LAS VEGAS, March 12 – Arguably the greatest trainer in history will be in both corners Saturday night when James Toney challenges Hasim Rahman and he won’t have to wear roller-skates. A halo will do.

One of the best things about boxing is that Eddie Futch’s influence will never wane. His disciples will have disciples to pass down the wisdom of the man who passed away Oct. 10, 2001. Two will be in the opposite corner in Atlantic City for an important heavyweight fight.

In this corner, working with the challenger, James Toney, is Freddie Roach, who was 18 when his father brought him to Las Vegas and handed him over to Futch.

In this corner, working the defending WBC heavyweight champion, who was trained by Futch starting in 1959 and who later became his business partner, Thell Torrence – who said he couldn’t believe it when he realized that he’ll turn 70 in June.

Roach may be the more accomplished trainer. He may have the 2-1 favorite. But Torrence has the Futch game plan to beat Toney.

It didn’t work for Torrence when he brought Vassiliy Jirov into the ring to face Toney in the only other time the two former Futch assistants faced each other. But it came mighty close. Jirov did much better against a comparatively in-shape Toney, who was fighting at cruiserweight, than he did in the opening rounds against then heavyweight prospect Joe Mesi. It was only when Mesi tired badly in the final rounds that Jirov was able to strike.

But Torrence was at Futch’s side when Mike McCallum, then a 35-year-old veteran, held Toney to a disputed draw in a super-middleweight bout (Toney clearly won, despite what the judges ruled), and then did even better in the rematch, which I had a draw though the official judges ruled Toney by majority decision).

And Torrence was there when Futch twice sent out the 5-foot-7 Montell Griffin to beat Toney. We’ll get to those “secrets” – Roy Jones Jr. had a pretty good idea of them – later in our tale.

In any case, Torrance now has a 6-foot-2 chiseled Rock, who at 33 may finally be ready to deliver on those flashes of promise he has shown over the years. And Roach is handicapped by a former middleweight champion who will probably outweigh the muscular 240-pound Rahman. (Hey, I dig short and fat, and like Toney, I grew up in a bakery.) He doesn’t like his fighter’s weight, but he certainly appreciates Toney’s skills.

Roach didn’t know who Eddie Futch was when he met him for the first time at Johnny Tocco’s Gym here in 1978, didn’t know this was the beloved trainer who beat Muhammad Ali not only with Joe Frazier, but with Ken Norton, who in the Thrilla in Manila had insisted the one-eyed Frazier not go out for the 15th round. He didn’t know that Futch grew up in Detroit as a boyhood friend of Joe Louis, who sometimes sparred with the lightweight and could never figure out how Eddie was able to spin off the ropes and land that left hook until they were old men and Eddie showed him.

Roach had been trained by his father, from age six right through his first four pro fights, and they had gone west looking for a professional to take over. They were on the way to Los Angeles, hopefully to get Jackie McCoy interested, but stopped off in Vegas and after visits to three gyms dropped in at Tocco’s. Freddie’s father knew who Eddie Futch was.

Eddie liked what he saw in the 122-pound kid. Not much punch, but hardworking. Freddie says “I really had a great work ethic.” He needed it. He worked as a busboy for the Golden Nugget in downtown Vegas, from 12:30 A.M. to 8. He would grab some sleep, get up at 11 to do his roadwork, at 12 go the gym and at 3 try for some more sleep before another grueling day.

“There were no distractions,” said Roach. “There were times I fought at the Silver Slipper and then went to work to bus tables.”

Futch taught him how to properly throw punches, but a broken right hand limited Roach’s potential. Futch wanted him to hang up the gloves, but the fighter wouldn’t listen – the same as now Wayne McCullough, who was trained by Futch and then Roach – won’t listen to Freddie now.

Roach had five debilitating fights without Futch in the corner and while he can not flat out blame his current battle with Parkinson’s on the extra punches he took, he does not dismiss that probability either. When he did retire, he wanted no more to do with boxing and took a job as a telemarketer and began drinking.

But Futch needed help in the gym. Thell Torrence and Hedgemon Lewis, another former Futch fighter, were not enough for the burgeoning list of fighters. Roach started working with Virgil Hill, and eventually, with the fighter complaining that Futch was too busy elsewhere (he had guys like Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks), Roach took over the light-heavyweight champion.

It was a mistake and Roach quickly learned it. To some, it looked as if he were stabbing the old man in the back. Torrence said Futch “fell out with Freddie, but I got along with both of them.” Eventually, though Futch never forgot, he forgave. I relayed to him once that Freddie said he was young and made a mistake listening to the fighter. Eddie nodded. He didn’t have to say anything.

None of this is as important, perhaps, as the Futch genius being taught anew. Roach, who has already copped his share of trainer-of-the-year awards, has a mighty stable that includes such champions as Manny Pacquiao and Brian Viloria. Eva Futch, Eddie’s widow, says the 46-year-old conditioner originally from Dedham, Mass., “channels Eddie’s spirit.”

“Of all the people Eddie worked with, Freddie really personifies the theories of Eddie Futch,” she said. “He’s calm and he’s controlled and he has wisdom.”

A couple of years before he died, there was a screening of a documentary film made on Freddie’s life at the Charlie Chaplin Theater in Los Angeles. Eddie Futch, on his own, flew in to be a part of it. It was something Freddie will never forget. “I looked up, and there was my mentor,” he said. At the end, they were again master and pupil.

“In almost 46 years with Eddie, we never had an argument,” said Torrence. This was a few days ago when he was up in Rochester with Rahman, “freezing our balls off.”

“One day, it’s seven degrees, then it’s 40 and the next day it’s back to 20,” said Torrance.

But Steve Nelson, the manager who has been with Rahman since the beginning, has roots in Rochester and there is an indoor track and if you ever wanted someone to focus on a fight, it’s not a bad town to be stuck in. How many tours of the Kodak factory can you make?

Torrence was taken to Futch when his trainer from the amateurs, Lee Boren, was ailing. It was during the California stage of Futch’s career; he had quit boxing for a while (fed up with wives and girlfriends interfering with his fighters), but he couldn’t keep away. Or, the game couldn’t keep away from him. Boren brought him Torrence, a California amateur star, and as Thell says, “something clicked.”

They were together, first as trainer and fighter, then trainer and assistant. It was about the time he retired from the ring that Torrence was introduced to another émigré from Detroit, Hedgemon Lewis. “I learned how to fight from Eddie,” said Lewis, who briefly held the Michigan version of the world welterweight title.

If Lewis had a punch, he’d have been illegal. He was a superb boxer – good enough to last until the 14th round with the great Jose Napoles without being able to hurt him – and Futch made him better. And Torrance helped, too. Torrance and Lewis, who just turned 60, were still with Futch when Eddie had his last star fighter, Riddick Bowe. And when Eddie got fed up with Bowe’s sloth and walked away, Torrance and Lewis stayed on.

“I was with Eddie from my ninth fight in ’66 to my last one in ’76 and when I just stumbled around after, he let me work with him,” said Lewis, who like Torrence lives in Vegas.

“Eddie and I were very close, he was like my father, or my grandfather.”

Unlike Roach, Lewis knew who Eddie Futch was “from the time I was a little boy.” His original trainer, who sent him out to Futch in California (where such celebs as Bill Cosby, Robert Goulet and most of all Ryan O’Neal began managing him), was Luther Burgess, a wonderful Detroit trainer who was one of Futch’s first disciples. There would be many, and not only his former fighters – when he was with Joe Frazier in Philadelphia, a terrific local middleweight had to retire from the ring and Frazier asked Futch to use him in the gym. George Benton, one of the greatest trainers in history, was still at Eddie’s side in Manila when Futch pulled the plug after the 14th round.

The generations will include Mike McCallum and Marlon Starling, who are active in gyms on opposite sides of the country. In a way, Lewis said, he helped McCallum get past Mike Watson in England. “He was losing that fight and I told him,” said Lewis. “He said he was doing the best he could. I told him, ‘Well, do more.’ He did.”

Starling, who was with Futch in his championship days, Eddie seemingly always threatening to walk out on the oft-capricious Moochie, has been reported back in the gym, showing his silky moves to youngsters. Roach remembers one fight where Starling was showboating “and Eddie didn’t like it, he told him he did any more of that, the next time he came back to the corner, he wouldn’t be there.”

Everyone remembers Futch as the quiet, scholarly man who subscribed to such magazines as “Psychology Today.” He may have been slight and, in his last years, fragile-looking, but he was as tough as Sonny Liston on a bad-hair day. Eva Futch said she remembered when Roach was working the corner of Johnny Tapia, he gave the fighter a slap between rounds.

“Why are you hitting me?” said Mi Vida Loca. “HE’s doing enough.”

Eva Futch predicts that another former Futch – and Roach – boxer, Wayne McCullough, could turn out to be a fine trainer if he ever gave up the silly idea that he can still win a title.

“Eddie didn’t let a fighter in a fight unless he felt he had at least a 50 percent chance of winning,” said Eva.

She said often, when the opponent was not well known, Futch would tell his kid to “go out and fight the first round and I’ll fight the rest.” It didn’t take long for the master to decipher a fighter.

He certainly deciphered Toney, well before the undressing Roy Jones Jr. gave one of the most skilled champions in recent decades. It is not very hard to understand. Toney was trained by the great Bill Miller, one of Detroit’s finest who had been consigned to working in the Kronk assembly line for Emanuel Steward before this talented teacher found a worthy student.

Miller used to train Toney in Mickey Roarke’s gym, which was where Roach was living (the New York Daily News put the headline “Roach Motel” on a piece I wrote about it). Miller, if anything, was crustier than Futch, which certainly made for a very delightful friendship.

“Bill Miller was one of the greatest cornerman ever and as far as I’m concerned, he was responsible for James winning his first title,” said Roach, referring to the comeback knockout of Michael Nunn on a minor-league baseball field in the champion’s home town of Davenport, Iowa.

“James was far, far behind, but Bill kept calm, he never panicked and just kept James focused.”

In the 11th round, Toney erased the scorecards with a left hook.

Eventually, though, Toney separated from Miller, the same way he broke apart from manager Jackie Kallen and his own mother. But beneath that well-fed exterior, there still beats the lean and angry man who, at the age of one, was abandoned by his father after first shooting his mother. Torrence said while Futch admired Toney, he never worked with him – “but I think he may have trained Toney’s father.”

Toney’s anger often covers his sharp sense of humor, makes it hard to realize he is a loving husband (recent) and father. But as good a boxer as he is, with degrees from both Miller and Roach, there are flaws.

Roach and Torrence both know, of course, as did Futch, that fighters win fights, not trainers.  

But trainers do make a difference. And Torrence wasn’t waiting with bated breath for Hasim Rahman to cross his threshold.

Yes, Rahman landed the perfect punch against the imperfect Lennox Lewis, who did not train for that defense in the altitude of Johannesburg. But since then, the Rock bolted from promoter Cedric Kushner and a lucrative HBO deal to go with Don King, who had to put him in a rematch with Lewis, who made crushing amends in the fourth round. Subsequently, the Rock has not looked very good – losing to John Ruiz of all people, losing to the remains of Evander Holyfield (yes, two guys Toney has beaten), and sleepwalking to a victory over Monte Barrett which, as only the WBClods could rule, made him a heavyweight champion retroactively when Vitali Klitschko retired.

“I didn’t need any headaches at my age,” said Torrence. “But when they came to me, I said let me talk to this kid. When he came to my office, and the first thing that impressed me was I told him to be there at 11 and he was there 10 minutes early. He said ‘You’ve heard a lot of stories about me, I’m not saying all of them were false, I was young and I was wrong. I made a lot of mistakes.’ He told me that if I took him on, he would give me 100 percent. He has.”

Now he needs to do it in the ring Saturday night. He needs to throw that strong left jab, but not fall in afterwards, because that’s where Toney wants him, up close and personal. In his last showing, Toney dismantled Dominick Guinn, who must have gotten his game plan directly from James. Or indirectly. Joe Goossen, the brother of Toney’s promoter, Dan, was working Guinn’s corner and the youngster insisted on pressing up close where he was counterpunched over and over.

Futch figured that out with McCallum. This was a younger Toney, one who was still able to march forward and cut off rings, not the overweight trapper who lays back and counters. But even then, Toney was mostly a counterpuncher. In the rematch, Futch told McCallum that since the only time Toney throws his big punch, the right hand, was after the Body Snatcher threw his, don’t throw the right. Neither guy did. It was a very dull duel of left hands.

McCallum also moved to his right, away from Toney’s right, a trick Roy Jones utilized in virtually shutting out Toney. Later, Futch sent the talented but limited Montell Griffin out to beat Toney twice, again holding back the right hand and moving to the right.

“We told Montell if you ever finish with a right hand, you’re going to get hit with a right hand,” said Torrance.

“We have to take into consideration that wasn’t the same James Toney who fought Montell,” said Roach. “He was coming off the loss to Jones and he was floundering for years. We even took a fight for $1,000 during that time.”

Dan Goossen has done a remarkable job of selling Toney as a major force in the heavyweight division. But Torrence said “if I can get Rock to do what I want him to do, he should be fine.” If.

Toney, of course, is playing his usual mind games, daring Rahman to go “toe to toe” with him. But the Rahman that once went eight rounds of torturing David Tua with jabs and little side-steps (before getting hit after the bell ending the ninth and quickly stopped in the tenth of what should have been ruled an accidental foul, thus permitting a trip to the scorecards which would have given the Rock a victory) could be tough to crack.

I think I’m leaning strongly to the Rock on this one, partly because of the Futch theory of fighting James Toney, but also because I’m not sure just how much James Toney has left besides anger and smarts.

PENTHOUSE: Royce Feour, who keeps breaking into halls of fame, this time the Southern Nevada Sports pantheon. He’s already in the Nevada (the entire state) sportswriting hall of fame and I’m getting tired of taking him out to dinner.

OUTHOUSE: The state of  New Jersey and the slum of Atlantic City (not counting, of course, the wonderful Irish Pub, an oasis in a hellhole) for naming a piece of Mississippi Avenue between the Boardwalk and Pacific “Don King Plaza.” The man is not allowed to promote in A.C. because he refuses to answer questions about bribes to former IBFelon chief Bob Lee. I figure it’s a one-way street leading to a dead end…Oscar De La Hoya, for ruling that if he does consent to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr., it’ll have to be at 154 pounds. Well, at least, he didn’t say anything about Floyd having to keep one hand behind his back. Who does Oscar think he is? Sugar Ray Leonard?

MORE DISSES: James Toney said, unlike those baseball players, he’s was upstanding and admitted his guilt of being on juice. Heck, they caught him, and he never did appeal to New York….This is the Chinese Year of the Dog, starting last Jan. 29 and there are five defending “champions” who are dogs in upcoming fights – Rahman to Toney, Zab Judah to Floyd Mayweather Jr. (if anyone calls Judah a “champion” of course), Chris Byrd to Wladimir Klitschko, Ricardo Mayorga to De La Hoya and Jermain Taylor to Winky Wright. Last weekend, a champion dog – not the Westminster Kennel Club variety – Maselino Masoe was dethroned by Felix Sturm, but before the new year, which was Jan.29, Judah and Jean-Marc Mormeck were bitten by a couple of dogs in Carlos Baldomir and O’Neil Bell….Those clowns at the Boxing Writers Association of America gave the Sam Taub Award for broadcasting to Showtime’s deposed boxing chief, Jay Larkin, which was kind of nice. But how come Lou DiBella, who when he was Larkin’s counterpart with HBO and ruled the game, has an empty place in his throne room?