The greatest fighter in the world can run, but he can't hide, not from Don King, who likes to bill himself as the greatest promoter in the world.

Maybe King is, maybe he's not, but he usually gets his man. He's very good not only at hide and seek, but at tug of war.

King has apparently beaten his arch rival, Bob Arum, in a tug for the services of the 28-year-old son of a Mexican railroad engineer who, for the last six years or so, could have laid claim to boxing's most esteemed, if mythical, title:

The best in the world, pound for pound.

For more than six years, Julio Cesar Chavez has been a world champion. His professional record is listed at 73-0 and he says a fight with Sugar Ray Leonard this year would be "the bout of the nineties." He is willing to spot Leonard seven to 10 pounds.

In addition, he has a choirboy smile and, at last count, there have been nine songs written about him in Mexico. He is good-looking enough to play the life of Tom Cruise in a movie.

Yet, in what may be a commentary on the state of boxing, the best fighter in the world was hiding from King, a man who was waving a contract for $30 million in purses over the next three years.

"Well, we weren't trying to hide him," Michael Bass, one of Chavez's advisers, said from Los Angeles. "How do you hide a world champion?"Some Legal Sparring

With the prodigal fighter now returning to King, Bass and the other advisers who tried to keep Chavez away have apparently washed their hands of it.

"Julio's biggest fight still awaits him," said Bass.

He wasn't referring to a rematch with Meldrick Taylor, whom Chavez stopped with two seconds remaining last March 17 and who gained the World Boxing Association welterweight title with a 12-round unanimous decision over Aaron Davis Saturday night in Atlantic City. Or to Hector Camacho or to Pernell Whitaker or even to Leonard.

Bass was talking about possible lawsuits -- his own and that of other advisers. They include Chavez's lawyer, Leon Pizante, who resigned eight days ago when it was clear the fighter had returned to King; and financial adviser Alberto Gonzalez, who also has left the Chavez team.

Arum, who signed Chavez to a contract that would take effect May 1 -- he said he gave him $300,000, though he may have added a zero -- also has threatened a legal battle.

King, boxing's greatest salesman, once again sold himself to a fighter already called the greatest in Mexico's history, a certain hall of famer and one the promoter had neglected to market. In 73 bouts, including 20 title bouts, Chavez has earned maybe $5 million, a pittance in these days of closed-circuit and pay-per-view television windfalls.

"The guy should've made $25 million already," said Arum. "The problem is that he's had no promoter."

King claims it is difficult to market someone who doesn't speak English. But Arum, whose contract could have had the three-time world champion earning $35 million in three years, counters that "Roberto Duran didn't speak English any better."

"It's Don's obsession with heavyweights," said Bobby Goodman, King's former matchmaker and now Madison Square Garden's director of boxing. "Back in the seventies, Don had his 'little giants' -- Duran, Alexis Arguello, Alfredo Escalera, Esteban DeJesus, Wilfredo Gomez, Salvador Sanchez -- and he had them all on networks. But then he started basing his whole business on the heavyweights."

So Chavez regularly changed his telephone number at his home in Culiacan, in the southwestern part of Mexico. He was hiding, according to Pizante, then his Los Angeles-based lawyer, in the mountains near Mexico City, where he was training for a Feb. 2 bout. His advisers wanted to keep King away from it so badly they were planning to hold it in London.

But last week, King and Chavez emerged arm in arm in Toluca, the so-called hideaway, and the Feb. 2 bout against Santos Cardona, a top 10 junior welterweight, is gone. Instead, said King, Chavez will defend his World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation junior welterweight titles on the undercard of King's Mike Tyson-Razor Ruddock heavyweight bout March 18 at The Mirage in Las Vegas.

The main gripe between Chavez and King, said Pizante, was that King turned Chavez into "a preliminary fighter."

"King has kept him in the dark, out of the limelight for years," said the lawyer.

"The last straw," he said, was when King once again used Chavez as a preliminary fighter last Dec. 8 on a card featuring Tyson's first-round knockout of Alex Stewart.

Chavez, from his Mexican hideaway, noted "in the last year, my promoter has been paying more attention to someone else."

Before his lone million-dollar fight so far, his dramatic victory over Taylor, Chavez was more specific. "It's Tyson, Tyson, Tyson," he said.

Chavez has no arguments with Tyson. On the contrary. He regards Tyson, and not himself, as the best fighter in the world.

"Even though he lost," he said through the interpretation of Gonzalez, his now-estranged financial adviser, "he will come back to be one of the greatest boxers in history."'Best Fighter in Mexico'

Chavez is atypically modest for a fighter. Five years ago when asked if he thought he was the best in the world, he said "maybe in a year I can be the best fighter in Mexico."

If not too busy in court, he has a chance to leave no doubts as to his own greatness. The man with the shortest left hook in boxing could line up a Who's Who. There's a rematch with Taylor, whom he rallied to stop with two seconds remaining in the 1990 fight of the year.

There's the undefeated Camacho in a fight King has announced for April 15 -- an unlikely date since it falls only four days before Evander Holyfield's heavyweight title defense against George Foreman.

There's Whitaker, the undisputed lightweight champion, moving up the five pounds to Chavez's current domain at 140. Chavez said he also would like "to clean up" the junior welterweight division, targeting the WBA champion, Loreto Garza.

Most of all, there is Leonard, who Feb. 9 challenges Terry Norris for the WBC junior middleweight title at Madison Square Garden and who has announced that he will not fight over 154 pounds, that at his age he can no longer give away size. Leonard would be giving Chavez 6 1/2 years. Chavez said he was willing to let Leonard be 154 and he would come in at 144 to 147.

For years, Chavez was giving weight to himself. He was a lightweight managed by Ramon Felix, who also handled the 135-pound champion, Jose Luis Ramirez. To keep Chavez away from Ramirez, whom he regularly beat up in sparring sessions, Goodman and Duke Durden, King's estranged boxing chief, had Chavez fight at the constraining 130-pound junior lightweight limit.

"He was really 140 when he started," said Goodman, "and at 130, he was only about 75 percent of himself. But he was just so much better than anyone around at that weight."

In 1984, four years after telling his mother he'd give boxing one year "and see what happens" before going to college to study agricultural engineering, he upset Mario "Azabache" Martinez for the WBC 130-pound title Camacho had vacated. He defended it successfully nine times, often on King undercards, before moving up to challenge Edwin Rosario for the WBA 135-pound title in 1987.

"When he moved up to 135, it was like a bonus for him," said Goodman. "He was at ninety percent of his ability."

Rosario was never the same after taking an 11-round battering.

"And at 7 o'clock that morning, Julio still weighed 138," said Durden.

Chavez fought only twice more at 135 before moving up to 140 and, eventually, he'll attack the full welterweight limit of 147. A throwback, he also takes frequent over-the-weight bouts with his titles not on the line.

"That keeps him sharp," said Durden, "and it keeps him off the bottle. He can drink a lot of beer, but that tequilla knocks him out."

Goodman said that after Chavez beat Juan LaPorte -- on the undercard of a Tim Witherspoon-James "Bonecrusher" Smith heavyweight bout at the Garden in 1986 -- a depressed fighter, ignored by King both before and after, sat in the lobby of the Penta Hotel across from the Garden "and drank cases of beer with Duke and me."

"We had to carry him to the airport," said Durden. "But the great thing about him is that when he trains, he's the easiest fighter to discipline. He knows when to cut it off."Lack of Recognition

Chavez was depressed at the LaPorte fight, said Eddie Mafuz, 76, King's longtime liaison to Latin fighters, because he realized "he was no superstar."

"He was always complaining that Don didn't pay him enough," Mafuz said. "One day, I took him to the corner of 34th Street and Seventh Avenue and we stood there and nobody knew who Cesar Chavez was. There were a lot of people saying, 'Hello, Eddie, how you doin' Eddie?' "

Mafuz scoffed at Pizante's claim that Chavez was "hidden." He had no trouble finding the fighter, calling Chavez's wife, Ismaela, in Culiacan to find out he was training in Toluca, outside Mexico City. That's where King, said Mafuz, reminded Julio of a contract binding fighter to promoter as long as Chavez is champion.

Contractual or not, it has long been a strained relationship. Two years ago, Chavez called King "a thief" and then signed more contracts with him. Even when he was hiding, he said, "I'm not saying I'm leaving Mr. King, but at the moment there are other fights I want to take."

Whatever confusion Chavez might have in the arena of business, once inside the ring he is so calm that he sometimes borders on boring, especially against lesser opponents. He methodically but unhurriedly tears down an opponent's defenses with an almost innocent charm. He can punch, especially to the body, and possesses one of the best chins in boxing history.

And while it can be argued that he should be a lot richer, he has bought homes for his brothers and brothers-in-law as well as for his parents, and cars for everyone. It is a lot more than the family started with. He was one of 10 children born in a two-bedroom house.

It was not a place where a kid could learn how to hide.