NEW YORK, FEB. 10 -- At the end -- and make no mistake, this was the end -- the

wonder of the sad and painful night was how Sugar Ray Leonard remained on his feet.

The demons that had possessed him to defy wisdom and logic and press on at age 34 in a once-brilliant boxing career finally had been driven from his bruised body. Only an indomitable will and fighting heart that no one had ever questioned enabled Leonard to avoid being knocked out as unheralded Terry Norris, 23, gave a faded master a brutal lesson.

"This is my last fight," Leonard declared even before he had departed the Madison Square Garden ring Saturday night, the victim of two knockdowns and a thrashing like he'd never known.

Before announcing retirement for the fifth and what seemed final time, Leonard had learned from a mere apprentice what other great champions -- Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali -- also had to learn: a gathering eclipse dims to inevitable darkness.

Leonard had known the best of times only to have fallen under the spell of false expectations of continuing them. For the fabled Sugar Man, a sweet career turned sour.

"I knew it would have to end this way," Mike Trainer said wearily during this morning's early hours. Trainer, Leonard's lawyer and adviser, professed that without question his fighter had reached the point of no return.

"From about the fourth round I just hoped that he wouldn't get hurt and that he would finish on his feet. It was going to take something like this, but the best three things happened -- he didn't get hurt, he finished on his feet and there wasn't any doubt about the outcome.

"There's no saying, 'Well, maybe. . . . ' This was it."

Leonard's next battle will be to fend off a return of those demons that so often drove him out of retirement and back into the ring. Once more, his struggle will be to find purpose in the rest of his life. Until now, it's been a losing effort.

"He'll go through a period of trying to find out what to do," Trainer said. "He'll be all right. Don't feel sorry for him."

That's the party line -- don't feel sorry for him -- Leonard (36-2-1) established shortly after his only defeat since losing to Roberto Duran in June 1980. "I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me," Leonard said now, "because I've had a very lucky career."

For 11 years -- at least between retirements -- he caused opponents to follow his clever dance, and saved his fanciest steps for a split-decision victory in 1987 over Marvelous Marvin Hagler that clinched his recent accolade of fighter of the '80s. By margins wide and paper thin, he almost always prevailed. He was the quintessential winner.

No romantic, though, he couldn't quit on the mountaintop after conquering Hagler. As he lingered, it became apparent that the skills of a five-time world champion were eroding. Lately, he had been knocked down by Donny Lalonde and twice by Thomas Hearns. Last year brought personal turmoil as his marriage dissolved. He also was released from his contract as a television analyst for Home Box Office.

Boxing provided the structure to his life and thrills in victory. Defeat by Norris was agony.

It lasted for what must have seemed to him an eternity. For most of the 12 rounds his lips were swelled and cut. His left eye -- the one that was operated on for a detached retina in 1982 -- was puffy before he left the ring and donned dark glasses.

He'd been embarrassed.

"He was quick," he said. "He was smart. He's going to get better. If he maintains the same focus he had against me, he'll be around a long time. This is the changing of the guard. This is my last fight. . . .

"It's time to call it quits. I had to find out for myself and I did. He showed me everything I used to show fighters. I knew from the start it wasn't there tonight.

"It took this kind of fight for me to realize my time is over and I have to find something else to do outside of fighting."

His retirement announcement brought cheers from the sparse crowd of 7,495, which had warmly welcomed him but then deserted him with chants of "Ter-ry, Ter-ry" as the obscure opponent from Campo, Calif., near San Diego, began to loom large as the last line on Leonard's official record.

Norris dominated from start to finish. So decisive was his glove work that judge Barbara Perez awarded him every round, while Syd Rubenstein credited him with 11 of the 12. The third judge, Billy Costello, gave Leonard four rounds. But at least he viewed the carnage as everyone else did over the last four rounds, giving Norris a deserved clean sweep to the finish.

The scoring went 120-104, 119-103 and 116-110, and not a soul doubted the winner's identity even before Norris (27-3) was announced to a rousing ovation as still World Boxing Council junior middleweight (or super welterweight) champion. "He's still my idol," said ever-polite Norris, almost sheepishly.

But Norris's words could not begin to repair his deeds: Consider the frightful punishment from beginning to end that Norris -- for this night, "Terrible Terry" Norris -- inflicted.

The first round: A sneaky quick right hand followed by a sharp left uppercut gave Norris the edge in what otherwise was a sluggish start. But a hint of the trouble facing Leonard was there to be gleaned from an uncharacteristic weak flurry in the last 30 seconds, a time when the Leonard of the past usually amassed points with authority.

The last seconds of Round 2 shockingly demonstrated how seriously Leonard had underestimated Norris. Combining speed and power, he sent Leonard tumbling with a hook. As if for good measure, Norris landed a right even as Leonard was down, before referee Arthur Mercante Jr. could step between them.

Up quickly, Leonard took a mandatory eight count, which was completed after the bell. His stunned appearance and wobbly steps seemed reminiscent of those bad times Lalonde and Hearns inflicted. In those fights, Leonard had rallied once for a knockout and then for a draw. But on this night he seemed lethargic, his legs and arms heavy, his speed evaporated.

What he's never lost is tenacity, and he summoned every bit of it simply to survive the next round. The moment's rest had failed to revive him, and Norris brought the crowd to its feet and Leonard to the verge of knockout with another left hook. As Norris stalked and scored, Leonard shriveled and looked his age.

The best he could do was force a meaningless smile as he came out for the fourth round. All business, Norris bombed away, now taking aim at Leonard's body. It was then that a flatfooted, fading champion asserted himself, trading punches successfully enough to win a round on two judges' cards.

Norris is known for dropping his hands, and when he made that mistake in the fifth round it was nearly fatal. As Leonard went to the midsection, Norris dropped his guard. But Leonard managed only to graze Norris with a left that years before might have been a knockout punch. Unperturbed, Norris landed two hard lefts, and the second sprayed water from Leonard's head.

Needing a knockout, Leonard pressed forward in the sixth, missed more often than not and took more punishment. Looking like a young Leonard, Norris moved and jabbed and maintained a steely calm. He even turned Leonard's expected late flurry to his own advantage; with seconds left in the round, he landed a right hand and had to be restrained by Mercante at the bell.

Leonard's plight became almost unbearable in the seventh when in the final seconds Norris dropped him with a left and right to the head. Again Leonard was up at three to take the mandatory count. Now he had been sent sprawling for the sixth time in his career, the fifth in his last four fights. Hurting as he was, he persisted to the bell in yet one more demonstration of heart.

"Ter-ry, Ter-ry," the crowd chanted in the eighth round, and one cry sounded from the audience for Mercante to "stop it, stop it" as Norris landed a right and then a combination. Leonard wouldn't give in, buying time until the 10th round, which he opened with a surprise right hand. But it lacked force, and two minutes later Norris put a haymaker of a right up against Leonard's jaw that all but finished him.

In the last six minutes Norris proved to be a thinking fighter. He took points but no chances against a Leonard who played even more hurt than he was, trying to sucker Norris in for a luck punch. Leonard's luck had run out.

Bruised and bloody at the final bell, Leonard knew the outcome better than anyone and followed Norris toward his corner to offer congratulations. Then he faced a moment he had been rudely persuaded to. He said he was quitting.

He'd said this four times before: as an amateur in the flush of winning an Olympic gold medal; in 1982 after retina surgery; in 1984 after Kevin Howard had knocked him down for the first time in his career, and in 1987 after Hagler. But he never could live up to his word.

Norris was convinced he would now. "It was a sad victory for me because of the way I ended Ray's career," he said, respectfully. "Ray took a pretty bad beating."

Indeed, Leonard left the Garden not on the magic carpet he had ridden out of Las Vegas after beating Hagler but slowly with his aides at his side, a sadness betraying the best faces they could put on. The big doors of a waiting limousine closed on his career, and he began his last ride home.