LAS VEGAS, Oct. 6 – Cuban boxers may be great as amateurs, but a good cigar is a good cigar. This country’s refusal to do business with the Castro regime has cut off the supply of good smokes; not even the oppressive government has kept out star athletes.

But where baseball players have done well here, there has been a strange absence of the well-trained Cuban boxers to make it on these shores. Before Castro, there were of course plenty of great Cuban pro fighters – including the one I grew up rooting for the most, Kid Gavilan.

Since the revolution, though, the only two Cuban boxers to impact the pro level were Jose Napoles, who settled in Mexico, and Juan Carlos Gomez, who wound up in Germany.

Joel Casamayor, who walked out on the Cuban team before the 1996 Olympics with another amateur star, Ramon Garbey, is the only boxer to have taken full advantage of the American dream. And so, if his stint as one of the pound-for-pound best in the game nears possible finality with tomorrow’s rubber match against Diego Corrales, it would be remiss not to send him off with great praise.

This is not to say that Corrales, a 2-1 favorite, is a sure thing at the Mandalay Bay Arena tomorrow night (on a Showtime free weekend, too). Casamayor is 35, but great fighters usually have one great fight left – and El Cepillo (The Brush) was a great fighter.

His three pro losses were agonizingly close – Joe Cortez, who did a bad job, docked him two points and so it wound up with three scores of 114-112 against Casamayor against Acelino Freitas, who would never give him a rematch; and split decision losses to Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo.

Corrales wouldn’t give him a rematch until two and a half years after he evened the score against Casamayor, who had beaten him thoroughly I thought before their opener was stopped in the sixth round with Chico bleeding badly from a lip that was punctured with the help of a faulty mouthpiece. Casamayor gave Corrales a rematch a few months later; he’s had to wait a long time for the favor to be returned.

But this should not detract from the bigger picture of why Casamayor has succeeded where so many Cuban exiles have failed. Most of the best ones, including Teofilo Stevenson and Angel Hernandez, remained in Cuba. Casamayor, though, like Oscar de la Hoya, won an Olympic gold medal at Barcelona in 1992, and was expected to repeat in Atlanta when he and Garbey just walked out the door of the Mexican hotel where the Cuban team was staying. Luis DeCubas managed to get them away from under Bob Arum and signed them up with Main Events and Roger Bloodworth was brought in to train them in Florida.

But Calle Ocho, the capital of the Little Havana section of Miami, turned into the happy graveyard of most Cuban boxers post-Castro.

“The problem I had with Garbey (and with Cuban boxers before and since) was that he was a hero in Miami already, he didn’t have to be a champion,” said Bloodworth.

“It was like coming to Paradise,” said Bloodworth, who was deposed when DeCubas split with Main Events and Casamayor hooked up fortuitously with Joe Goossen and moved to California. “Just look at all the documentaries about living conditions in Cuba.”

Casamayor grew up in Guantanamo, where there were more torturous conditions on the Cuban side of the wall. He came home from Barcelona and Castro awarded him a bicycle. Wow. Casamayor traded it for a pig so he could feed his family.

Contrast that with the sudden riches of Calle Ocho, where they were wined, dined and feted by the anti-Castro populace.

“It was like they got out of jail and they were like kids in a candy store,” said Goossen. “They were overwhelmed with all the goodies.”

“At first, I had a little culture shock,” Casamayor said the other day. “But then I realized that in this country, you can’t live without money. People have got to go to work.”

He was the proverbial “slick southpaw” in the amateurs, a world champion as far back as 1989. But to his superior hand and foot speed, great reflexes and accurate punching, he added whole new playbooks on defense and on inside fighting. The great amateur became a pro’s pro, a guy who could box but would never shy away from a brawl.

He started a new life. He left behind his parents, a daughter (he and the mother had already parted when he decided to leave for America) and of course friends. Like Corrales, he has nine children – eight here. None will have to fight their way out of poverty.

Casamayor was back in Miami this year when he heard that Fidel Castro was so sick he had to at least temporarily turn control of the country to brother Raul.

“I prayed to God to let him live,” he said. “This is a decision to be made by God, not by a boxer. I’m not a Communist, but I’m not a guy who wishes bad on people.”

Well, maybe other than on Corrales, for whom he declares an avid dislike.

Bloodworth was with Casamayor for The Brush’s first dozen or so pro fights and returned to the Cuban this year. He recognized that Casamayor was not just lucky by making the switch to California, and away from Calle Ocho. Casamayor said his first reaction to Miami was “I’m free.” Bloodworth said, “He was smart enough to realize that boxing would really set him free.”

Goossen said he had no idea that getting Casamayor out of Miami was just as important as getting him out of Cuba as far as pro boxing was concerned.

“I’m glad I didn’t know anything about that,” said Goossen, who after parting with Casamayor following the first Corrales fight, wound up training Chico. “Later, I came to realize that.”

Goossen said he was surprised that an Olympic champion “had no clue how to fight on the inside.”

He taught him the techniques of “how to be rough, how to throw elbows and forearms.” He didn’t have to teach him the desire.

“He’s a natural badass,” said Goossen admiringly.

Corrales has accused Casamayor of being “dirty.” This bemuses the Cuban, whose corner has complained that Corrales himself jabs with a backhand to hide the straight right that follows.

“Boxing is dirty,” said Casamayor. “Period. Do you call judges who rig fights dirty? Do you call fighters who take dives dirty? The day I’m not ready to be a dirty fighter is the day I don’t fight anymore because it will mean that I have no heart for it anymore.”

Besides, he said, he’s only 5-foot-7, Corrales is almost 6 feet tall and he should expect a few bumps of the head or elbows.

There probably has never been a good fighter who wasn’t an expert on extracurricular targets, from Willie Pep to Muhammad Ali to Michael Spinks. Casamayor has lots of company, except for post-Castro Cubans.

He’s got a big chance against Corrales tomorrow night and not because Chico is (a) too well rested and might be rusty or (b) has been in too many wars. If Casamayor wins, it’s because he’s a hell of a fighter and don’t look too closely at his recent outings.

“I don’t think he took Lamont Pearson seriously,” said Bloodworth of Casamayor’s last opponent. “This camp has been totally different. If he doesn’t win this fight, he has no excuses.”

Eric Bottjer, the wise matchmaker who works for DSL, Casamayor’s promoters (the “R” is for Roberto Duran, a big admirer of the Cuban), said “he was in Arizona in late July training for this – he knows this is it.”

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

PENTHOUSE: Kris Kristofferson for writing that last line.

OUTHOUSE: The Illinois commission, if any, for allowing Don King’s Russian giant, Nikolai Valuev, to face Monte Barrett tomorrow night in an 18-foot ring. Nevada has a rule that the ring size is always 20 feet – and that should be standard everywhere. Put in the fickle New York commission, which allowed Miguel Cotto to have an 18-foot ring when he fought Paulie Malignaggi earlier this year….The WBC for ordering a rematch of Samuel Peter-James Toney. Yes, I was among the many who thought Toney won, but he did not deserve any rematch. The fight was close, the decision controversial and that’s what boxing is all about. Every time there’s a close call, you don’t say do-overs. The bright side is that Oleg Maskaev, who was supposed to fight the winner, Peter, now will have a chance to make some extra bread by working in a second voluntary defense after he gets past Peter (Who?) in December (okay, his last name is Okthello, but the question “who?” still applies), possibly against Bernard (It’s All Right, Ma, I’m Only Lying) Hopkins. Thing is, I think if Hopkins again goes back on his promise to his late mom about retiring, he can beat Maskaev – who at least would make a nice bundle for not having to face the Peter-Toney II winner (or maybe, if Toney gets the next decision, there will have to be a WBClowns-mandated rubber match).