NEW YORK -- Sugar Ray Leonard always said he'd know the right time to go out. And he did. Just seconds after Terry Norris was justly awarded a starkly unanimous decision, Leonard made his own fitting decision. Grabbing the ring microphone and addressing an adoring crowd, Leonard said simply and eloquently: "This is my last fight. Thank you for coming."

In due time his split lip will heal, his left eye will reopen wide, and his facial bruises will subside. In due time Sugar Ray might even convince himself that it was just an off night. But he should never fool himself about un-retiring and going back into the ring for anything other than to wave to the fans. He met the enemy against 23-year-old Terry Norris, and it was youth and quickness.

Perhaps Leonard felt buoyed early when he looked at the nickname on Norris's waistband -- there it was in bright red stitching, "Terrible." But the night quickly turned terrible for Leonard. He was clearly slower than Norris. His punches took eons to land, and when they did they seemed to have no effect. Routinely, Norris would shake his head at Leonard after taking a brief flurry, and you could see him say, "No." No, Ray, not tonight, Ray, it isn't working, you've got nothing left.

Norris put Leonard down in the second round with a left, then again in the seventh with a short right. In the third and eighth rounds, Leonard appeared to be no more than one solid shot away from being helpless. In Leonard's corner, his dear friend Ollie Dunlap tried to urge him on, screaming, almost pleading, "Fight, Ray Charles! Fight!" But try as he might, there was no sting to his punches, no legs to propel him out of harm's way, no shelter from Norris's heavy rights. Had it not been the great and resourceful Ray Leonard in the ring, a referee could have stopped the bout with no argument from the crowd.

There was a bittersweet irony seeing how light Norris was on his feet, and how confident he was, confident enough to taunt Leonard with backhand jabs, the way Leonard taunted Roberto Duran back in -- could it really be 11 years ago? You couldn't blame Leonard for thinking he was looking through a glass darkly at his former self as he peered out of swollen eyes at Norris.

Not much was known locally about Norris, since 25 of his 29 bouts took place in the Pacific time zone. Some boxing mavens who'd seen Norris fight believed he was quicker and stronger than Leonard and would do well to pound at Leonard's body and plan for a decision. In contrast, they suggested Leonard's strategy would revolve around capitalizing on his experience and any awe Norris might carry into the ring against his boyhood idol -- pressuring Norris early, flustering him. "Ray knows he can't run 12 rounds with this kid. He'll try to take him out quick," one expert predicted. But Leonard couldn't do a thing with the kid except feel his heat.

Leonard came into this fight searching for the smooth, Astaire-like grace that's seemed to elude him since his mastery over Marvin Hagler in 1987, a performance that will forever shine as his crown jewel. In his next fight, the awkward Donny Lalonde sat him down and warned him off stepping too far up in weight. Then, Tommy Hearns, who was alleged to be faded goods, knocked him down twice; Leonard was generously gifted with a draw. Most recently -- completing his Methuselah Trifecta -- Leonard dominated Roberto Duran for eight rounds. But Duran finally got to him in the ninth, and pounded him hard enough in the 10th that Leonard needed 60 stitches. The sign of an aging fighter is that he starts cutting. Here, in his New York debut, he was cut again and knocked down twice. He looked old five minutes into the fight.

Give him all the credit you can muster for having been a sensational boxer and showman. Nobody ever walked away from a Leonard fight complaining that he hadn't received his money's worth. His fights against Wilfred Benitez to take the welterweight title in 1979, Duran I in Montreal -- Leonard's only loss until Saturday -- Duran II, the "No Mas" fight five months later, Hearns I in 1981, a desperate 14th-round TKO, and the marvelous triumph of style and courage against Hagler, after an unprecedented three-year layoff, are among the most scintillating fights in history.

In Leonard's case, judging him solely on the basis of his advanced age may be hasty, because he has conserved himself through the years. Thanks to retirements and judicious scheduling, Leonard has actually fought only 10 times in the last 11 years. Unlike Hearns, Leonard didn't exhaust himself through incessant, punishing hours in the gym. Unlike Duran, Leonard didn't balloon in weight. Leonard went long stretches of time between fights merely running and playing tennis; in effect, he's the first Yuppie boxing champion.

Yet, watching the aging Leonard on what appeared to be an inexorable slide, you couldn't help but fear for his continued good health; boxing isn't exactly the poster sport of the American Medical Association. Leonard hardly needs more money or another bejeweled belt; he already has more than Scheherazade. It's curious that a man who spent so many of his younger years retiring -- five times now, second only to Frank Sinatra on the Guinness list -- lately bristled when he heard the R-word.

But here he knew that enough was enough. When he heard the final bell, he knew it tolled for him. The gap in the decision was so impossibly wide -- two of the three judges gave Norris a margin of 16 points in 12 rounds -- there was no sense in thinking about a Hearns III or a Simon Brown or a Julio Cesar Chavez. "This is my last fight," Sugar Ray Leonard told the people. "Thank you for coming." And standing there at peace with himself after 14 years in the pro boxing business, he took one last sweet look from the ring apron and accepted their loving tribute. Within seconds after Leonard left they were turning out the lights in Madison Square Garden. The party was over.