LAS VEGAS, Aug. 30 –When John L. Sullivan walked into a saloon and declared, “I can lick any man in the house,” it was obviously not because he was the gay white hope. He was verbalizing just why the public – especially American and British – are most attracted to the heavyweight division. The heavyweight champion, the Great John L. pronounced, was simply the toughest s.o.b. in the world. Here, before Bruce Lee, Bruce Willis and mixed martial arts, was the guy no one would mess with, not even with kryptonite-loaded gloves.

We’ve come a long way, baby. Down. The big guys keep getting bigger, the fascination with them remains, but the bigger they are, the easier they are to keep in perspective. The flagship may not have completely sunk, but it has sailed away, kind of like how today’s consensus No. 1 heavyweight champion, Wladimir Klitschko, does from danger (see Samuel Peter, DaVarryl Williamson et al). Muhammad Ali moved, yes, but the better to set up angles from which to attack. The Great John L. was not a skittish fighter.

At least, James Toney won’t run from Samuel Peter this Saturday night in what I’m fearful has been overhyped as an “intriguing” Showtime heavyweight matchup from the Staples Center in Los Angeles. We know Toney can’t run. There aren’t too many fighters who pose in the gym with giant-sized cakes, the way James did the other day with a tribute to his 38th birthday. For Toney, it probably was just another cupcake, of the type Dan Goossen likes to give all his fighters.

Peter is no cupcake, but he’s not exactly the classic gateau framboise I remember from Allard’s on the Left Bank (we’ll get around to Paris and A.J. Liebling later, promise). He is as crude and as obvious as an upside down lump of unrefined sugar. This doesn’t make him a bad guy, but the winner Saturday is promised Oleg Maskaev next and it does not behoove the division to have as one of its titular leaders someone who has yet to master the fundamentals.

I am more concerned with that than I am with what colors wave from the front yard of the champion. Only Maskaev salutes the American flag these days, but like the three other flaggots – as Toney might say – he hails from one of the former Soviet training grounds. Peter is from Nigeria. The last fully acknowledged REAL heavyweight champion was from England and Canada.

So what? As George M. would say, the Yanks are comin’.

Shannon Briggs is getting a title shot, maybe not the one he impatiently frittered away, that has gone to Calvin Brock. Monte Barrett will get another swing, to be followed by John Ruiz. Evander Holyfield is on his way back. I do not foresee that American-bred fighters will take their birthrights from these foreigners, though when mediocrity is well-matched, anything can happen, maybe even a good fight or two.

Briggs, who deserves a title shot about as much as Sedrick Fields, would have had a chance if he had gotten the Nov. 11 date with Wladimir Klitschko. It was possible he could have run right out and scared Klitschko, the way Corrie Sanders of South Africa did. Alas, Shelly Finkel put Briggs on hold while he tried to get Maskaev to come right back after his victory over Hasim Rahman. Maskaev took enough lumps in that fight, however, to make that unification bout impractical. Before Finkel could turn back to Briggs, the third – and least of the Brownsville Bombers, behind Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe (ah, the good old days) – had signed with Don King and was looking to challenge one of the promoter’s half-share champions, Sergei Liahkovich, even though the man from Belarus, who now lives and trains in Phoenix, was not really interested.

In now appears that Liahkovich will meet Briggs –King should seek a venue in Brooklyn to capitalize on Shannon’s roots – on Nov. 4 when Showtime goes up against the pay-per-view Floyd Mayweather Jr. challenge of Carlos Baldomir in Las Vegas.

You can safely watch Showtime, instead of boxing’s best, knowing of course that on Nov. 11, when Klitschko now faces Calvin Brock at Madison Square Garden, HBO will show the tape of the welterweight fight.

Liahkovich, even though once stopped by Maurice Harris, should be able to outlast Briggs, who tires dramatically after a few rounds. Klitschko should be too big for Brock, who will find it difficult landing meaningful shots against the Ukraine’s current finest (still think the retired Vitali was better).

Before all this goes down, the 7-foot-2, or whatever, Nicolai Valuev of St. Petersburg – no, he’s not trained by Dan Birmingham, he’s from the real St. Petersburg – should play Mutt to Monte Barrett’s Jeff in Chicago on Oct. 7 for HBO. Again, Showtime has a better attraction that night – the rubber match between Diego Corrales and Joel Casamayor from Vegas.

In the meantime, of course, despite all the clamor, the division remains the Balkans of boxing. There was another disgraceful possibility of Ring magazine coming to the aid of HBO and proclaiming the winner of the possible Klitschko-Maskaev unifier as the surreal heavyweight champion.

Ring argues that all its past peccadilloes, from Nat Fleischer to Johnny Ort and beyond, does not mean that the current crop of slime is corrupt. Sorry, but when you anoint the Vitali Klitschko-Corrie Sanders fight as the determination of the title, when Sanders had not fought in 14 months, you can junk the current troika. Now, suddenly, Maskaev is ranked No. 2 by Ring, which means if he fought the magazine’s No. 1, Klitschko, it would have no choice but to do HBO’s bidding and, assuming the network’s house fighter wins, proclaim him champion.

Never mind how Maskaev, after a victory over Rahman, gets to be No. 2 – how the hell does Klitschko deserve No. 1? His last victory was over a guy Ring no longer rates in its top ten, Chris Byrd. If Byrd wasn’t that good, then why is a guy who lost to Corrie Sanders ranked ahead of a guy who lost to Corey (the Maryland version) Sanders?

Beating Rahman does not seem cause for celebration, either. The Rock managed to lose to John Ruiz, remember, and since then, who’s he beaten? Monte Barrett? Maybe losing to Ruiz is the key. Valuev is hardly ranked, possibly because he beat Ruiz (at least on the official cards, I haven’t seen the holding contest nor do I wish to). Liahkovich must have been disqualified from Ring’s consideration because he beat Lamon Brewster, who knocked out Wladimir.

The only fair way to sort this out, of course, is by having the contestants face each other. That may be fair to them, but it hardly seems fair to boxing fans, who probably would like a little more talent to watch.

Which brings us back to Saturday night’s possibly “intriguing” match between Toney and Peter, more of which will be coming later this week because I don’t get paid enough to keep writing about heavyweights in one sitting.

PENTHOUSE: It’s good having a column. I don’t have to scurry around to look for Jay Larkin’s phone number or e-mail address. I can thank him publicly by honoring him this week with a trip upstairs because he so kindly sent me a copy of a collection of A.J. Liebling essays on one of our favorite life forces, “Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris.” The former Showtime boxing chief and I shared a couple of meals in my old town….Picture on the cover, identified by the publisher as a café in Montparnasse, in fact was the famed Closerie des Lilas, where Hemingway and Liebling often stopped (not at the same time), and which was just a few steps down the boulevard from my first domicile in Paris….There’s a few mentions of boxing, one of Liebling’s other loves, in the book, including a wonderful description of Panama Al Brown, but like any gourmand I relished the food writing, though some of it almost gave me a stomachache. For example, Liebling describes a fellow doer, a French writer of comic plays from the Belle Epoque before World War I, named Yves Mirande, who was in his eighties when our hero met him. “….M. Mirande would dazzle his juniors, French and American, by dispatching a lunch of raw Bayonne ham and fresh figs, a hot sausage in crust, spindles of lamb larded with anchovies, artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras and four or five kinds of cheese, with a good bottle of Bordeau and one of champagne, after which he would call for the Armagnac and remind Madame (the proprietress) to have read for dinner the larks and ortolans she had promised him, with a few langoustes (lobsters) and a turbot – and of course, a fine civet made from the marcassin, or young, wild boar that the lover of the leading lady in his current production had sent up from his estate in the Sologne.” Adds Liebling, “And while I think of it,” I once heard him say, “we haven’t had any woodcock for days, or truffles baked in the ashes….” Go ahead, eat your hearts out at the Vegas buffets, which is what Toney looks like….Speaking of which, from the recent press conference photos, it looks like Erik Morales is moving up to cruiserweight.

OUTHOUSE: Speaking of which, I am of the minority who believe that the punishment meted out by the state of Nevada to Jose Luis Castillo for his second straight mocking of the scales was not particularly lenient. A fine of $250,000 – the maximum under the law – for a guy who hasn’t had a payday in a while is harsh, then not being able to fight for the rest of the year adds to it. Plus, Castillo is already in financial straits because of the lawsuits he faces for failing to make the contractual weight for his rubber match with Diego Corrales. Besides, if someone has trouble with the scales, far be it from to jump on.

PLUG FOR US: Two must-read pieces by my TSS colleagues: Ed Schuyler’s fond farewell to Roger Donoghue and Michael Woods’s disturbing piece on Evander Holyfield apparently dumping Lester Bedford for Murad Muhammad. Well, at least it’s nice to see a good Christian getting along with a Muslim.