He’d been drilled and had the tweety birds dancing over his head, compliments of Oliver McCall, in his fifth fight, in 1996. Oleg Maskaev could have called it a day then and there in the Richmond Coliseum in Virginia, found something else to do to feed his family. But he kept at it.

Five fights later, in 1997, the same scene unfolded, as David Tua TKO’d Maskaev. And he soldiered on, built up some wins.

But his chin sold him out again in 2000, with Kirk Johnson doing the damage via KO.

His very next fight, five months later, that dastardly chin gave out again, against Lance Whitaker. Still, Oleg Maskaev kept at it. He never contemplated retirement, he says, but let’s be up front here. He was the only one. Friends, family, trainers, pundits, they all contemplated retirement for him.

His trainer told him to find another job. But the stubborn Soviet kept at it. That’s what the polite set called him back then, stubborn. Others were harsher.

Get a clue, dude.

You’re not cut out for this.

You want to sound like Mel Gibson out on the town when you’re 50, Oleg?

But he would not stop. Maskaev wouldn’t relinquish the dream.

After two more wins, he stepped in with Corey Sanders.

You know the result already, don’t you?

TKO loss.

That was 2002, and there wasn’t anybody who wasn’t taking meds for a delusion disorder who thought that some day Oleg Maskaev would be fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world.

Even the NABFACBCIBC title. Even for the Heavyweight Championship of Staten Island, Maskaev’s home since he emigrated from Kazhakstan.

Nope, that chin was too damn iffy to risk it, everyone and their brother thought.

Except for Maskaev, a most stubborn man. He would not quit.

He trod on, an army of one against a legion of doubters and dismissers.

Since that loss to Sanders, he has accumulated 10 wins and, knock on wood, that delicate chin has held up. Can it hold up against Hasim Rahman, certainly more of a bomber than Sinan Samil Sam, the Turk who Maskaev beat in November to win a crack at Rahman’s WBC crown on August 12?

Managers Dennis Rappaport and Fred Kesch, and trainer Victor Valle Jr., who are all to be commended for embracing Maskaev, the epitome of damaged goods, and funneling him to this unlikely opportunity, think Maskaev’s beard won’t get trimmed again.

The 37-year-old Kazakhastan native, who came to the US in 1993, one of the early wave of Russians who flew the coop to get a taste of capitalism’s tempting potentialities, has been training in Colorado Springs for his unbelievable shot at an 23rd hour triumph. He got on the phone for a conference call with promoter Bob Arum, who reps Rahman, and his team of Rappaport, Kesch and Valle.

Arum, who seems to enjoy his recent dips in the heavyweight pool, promised a knockout will be the result on Aug. 12. “One blow can land and cause extermination,” he said.

Rappaport hammered home the “Maskaev as Cinderella” theme, casting his guy as the most mismanaged fighter in the annals of professional boxing. He termed Maskaev’s former handlers as “rocket scientists” for matching him with McCall so early on, and quite rightly took ample credit for dusting him off the scrap heap 3½ years ago.

Rappaport said that Oleg’s 5-year-old daughter had a Cinderella costume on one day and her pop commented on it. “You’re Cinderella,” the precocious pip said. I’m only reporting this, not hooking Rappaport up to a polygraph to gauge the veracity of the tale…

To me, the most compelling theme here is not Maskaev’s surprising renaissance but the fact that this is a rematch of a Nov. 1999 match in Atlantic City, in which Maskaev knocked Rahman out of the ring and on to Jim Lampley’s lap. Maskaev was losing the fight in a big way but pulled an overhand right out of his arse and put it to Rock’s chin. Rahman stayed on the floor of the arena for several minutes as his posse rioted, tossing chairs for 10 minutes after the smackdown ‘n out.

Rahman has fought a boxer who KOd him before, when he met David Tua and earned a draw in 2003, after the stocky slugger notched a TKO10 win against Rahman in 1998. So perhaps the AC event will not be weighing on him heavily as he readies himself for another crack at Maskaev. But, the Tua TKO came in the tenth round after Tua had stunned Rahman badly with a late shot to end the ninth, so there are ample grounds for plausible rationalizations for Rahman.

That storyline doesn’t appeal to Maskaev. He doesn’t think Rahman will be dwelling on the 1999 result, he told writers. “I’ll do everything to win this fight but it’s a different fight,” he said. “Six years ago we were different fighters. I don’t know Rahman’s state of mind. My mind is on this one.”

Arum said he didn’t know if the memories of the AC beatdown will affect Rahman negatively. “Some guys it will make better,” he said, after one writer chided him for offering a lame copout answer. “Rahman's an intelligent guy. He’s not going to let that kind of punch get him this time.”

Rappaport pointed out that this Maskaev2.0 version is not the standup Euro version who got his clock cleaned regularly. “He’s a far superior fighter,” the co-manager said. “And I’ve been told that Rahman wakes up in a cold sweat each night thinking about that KO,” he continued.

Again, I only report what I heard; I don’t have access to polygraph equipment…

Interestingly, Maskaev hasn’t demanded a return engagement with any of the men who have stopped him. But the memory of having the lights turned out on you, he said, will not color his effort. “You can’t let the memory of it be in your mind,” he said.

Maskaev also doesn’t care for the card’s tag, “America’s Last Line of Defense,” he made clear. He became a US citizen, with all the rights and privileges that come with the stamp of approval, two years ago. “Yes, it bother me,” he said.

A Top Rank PR person quickly came on the line to smooth the waters and assure Maskaev that no offense was intended, quite decently. The press was assured that no matter who wins, “the winner will be American.”

Maskaev gave the last word on the subject: “I’m a proud Russian-American.”

To be sure, the winner will be a fighter with a considerable stubborn streak; both have seen and heard those tweety birds dancing over their heads as the ref counted to 10. They have both soldiered on, and for that, they should both be proud.