LAS VEGAS, Aug. 10 – The trainer who advised Oleg Maskaev to retire “because of my concern for his welfare and health,” who “lost confidence walking up the steps with him,” who worried for the fighter’s wife and four children, hasn’t changed his mind about what he did four years ago.

But Bob Jackson thinks Maskaev will again knock out Hasim Rahman in two nights at the Thomas & Mack Center. “I’ll be rooting for him, too,” he said from his base at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. “I love him.”

Maskaev is difficult not to love, a playful bear of a man despite Bob Arum's, Rahman’s promoter, attempt to picture him as some sort of robotic Ivan Drago fighter off the Soviet assembly line. Not that Maskaev resembles his own promoter’s attempt to paint him as boxing’s latest “Cinderella.”

“He’s got a wonderful sense of humor, very wry,” said Jackson, who suggested Maskaev retire in 2002 after the fighter suffered his fifth loss by knockout, this one to Corey Sanders – not the South African who once stopped Wladimir Klitschko, but the Maryland journeyman, “T-Rex,” who has been a frequent sparring partner for Rahman over the years.

According to Jackson, who with his late partner Al Gavin shared the James J. Walker Award for “long and meritorious service to boxing,” most of the denizens at Gleason’s not only will be rooting, but they’ll be believing the fable spun by Dennis the Menace.

Imagine Saddam Hussein as Santa Claus. That’s Dennis Rappaport playing fairy godfather for the son of a Russian coal miner.

It’s been a quarter-century since Rappaport, as Gerry Cooney’s co-manager, helped Don King turn the Larry Holmes-Cooney heavyweight title fight into a battle of the races. There seems no point now in opening old wounds. Rappaport seems to have mellowed. It would not surprise me if his association with Maskaev was responsible.

There is something clean and honest about the Kazakhstan-born son of Russian emigrants. Rappaport said Maskaev may have been the worst mismanaged fighters – in his seventh pro fight, he was thrown in with Oliver McCall in McCall’s first fight since losing the heavyweight title to Frank Bruno. His original backers padded his record with six victories, allegedly scored in old Soviet haunts. Maskaev refuted them from the start.

“They were made up,” he said.

He grew up on an organic farm in Kazakhstan. His father was also the foreman in a coal mine and got young Oleg a job there, greasing the rails for the trams carrying the ore to the top. One day, a cable broke and the coal-laden trolley came roaring down the track, straight at Maskaev. There was hardly any room, but he managed to squeeze himself against one wall, thinking, “You know, boxing may not be so dangerous.”

At 18, he walked out of the mines and enlisted in the Soviet Army. “Less of a chance of being sent to Siberia,” he said with his dry delivery. He became a lieutenant, but boxing was his main job. In one military tournament, he met a Ukraine officer named Vitali Klitschko and knocked him out in the first round.

Maskaev could always punch.

He had visited the United States with a Soviet amateur team in 1991. Four years later, he decided to move to what he perceived as the promised land, with his wife and three children.

He settled in Staten Island, the most Republican bastion in all of New York City. Where in Staten Island, I asked the other day, since I have family there.

“Right in the middle,” he said. “New Jersey on the left, Manhattan on the right.”

Four years after arriving here, after suffering knockout losses to McCall and David Tua, he was a late substitute – for Kirk Johnson – on an HBO card and faced Rahman. He was coming off an operation on his right hand and during the third round he injured it again, which would necessitate further surgery after the bout.

He was trailing on all cards after seven rounds of that 1999 bout in Atlantic City. In his own mind, though, he said “I wasn’t behind, I believe the fight was even. I remember we were hurting each other.”

In the eighth round, he landed a big right hand that badly hurt Rahman, “that’s for sure, and I was looking for a way to knock him out.” He followed up with another right that sent the unconscious Rahman through the ropes, briefly onto Jim Lampley, and then to the floor with a crack of the head.

Less than a year and a half later, Rahman would knock out Lennox Lewis with one punch and become heavyweight champion of the world. By that time, Maskaev had been knocked out by Kirk Johnson and Lance Whitaker.

When he was stopped by Corey Sanders in 2002, Bob Jackson suggested he find other gainful employment. Jackson said it was not so much that Maskaev had lost faith in himself. “But I lost confidence,” he said. “I couldn’t go up the steps with him that way.”

Almost automatically, Maskaev would still show up at Gleason’s. Victor Valle Jr., whose father had trained Cooney for Rappaport, would see the “lonely looking figure” in the gym, “he looked like he was crying.”

Valle, 54, worked with his father, not only with Cooney, but with Billy Costello, Wilford Scypion, Eddie Davis, Jose Nieto and Vince Costello. He knew Maskaev had been with Jackson and asked the trainer about taking over the fighter. Jackson gave him his blessing. Jackson knows Valle is, like his father, a good person, though he doesn’t appreciate Junior telling people Maskaev didn’t know how to fight before.

Valle went over with some pads and began to work with Maskaev. To his surprise, he said, he discovered a fighter with sharp reflexes, intelligence and, of course, the big punch. He told Rappaport about Maskaev and in six months, with manager Fred Kesch, the fighter had a new team.

If there’s one thing Rappaport knew, it was how to move a heavyweight. Victory over victory ensued, mostly knockouts, mostly against the dregs of the division. He stepped up to journeymen and somehow earned a shot at the former European champion, Sinan Simail Sam, to become the WBC mandatory challenger.

Rahman, through little fault of his own, had emerged with that title a second time. So after Maskaev scored a decisive 12-round decision over Sam in Hamburg, Germany, a rematch of a seven-year-old fight was made.

“It wasn’t easy in Germany,” said Rappaport. “We had three fistfights on the way to the ring.”

Valle said what was most impressive was the improvement as a boxer shown by Maskaev. He said it was a 3D package – discipline, defense and dancing. Maskaev, who had been somewhat stiff, can now move his feet, said Valle.

Rahman, of course, liked the idea of avenging his 1999 loss, which he blamed on leaving camp three weeks before the fight to celebrate a daughter’s birthday and not bothering to go back because he thought Maskaev was “a gimme.” Bob Arum, who always likes a “story” to help sell a fight, dredged up the flag, a la King (Don).

With the three other heavyweight titles in the grips of Ronald Reagan’s old “evil empire” – Wladimir Klitschko of the Ukraine, Nicolai Valuev of Russia and Sergei Liahkovich of Belarussia – Arum entitled the pay-per-view card “America’s Last Line of Defense,” as if patriotism would sell tickets.

This annoyed Maskaev, who two years ago proudly became an American citizen. “It’s the old Cold War again, America and Russia,” he said.

Rappaport, of course, could not let it rest at that. The entire camp wears T-shirts with Maskaev’s picture on an American flag. At yesterday’s press conference, Maskaev showed up with his certificate of citizenship. Not one word was said about Maskaev being white.

PENTHOUSE: And who would ever believe it, Dennis Rappaport! The Mellowed Menace has been behaving himself. Yes, he asked the Nevada commission to pad the area of the floor around the ring in case Rahman was launched again, and yes, he revealed Rahman woke up in cold sweats after dreaming of Maskaev (and how would you know that, Dennis?). But that’s all in the line of duty. I give Maskaev’s innate decency credit for part of the reformation.

OUTHOUSE: Hey, if Rappaport is in the other place, there’s no one who could possibly replace him here.