If boxing is a sport, and always there is a question, it is the most tragic of sports, full of busted heads and broken hearts and dreams that lay splashed on canvas like broad, sad strokes by Picasso.

Even the great ones, the champions, eventually find thmmselves matched against the one opponent they never will beat, old age. Too often we are left with memories that counterpunch an image, memories of men paunchy and pathetic, stumbling over their own reputations.The past few years Ray Charles Leonard had nothing to gain from the sweet science except blood money. The second most famous "Sugar Ray" of our time was wealthy beyond imagination and famous beyond belief.

He should have walked away from boxing, but he would not because, he said, he could not.

"I miss it," Sugar Ray Leonard said some time ago, when he had retired for a first time. "I like to fight. I thought I could prove I was different. But it's not that easy."

The old-timers, the ones with cauliflower ears and scrambled brains, will tell you, if they can reason any longer, that it's easier than climbing up from an eight count. Or from a coroner's slab.

Saturday evening, Leonard reached the same conclusion many of us had reached months earlier. He should quit. Forever. Only, Leonard needed persuasion. He had to lose the second match of his career, to Terry Norris, had to be pummeled and, perhaps, embarrassed.

It's a tough call, knowing when to quit. Few are the athletes who, like Ted Williams, take their leave and leave us begging for more instead of begging for the end.

Ted hit a home run his final at-bat for the Red Sox and then never came out of the dugout to acknowledge the crowd's cheers. "Gods," reminded John Updike of that moment, "do not answer letters."

Each athlete must answer to himself. A Nolan Ryan in his 40s pitches another no-hitter. A Sugar Ray Leonard in his 30s figuratively pitches his own no-hitter. But he gets hit.

It's one thing to see 42-year-old Willie Mays waving at fast balls he once drove into the stands. It's another thing to see a 34-year-old fighter whose reflexes have deserted him taking punches that may have a lasting effect.

Boxing isn't just competition. Boxing is brutality.

The 1980s belonged to Sugar Ray Leonard the way the 1970s and late '60s belonged to Muhammad Ali. But it is now the 1990s, time for new kids with tasseled shoes and eight-ounce gloves to take over.

The danger is there in boxing. Always they have one fight too many. It happened to Joe Louis. It happened to Muhammad Ali. Now it's happened to Sugar Ray Leonard.

"Trust me," Leonard announced after the loss to Norris. "This is my last fight."

Twice before he told us the same thing. Twice before he changed his mind. Maybe this time his mind will heed his body.

Few are the boxers who moved as gracefully into the ring and the spotlight as Leonard.

We watched his ascension, then his coronation and, finally, his decline.

It was a 16-year-old Leonard, fibbing to the authorities, telling them he was 18, who was beaten in the 1972 Olympic trials quarter-finals and went back to the locker room to shed some tears.

"Hey, don't worry, Sugar Man," the Olympic coach, Sgt. Tom Johnson, told the boy. "You'll be back in '76." A label was created and a legend was born.

We loved the Sugar Man in those '76 Olympics at Montreal, the way he taped the photo of his girlfriend, Juanita, to his sock. The way he waved a tiny American flag after receiving the gold medal.

Television loved him, too. Leonard was going to give up boxing, go to the University of Maryland. "I don't like to fight," he advised. But there were bills to pay, and a child out of wedlock to support.

There were the bouts with Roberto Duran, the loss in Montreal in June 1980, the only loss in Leonard's professional career until this fateful Saturday against Norris, and the return, Duran's "No mas."

There was the gutty comeback against Tommy Hearns in 1981, and the eye damage in 1982, after which Sugar Ray said he would never fight again. But two years later he fought again. And three years after that he somehow beat the inactivity and Marvelous Marvin Hagler to win the middleweight title.

Even then he wouldn't quit, fighting Donny Lalonde, Hearns again - a draw this time - Duran again and, ultimately, Terry Norris.

"You see," he told us once, when the world was young, "I don't consider myself a fighter. I'm a personality."

Whatever he was, Sugar Ray no longer is. Hearns and Hagler never caught him, but old age has.

It's time to go.