LAS VEGAS, March 16 – Betwixt the Ides of March and St. Patrick’s Day, there should be a little time reserved for sobriety, even if that’s not the happiest way to look at the Hasim Rahman-James Toney donnybrook Saturday. Only wishful thinking gives the match any import other than, finally, two of the leading heavyweights are facing each other.

It reminds me of Sonny Tufts, who was a journeyman actor back before television and there was this thing called radio, and I don’t mean FM. One dramatic show was “Lux Radio Theater” and at the end of the play, that week’s star would plug the following week’s show. One night in 1943, the story goes, Joseph Cotton read the announcement that next week’s offering would be “The Major and the Minor” and the stars would be Joan Fontaine and, in a shocked voice, “SONNY TUFTS?”

Mr. Tufts’s career never recovered, even if the story wasn’t true. He was only a B-movie actor, had some problems with the bottle and faded into a punchline.

So when Bob Arum says that in a hundred years, his company will be known for promoting three great heavyweight champions – Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Hasim Rahman, I am tempted to substitute SONNY TUFTS. And it’s not for Ali or Foreman. (Note, a hundred years ago, while I was covering a Can-Am auto race in Elkhart Lake, Wis., I spotted a building named the “Sonny Tufts Musical Theatre.” Inquiring minds have to know.)

Take away the George Foreman comeback freak show, and Arum has been on the outside looking in at heavyweight boxing since the glorious days of John Tate, whom he used to tell people was the best since Joe Louis (Muhammad Ali? Who he?), maybe even better than Joe. I’ll say this for Big John, I never saw anyone other than a tree fall quite the way he did.

Arum made the same better-than-Louis claims for Herbie Hide following his knockout of already damaged Michael Bentt and is now telling the world that Rahman is the best heavyweight around and probably Toney is No. 2 and what a wonderful fight we’ll be seeing courtesy of HBO, on a free preview weekend, from Atlantic City.

Blarney. If these are the two best heavyweights in the world, than our planet has bigger problems than Iranian nukes and global warming. My most vivid memory of Rahman was when he was sent sprawling out of the ring by Oleg Maskaev and landed almost atop Jim Lampley’s head. Toney will be forever etched in my mind as losing every round to Roy Jones Jr. after first throwing a chair at me at the final press conference. For a former high school quarterback, he showed why he went into boxing.

Toney is a marvelously skilled fighter, a sure hall of famer. But he is not the No. 2, or 3, heavyweight in the world, though he may be better than Rahman. As a heavyweight, he’s beaten the ghost of Evander Holyfield, a cruiserweight named Rydell Booker and Dominick Guinn. Oh, yes, he beat John Ruiz, though he lost the decision in a test tube because he was on some steroids.

His promoter, Dan Goossen, has done a remarkable job peddling the former middleweight, super-middleweight and cruiserweight champion as the best heavyweight in the world. Toney believes the hype.

We don’t have to. We’ve seen him outhustled by middleweights Reggie Johnson and David Tiberi, lose twice to Montell Griffin, mail it in against Drake Thadzi. Yes, a lot of this was because he had trouble making weight – he still does – and a lot of it was because he was virtually sulking after Roy Jones beat him every which way but down.

His so-called comeback was the exciting 12-rounder for the cruiserweight title against Vasilliy Jirov three years ago. Jirov, however, was handled much more authoritatively by Joe Mesi, a comparative neophyte, until the Buffalo soldier fatigued in the final rounds.

James turns 38 in August. His body has been betraying him regularly in recent years. Muscles and tendons go pop. The steroids he was on, he said, was to recover from an injury.

His hands are still quick, but his legs are gone. He fights off the ropes now, virtually unable to go forward. He lays clever little traps, telling the flies to come into his little parlor. Rahman, if he listens to his trainer, Thell Torrence, won’t bite.

Torrence was at Eddie Futch’s side when the great trainer went up against Toney with Mike McCallum, a 35-year-old relic at the time. McCallum was lucky to get a draw, but in the rematch he was unlucky. Futch noted that the only time Toney used his best punch, the right hand, was in roll-and-counter situations. He instructed McCallum not to throw right hands. Toney had nothing to counter and was flustered. THAT fight should have been a draw, but Toney gained a majority decision.

Futch used the same tactic with little Montell Griffin to twice score close decisions over the immensely more talented Toney. The idea was to never finish any sequence with a right hand – add a left hook and step off to the right, away from Toney’s right hand. That was what Jones did, it is what Torrance has been teaching Rahman.

Rahman may be one of the nicest guys in the game, one of the best interviews, but he has never been confused with Willie Pep. The Rock, after knocking out Lennox Lewis five years ago, has been a master of mediocrity, constantly inconsistent. He managed to lose to Holyfield and Ruiz – both guys convincingly handled later by Toney – and actually came in to the ring in worse shape than David Tua, thus being held to a draw in a mess that neither deserved.

He started his comeback with a dreadful performance against the aged former cruiserweight titleholder, Al Cole, and in his last appearance scored a desultory decision over his buddy, Monte Barrett, and won the WBClown belt retroactively when Vitali Klitschko threw his hat out of the ring and into Ukrainian politics.

Rahman, though, has always been a major underachiever. There are patches when he seems to be the real thing. For eight rounds or so, he boxed wonderfully against the dangerous Tua in their first meeting. He’d throw out that strong jab, double it, add a right hand to the combination, then step aside and away from danger. He was putting on a clinic, but of course Tua was a lot less skilled than is Toney.

And in the ninth round, Tua landed one of his gargantuan left hooks to the body. The Rock seemingly lost his stones. He looked painfully at his corner as if hoping a train ticket would magically appear. After the bell, Tua landed a hook to the head. It was accidental, so maybe a disqualification was not in order. But the fight should at least have been stopped and the scorecards consulted. Rahman was way ahead, but Lou Duva in Tua’s corner kicked up a fuss, confusing the Florida officials (not a difficult task) and the bout was allowed to continue. Rahman, still hurt, was quickly put away.

But I take away from that encounter no belief that Rahman lacked courage – hell, he would later survive a worse barrage from Corrie Sanders and eventually work his way into stopping the South African southpaw – but that every now and then, he could do some boxing.

He’s bounced around, from promoter to promoter, from trainer to trainer. He and Torrance seems to have clicked a couple of fights ago, when the Rock went straight through Kali Meehan, no big deal but an effort that was flattered by Meehan’s almost victory over Lamon Brewster.

My old buddy, Michael Bentt, called up last night and, out of the blue, said he liked Rahman “big.” I don’t know exactly why, but I think I do, too – especially when the odds are more than 2-1 on Toney. Say this, no way I could picture Toney knocking out Lennox Lewis. Rahman did and, at 33, he knows this could be his last shot at the big time.

PENTHOUSE: Mr. Bentt, always one of my big favorites from the Big Apple, is now 40, living in West Hollywood and “knocking on doors” trying to get acting parts. He went there to appear as Sonny Liston in the Will Smith “Ali” flick, has made a couple of movies for director Ron Shelton (big deal, I did one, too, though it wasn’t “Bull Durham”), picked up a few TV gigs and, more importantly, a family. The former New York Daily News Golden Gloves champion (that’s how I conned my former bosses into sending me to cover his fights, like knocking out Tommy Morrison in the first round in Tulsa to win the WBO title, then losing it to Hide in London) is married to a blues singer who is working as an executive at an engineering firm and, on March 31, as he says, the same birth date as Jack Johnson, his son Elijah Robison will turn one. I asked if Elijah would be a fighter, Michael said, “A fighter for justice.” Amen.

OUTHOUSE: Larry (Hap) Hazzard of New Jersey and Kery Davis of HBO for perpetrating Arum’s myths that Rahman and Toney are the two best heavyweights. Greg Page, Tim Witherspoon, Tony Tucker, Tony Tubbs, Pinklon Thomas and the rest of Don King’s lost generation would have had a field day with this lot. A few of them might have given Toney a run for his money at the buffet table, too.

DISS AND THAT: Condolences to the family of Davey Pearl, one of the finest referees and nicest guys to have the good taste to be shorter than me. He was small, but he was a giant who, at 125 pounds, could push around heavyweights if he had to….Offer prayers to a couple of great guys who just lost their dads, Cleveland Plain Dealer boxing scribe Joe Maxse and PR whiz John Beyrooty….Now hearing that the IBF is thinking about setting up a toll booth for those who want to get out of Don King Plaza in Atlantic City….King, who can’t get a license to promote in New Jersey because he refuses to answer questions about his relationship with convicted former IBFelon chief, Bob Lee, believes he can get a driving license to tool around “his” street.