NEW YORK -- As the story goes, a dazed young man carrying a violin case was walking around midtown Manhattan, apparently lost, and he hailed a New Yorker on the street and asked plaintively, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

The New Yorker coolly regarded the callow musician and replied, "Practice, practice, practice."

What Carnegie Hall is to music, what Broadway is to the stage, Madison Square Garden is to boxing. The Ultimate. The Cathedral of Accomplishment. And it is there, in the wee hours of his 34th year, that the very practiced Sugar Ray Leonard comes to fight tonight for the first time. "All the great champions fought there, and I wanted to be in that fraternity," Leonard explained, underscoring the curious advertising campaign: Come See Sugar Ray In His New York Debut. His long-awaited debut, as if he wasn't a boxer so much as an artiste, say Carol Channing.

Leonard's opponent is a Terry or Tommy somebody, 23 years old, and purportedly the champion of one of the imponderable alphabet-soup titles that pervade these days, either the WRC senior cobraweight or the WWDC super muskratweight. Wait, I've just been handed a fact sheet: He's Terry Norris, and it's the WBC junior middleweight crown that's on the line.

We don't know much about Norris -- essentially because he's 40 years younger than the most celebrated boxers of his weight class: Hagler, Duran and Hearns, all of whom will be fighting a round-robin to determine the in-house resident champion at Leisure World. (Ray himself will soon be fighting Ottis Anderson for vacant Northern New Jersey Exactly 34 Limited Wolfweight Championship.) It's tough for a lightweight boxer to get noticed these days until he's retired at least twice. Leonard has already officially retired four times, so he's more famous than ever.

Since many more folks are familiar with Chuck Norris than with Terry, this has not been an easy fight to sell. At last count there were slightly less than 7 million good seats still available. To help juice the gate, the Hype Machine has been working overtime, churning out invaluable tidbits to tug at the heartstrings, including the fact that Leonard was Norris's boyhood idol. Not that that's so unusual. Ray was my boyhood idol too, and I believe Bob Hope's as well. I don't want to suggest that Ray's been around a long time, but when he first fought at Capital Centre, parking was 50 cents. Leonard said he "felt flattered" to learn he was Norris's idol. When asked what else he felt, Ray admitted he felt "old."

In order to close the credibility gap for this fight, Leonard's close friend and attorney, Mike Trainer, has been murmuring like the witches in Macbeth, spreading double-double, toil and trouble about Leonard's chances. "This is Ray's most severe test in a long time," Trainer said, spinning a web of vulnerability. "He's probably the hardest guy Ray's fought." (Editor's Note: Yeah, sure.) "Norris reminds a lot of people of the young Ray Leonard." (Editor's Note: How many tickets would they sell if they said Norris reminds people of a young Tyrell Biggs? Who'd come to see that lox?) "A lot of people think he bit off more than he can chew. Emmanuel Steward thinks it'll be a real difficult fight for Ray. Alex Wallau picks Norris to win. And these are real knowledgeable fight experts." So, of course, the logical question to ask Trainer is: Then why fight Norris? Trainer's answer was equally logical: "We're running out of 38-year-olds."

But if Leonard was apprehensive, he didn't show it the other day before working out at the Kingsway Gym on West 40th Street. "The experts said I couldn't beat Hagler, and I couldn't beat Duran, and I couldn't beat Hearns. It goes on . . . " he said, dismissing the notion with a wave of his hand. Leonard knows little about Norris -- offhandedly he recalled only two of Norris's 29 fights; a knockout win over John "The Former Beast" Mugabi and a knockout loss to Julian Jackson -- and apparently couldn't care less. "They say he's real good," Leonard said with a sly grin. "We'll see."

So the stage is set for another stop on the Sugar Man Over America Tour (Decade Three), for Ray's -- drumroll, please -- New York City debut. And again the question remains, as it has for a while: Why? To quote the Eagles, "Did you do it for love? Did you do it for money? Did you do it for spite? Did you think you had to, honey?"

In the long run, it seems Leonard does it, keeps fighting at an age where even he concedes he's in "the twilight" of his career, because fighting defines him. Singers sing. Writers write. Fighters fight. Where else is he going to feel as excited, as vibrant, as thoroughly, wonderfully alive as in the ring? Ray Leonard is not a stupid man. He understands his days as a champion are numbered. But they are his days. Leonard's former wife, Juanita, recently said, "He went through terrible periods when he was retired. His love for boxing was beyond what anybody can imagine. He wasn't satisfied with his life not fighting. His fight life was his life."

Like so many brothers in that fraternity of great champions who've climbed up on the apron at Madison Square Garden -- like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and Joe Louis and the original Sugar Ray, Sugar Ray Robinson -- nobody can merely tell Leonard to quit. They'll have to show him. Leonard will keep fighting until they carry him out on his shield. If it happens against a Terry or Tommy somebody, so be it. Some somebody else inevitably gets to write the last paragraph in a fighter's book.