LAS VEGAS, Aug. 11 – Trainers come, trainers go. The Rock remains as solid as quicksand, as steadfast as a yo-yo.

It is the only reason I can think of that the odds on tomorrow night’s fight at the Thomas & Mack favor Hasim Rahman by only minus $2 over Oleg Maskaev and don’t give me 1999.

On paper, this is a minus $5 fight, and who cares if Maskaev put Jim Lampley’s lap between The Rock and the hard place of the Atlantic City floor. On paper, this is a $50 pay-per-view ripoff.

Maskaev, now 37, went on from his spectacular 1999 knockout of Rahman to be knocked out in three of his next seven starts. His longtime trainer advised him to retire. Instead, he hooked up with the son of the man who had poor Gerry Cooney and his chronic sore shoulder punching walls. Maskaev has now won ten straight against opposition that began with Erol Sadikovski and ended with Sinan Sam.

Win, lose or draw, Rahman has gone on from 1999 to face people like Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, David Tua, John Ruiz, Monte Barrett and James Toney. It shouldn’t be much of a match, despite the 1999 result.

Yes, Maskaev’s right hand is still dangerous, especially since Rahman has not grown another chin. But the underlying cause of the low odds, I believe, was best expressed by The Rock’s trainer, Eddie Futch disciple Thell Torrence, before their last fight, the draw last March 18 against James Toney:

“I’m not worried about James Toney,” Torrence said. “I’m worried about Rock.”

Was he ever right. He had devised a perfect game plan, and kept reminding Rahman between rounds, of just using his jab and staying away from the out-of-shape counter-punching master. Rahman should have won every round, easily. Instead, he got it in his head he wanted to beat Toney at his own game, fighting on the inside, and was lucky to wind up with a draw.

This fight, Torrence said, “Rock’s jab should be a very effective weapon.” Rahman could probably win with just that punch. Ah, but we’re talking about The Rock. So maybe it is a contest.

“Everything works off the jab,” said Rahman. “He’s going to be a bloody mess after the first round.”

Of course, there’s always the 1999 knockout. Dennis Rappaport, Maskaev’s promoter, says Rahman wakes up every morning in a cold sweat after dreaming about it.

“Dennis Rappaport is like a locust,” said Rahman, always one of boxing’s best quotes, “he returns every 17 years.”

Kelly Swanson, Rahman’s publicist, shook her head: “It’s a cicada,” she corrected.

The real bug though is whether the knockout almost seven years ago bothers Rahman.

“It’s over,” said Torrence. ‘I haven’t seen any indication that there’s any effect.”

Rahman explains away the 1999 result by reminding everyone that, knowing Maskaev had been knocked out in one round by Oliver McCall (it was the former Soviet amateur star’s seventh pro fight), HBO had provided “a gimme” when it came up with a late substitution for the injured Kirk Johnson, his original opponent.

Rahman said he broke camp three weeks before the fight to help celebrate a daughter’s birthday and didn’t bother returning. It was as easy as he thought when he piled up a clear margin after seven rounds. “One round, I had him gone,” Rahman said. “He spit his mouthpiece out.”

But then he got hit. It was a right hand and, he said the other day, “it was the first time I’ve really been hurt. The next punch was just icing on the cake.”

Maskaev moved right in and landed the highlight reel shot that sent Rahman threw the ropes, ricocheting off Jim Lampley and with a crash of the back of his head on the floor.

Someone asked what it felt like to be knocked out like that.

“Surely you don’t think I remember?” The Rock replied. “I was out when I went through the ropes.”

No, he doesn’t sound too perturbed about his history with Maskaev. But then, The Rock could always talk, could always find excuses. Evander Holyfield was butting him from the beginning, finally creating “another head on my head” in reference to the grotesque swelling that forced the bout to be halted. His stoppage by David Tua, in their first meeting, was “bogus,” he said – and indeed, he was well ahead though probably on his way to being knocked out when Tua clocked him after the bell ending the ninth round. Tua should have been disqualified, or the fight should have gone to the scorecards. Instead, it resumed and the still-groggy Rahman was stopped early in the tenth.

But for the rematch, he actually showed up in worse shape than did Tua, almost as if he had James Toney as his conditioning coach. For his horrible 12-round performance against John Ruiz, “something happened the day of the fight.” For the Lennox Lewis rematch, which he said was “legit,” he said he had been “sleepwalking, daydreaming.”

“If I’m in shape, it’s hard to deal with me,” he said.

He’s in shape. He weighed in at 235 pounds yesterday, only one more than he did seven years ago for Maskaev. But his conqueror, at 238, was only two pounds heavier than he was in 1999. He’s in shape, too.

In a very real sense, Rahman could be grateful for his loss to Maskaev. Only 17 months later, he knocked out Lennox Lewis with one right hand to strike gold in South Africa.

“Sometimes,” he said, “a loss can be better than a win. I’ve seen guys land title shots after they lose.”

Victor Valle Jr., Maskaev’s trainer, says his man has improved dramatically since 1999. Maybe, but Maskaev hasn’t proven that against anyone in the major leagues. Rahman, too, can claim to be improved.

“I can adopt to fighters much better than I used to,” he said. “Inconsistency is definitely in the past.”

Without looking past Maskaev, he looks past Maskaev and says – like the challenger – he would like next to go after Wladimir Klitschko, the biggest name among the three other titleholders.

Klitschko has a card set for HBO in November. Rahman said he could be ready. “I’ll be able to fight in September,” he said.

He has no interest in Sergei Liahkovich, the Belarussian who upset Lamon Brewster for one title earlier this year. “Lamon makes guys look much better than they are,” he said.

The 7-foot-2 Russian, Nicolai Valuev, who beat John Ruiz for a belt, “once fought on one of my undercards. He’s getting better and if he doesn’t want to play for the Sixers, he might get a shot.”

Of course, there’s always a rematch with Toney. “He has to get past Samuel Peter first (Sept. 2),” said Rahman. “He should – easily.”

Evander Holyfield doesn’t think so. “Toney is definitely a clever fighter,” said the hardy perennial on the phone from Shreveport, La., where he was trumpeting his return next Friday in Dallas against Jeremy Bates. “But he’s going to have problems. Sammy, he swings down, so you really can’t duck him. It’s like George Foreman and Joe Frazier. George kept hitting him on the top of the head. Even if you think you’re ducking, you’re going to get, in the back of the head, on top the head.”

For the record, Holyfield picks Rahman tomorrow. “I would like for him to win,” he said.

Me, I like both contestants. They’re both joys to talk to, good people. On paper, Rahman should have it easy. But frankly, I don’t give a damn who wins as long as they both make money, nobody gets hurt and Bob Arum stops waving flags.

PENTHOUSE: Omar Nino, in his first fight outside Mexico, upset Brian Viloria last night at the Orleans here and it wasn’t close. Nino, who has been stopped twice in his career but also holds a victory over Jorge Arce, was in complete control of the 108-pound title bout after the opening round and won by scores of 118-1l0, 117-112 and 117-111. Off television, I had it 117-111. It’s good for the game every now and then for the popular house fighter to not only lose, but for the judges – Adelaide Byrd, Chuck Giampa and Mark Green of Britain – to see it clearly….Also, credit Wallace Matthews on OLN (Our Lady of Nookie?) to point out in the second or third round that the funk Viloria was in looked like it was going to be a major upset….I’d say it was almost as big as Carlos Baldomir beating Zab Judah, but Viloria was hardly as respected as the bling king from Brooklyn.

OUTHOUSE: Bob Arum, who was trumpeting Viloria for a major payday against Koki Kameda in Japan. Sometimes, you shouldn’t start promoting big fights before your guy gets past the man he’s first facing. Remember, Bob, how Tommy Morrison was going on to face Lennox Lewis until you put him in – at my suggestion, I might add – with Michael Bentt?