven times -- while, ironically, Blocker took Starling's WBC title in August (with Brown at ringside in Reno, Nev., rooting for him). Blocker credits Correa with helpful advice, as does Brown.

"They sort of put me on the map," said Correa, returning the compliments. "I was so looking for respect as a trainer. I'm indebted to them also."

It would be something if they fought -- it always has been. Blocker helped Brown get ready for his first meeting with Tyrone Trice, when Brown won the title. It was furious, and handlers had to shorten rounds and jump between them. When the lanky Blocker -- 6 feet -- and the shorter Brown came together, it was less sparring than war. That they'd even speak afterward is part of the mystery of the sport.

"We agreed once," Brown said, "that the only way we'd fight is to unify the title."

"It would come down to ego, about bragging rights," Cooks said. "You can go down to the barber shop, to Freeman's, on Kennedy Street, and you can listen to the fight talk. Before a big fight, everybody becomes an expert. It'd be, 'Simon will win,' or 'Maurice will win.' They'd be fighting for money, for the title, but for turf rights too."

For now, the two are better served fighting others. Brown is scheduled to be on the Mike Tyson card Dec. 8 in Atlantic City; he's hoping for a major fight early next year. That's when Blocker plans to fight again. Not that anyone who values a record or reputation is rushing to fight either; having been taught well, survived fight nights in Atlantic City and maintained their intensity, they're both dangerous.

"Pound for pound, I'm one of the best fighters in the world," said Brown, in the lilting accent of his native Jamaica. "I could prove that better if people fight me -- Sugar Ray Leonard, Cesar Chavez, Michael Nunn. If Leonard fought me, I could see what size shoe he wears. I'd see the bottoms of his feet."

"Once I was a name people heard but maybe weren't too familiar with," said Blocker. "Now I'm a name they're talking about: Mo Blocker, Mo Blocker, Mo Blocker."

"Oh, Maurice," said Lisa Brown, reaching for little Crystal.

Admirably patient as babysitter, Blocker happily went downstairs to the gym where he felt more comfortable testing a stance. The hands that gently held a baby became a fighter's fists that swiped at the air.

"Sweet-smellin' gym, Simon," he said to Brown, also punching. "But I like it. I like it."