When Vincent Pettway, the handsome man and superb fighter, knocked out Italy's Gianfranco Rosi in Las Vegas on Sept. 17, 1994, he became Baltimore's first world boxing champion in more than half a century. He made headlines, logged a fair amount of mug time on local television, received official citations and a nice pewter plate from the mayor.

But Pettway did not get what Hasim "Rock" Rahman got yesterday - his own motorcade through downtown Baltimore, a joyous rally at City Hall. He settled for a ride as grand marshal of the Thanksgiving Day parade two months later.

His hometown could have honored Pettway in a more elaborate way, but City Hall was a relatively sleepy place in 1994, and apparently no one there understood his victory as an excuse for a party. Baltimore, then 11 years removed from a World Series and a decade deserted by an NFL franchise, might simply have forgotten how to celebrate a sports champion.

But the difference in how the city - or the world, for that matter - reacted to these two world-class boxers probably has more to do with our fascination with all things extra-large and supersized. We like our heroes as big as we can get them. And Pettway's hard-fought, hard-won world championship came as a junior middleweight.

Rahman is a heavyweight - the heavyweight champion of the world - and no title in professional sports packs as much punch in the popular imagination.

Purists might hold that the sweetest science exists among the nimble and the quick: the light-heavys, the middles, welters and even bantams. But the heavyweight title is the one that surpasses all others in hype, glamour and bucks. Unfair to the Vincent Pettways of the world, but it's a fact.

"It's just something you learn to live with," says Pettway, at 35 still in training and looking for a fight. "The heavyweights have always gotten all the attention, but us little guys do all the work. We have to fight harder in the ring and outside the ring for more attention and better promotion. Even my manager's eyes get big as softballs when he sees a heavyweight come through the door of the gym. But the heavyweights deserve credit for all the drama and suspense they bring to the game."

Even if you're not a fan of boxing - even if you're one of its harshest critics or, more likely, one of its many intermittent observers who went out to watch Rahman's rally yesterday - you know exactly what "heavyweight champion of the world" means. Those five words conjure up the sinewy outlines of 20th century icons: Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali. It's as if Michelangelo himself had carved them into our collective memory.

More than all other fighters, the heavyweight champions endure as legends, wrapped forever in robes of glory.

"The heavyweight champion of the world is the best fighter in the world," says Mack Lewis, the 82-year-old trainer who handled Pettway and helped launch Rahman's career. "It ain't no pound-for-pound comparison. The heavyweight is simply considered the best fighter in the world because no one can beat him. A middleweight couldn't beat him, a welterweight couldn't beat him."

"He's king of the world," says Rashid Muhammad, who promotes amateur boxing in Maryland.

"He reigns supreme, rules all that he surveys," says Clem Florio, the Pimlico race handicapper who, as a young middleweight from New York in the 1950s, had 85 professional fights. "He's at the top of the world, standing alone. This kid - the Rock - can say today, `I beat the champ who beat everyone else.' "

Ali used to say, "I am the greatest."

All other champions in all other weight classes have to be just as courageous, just as skilled, just as committed to their training regimens. "Everything hurts in boxing," says Florio. "The training, the sparring, everything hurts. Nothing about it is easy."

But among all those who toil in the hard-sweat world of boxing, the heavyweight is the strong man - sometimes ponderously so - the brute with the longest reach and the most potent punch.

Mack Lewis loves all boxers, all weight classes, and he has too much respect for those he trained over the years to single anyone out as the greatest. But he concedes a soft spot for a good-looking heavy. "There's a prejudice among managers and trainers," he says. "When they see a big guy come in the gym, and he's got big shoulders and long arms, you say, `If this guy's got some guts, I got something here.' When Hasim [Rahman] came in, he came in like a fighter. He wanted to fight. He's got a beautiful body."

And a punch.

Knockout at any time

The punch - the potential for a knockout - is part of the allure.