NEW YORK -- Why? The question persistently follows Sugar Ray Leonard. Why does he keep fighting? He could lose his mind. He could be embarrassed. He has plenty of money. Why?

Each time he's asked, Leonard responds with variations on the same theme: He likes it.

Why? he's asked once more after he works in the second-floor gym at Eighth Avenue and 40th Street, preparing for Terry Norris Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. The answer was written long ago by A. J. Liebling: "Fighters fight."

"This is what I do," Leonard replied. "This is what I enjoy. It's my job. I'm told of the dangers. But I accept those risk factors. Who knows what I need and what I don't need except me."

And then: "You wouldn't understand unless you're a fighter."

And: "It's something that's inner. You do what your nature tells you. How can someone tell you to put down your pen because you have lousy penmanship?"

The crowd around him is large. That has to be part of the lure that brings him back to the ring time after time.

Norris is the champion in name. He holds the World Boxing Council's junior middleweight title. Leonard remains an attraction: Cameras on tripods line an entire long wall. East Coast writers are out in force, joined even by three scribes all the way from London. Cameras and pens are poised. LeRoy Neiman is sketching. O.J. Anderson will stop by shortly.

You only have to look at Leonard to know what a potion fame is.

His arrival today lacked only trumpets. A long gray limousine crawled through 40th Street traffic until its doors opened near to the scuffed door to the gym. Street people rushed to surround him as he stepped forth with a flourish. Humanity parted. He wore a long, wool maroon coat, wide-brim hat and silk scarf -- overdressed for the neighborhood and the near-60-degree temperature.

He greeted the poverty-stricken crowd like some regal personage.

Upstairs, Leonard checked out the audience even while appearing to be oblivious to it. But did he know the old man in the corner?

"Ah, fighters," the old man said softly.

Meaning, fighters fight.

It's Johnny Bratton, a sweet welterweight from the '40s and '50s. Lost twice to Kid Gavilan with the welterweight title on the line. Too many of his friends are dead now, he said. What about Holley Mims? he asked. "Holley's been dead for years," a man told him.

Bratton watched Leonard at work, but the "Ray" he speaks of is Robinson. "Ray started going back at 35 and started talking out of his head at 39," Bratton said.

Leonard is 34.

"His legs are gone," Bratton said. "He's getting hit with shots he wouldn't have gotten hit with 10 years ago. He's getting hit with shots he wouldn't have dreamed of getting hit with. He should stop.

"I stopped when I was 27. I got beat by Del Flanagan in my last fight."

He stopped on his own?

"They made me quit," he admitted. "My manager retired me. That's it, he said. I didn't want to."

What fighter wants to?

"Now I'm happy I did. I'm broke. I used to roll the dice -- $1,000, $2,000 a roll. I lost my money. But I've got no regrets."

Bratton and the original Sugar Ray, Gavilan and Johnny Saxton. . . . idols in the old Garden. They all lost in the end.

Bratton sees it happening to this Ray, Leonard getting helped away; maybe not Saturday night, but some night. It would be a sad sight, but that's the way Bratton sees it.

Leonard doesn't see it that way for an instant. He keeps saying he enjoys "challenging the odds." He calls himself a "risk-taker."

He surely doesn't see it ending on a Saturday night in New York, before what could be a sparse crowd in what is no longer the boxing capital against a Donny Lalonde of welterweights. He sees no risk.

You can understand why. There's scarcely a comparison between Leonard and Norris, one can easily judge after seeing both work. One's a bona fide champion, the other a working man dressed up with a title.

Leonard slips punches, and can still hit.

Norris trades punches, and gets hit almost as often as he hits.

Leonard sparred for almost four rounds -- almost because he ended the sparring by catching Derwin Richards with a left flush to the side of the head. Richards fell straight back from the single punch. He could have been counted out. Aides rushed in to remove his mouthpiece and prop him up. Leonard looked down closely at him. "Damn, I got hit" were Richards's first words. Leonard laughed. Everybody laughed.

Of course, Leonard said later, this is the gym and knockdowns don't mean anything. He's been knocked down in the gym. What counts is Saturday night.

But what does it count for, the writers want to know. He certainly doesn't plan to end his career on such a note as Terry Norris. Dropping down to 154, he may be thinking of dropping even lower and taking on Julio Cesar Chavez (73-0). That would get Leonard the attention he likes. It would be the "challenge" he keeps saying he needs. But Leonard avoids the laying on of hands by the media. "I know enough not to make pronouncements before or after a fight."

For this fight, he's simply confecting the "challenge." It rings hollow when he says he's always wanted to fight in the Garden so he can tell his grandchildren. The words sound empty when he says he's getting away from "my old nemeses" -- Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran -- to test himself against youth -- "I kind of want to branch out in the younger generation."

Words to wince at.

Words to remember are the simple ones belonging to Johnny Bratton. "I've got my marbles," he said, tapping the cap covering his head. "I've got my marbles."