Hasim “The Rock” Rahman has tasted the desserts of victory, paraded around an arena with a world championship belt around his waist and withstood the sour bitterness of losing the heavyweight title twice.

Why does he continue?

“Because I know I’m this close to getting another shot at (Wladimir) Klitschko,” says Rahman.

All the Maryland prizefighter has to do is knock out James “Lights Out” Toney (70-6-3, 43 KOs) on Wednesday at the Pechanga Resort and Casino to attain a foothold on that dream and a third heavyweight world title. The fight will be shown on Fox Sports Net.

The last time these two former heavyweight champs met in the ring there were curse words, taunts, angry challenges and promises of a knockout victory by each. This time there are is only the promise to try and knock out the other. The key word is: try.

Fighting to a bruising and non-satisfying draw can quickly make a fighter realize he may have underestimated the other. It’s all about respect.

It’s easy to see that Rahman views Toney in another light. In their first battle two years ago, Rahman saw a much smaller opponent and predicted an easy victory despite Toney’s title wins in the middleweight, super middleweight, cruiserweight and heavyweight divisions.

Not so this time.

“He can take a shot,” Rahman (45-6-2, 36 KOs) confesses.

Over and over Rahman belted Toney with big rights and lefts only to see the California-based fighter continue to walk him down. It was enough to surprise even a big hitter like Rahman.

Of course Toney promised a knockout victory too. After all, didn’t he say whoever stands in front of him will go down and that included the super rugged Evander Holyfield who he eventually did stop.

But Rahman remained in front of the artfully fighting Toney and for 12 rounds they exchanged frightful punches on each other. And now there’s a mutual respect between the two hardened veteran heavyweights.

When both met at Sisley’s Italian Restaurant last month in Sherman Oaks, the two greeted each other with warmth and familiarity. And when the press conference was over, it was a mild shock to see Rahman walk over to Toney, who was being interviewed, and give him a pat.

“See you later champ,” said Toney.

That statement alone would have raised eyebrows or cause the California State Athletic Commission to force an M.R.I. on Toney for bizarre and unnatural conduct. A few journalists saw it and their jaws dropped.

Maybe it was the lacerated spleen suffered by Toney from Rahman’s heavy body punches? Or maybe it’s the repeated right hand counters that bounced off the Baltimore fighter’s head from Toney?

Without a doubt, they respect each other now and know that whoever wins moves on to bigger prizes.

Rahman had built a solid reputation as a two-fisted boxer who could end a prizefight with a single blow.

No better example can be found than the fight he had with Great Britain’s Lennox Lewis in April 2001.

That was seven years ago and Rahman has won and lost another heavyweight title in that span including beating Monte Barrett for the vacant WBC title in 2005, fighting to a draw with Toney in 2006, and losing the belt to Russia’s Oleg Maskaev in the final round when he was ahead on the scorecards.

“When something bad happens in my career, I try not to focus on that,” said Rahman, 35, who is a two-time heavyweight world champion. “Me fighting the Klitschkos (Wladimir and Vitali) is still a viable option and knocking out James Toney will open up all those doors.”

New Toney

When Toney hears opponents talk about looking for a knockout it usually sets a short burning fuse inside. But with Rahman, the usually irascible fighter doesn’t twitch a muscle.

“If he thinks he can knock me out God bless him,” says Toney, 39, matter-of-factly.

It’s a new slimmer (226 pounds), calmer and promotion-savvy Toney who awaits the rematch.

In the past, any predictions of knockouts or beatings coming from the other fighters would have solicited rage followed by the hard-charging, no-nonsense fighter scrambling through bodyguards to get a punch fired at the person making the comments.

“It’s a Detroit thing,” says Toney, who trained at the boxing gyms of Detroit as a youth.

Toney is equally famous for running unwanted fans, trainers, fighters or managers out of boxing gyms if the desire comes across him. His volatile temper is famous around the world. But so is his hospitality.

“He’s the nicest guy out of the ring,” said Henry Ramirez, a Riverside boxing trainer who takes fighters to the Wild Card boxing gym where Toney used to train. “Inside the ring he talks so much crap. But it’s funny at the same time.”

That’s Toney, a quick-talking, wisecracking prizefighter who has more personality than any other fighter in memory with the exception of Muhammad Ali.

Fans love him.

Inside the ropes, once the bell rings, Toney is one of the most skillful prizefighters in the last 50 years.

Even fighters who defeated him, like Roy Jones Jr., did not want a rematch and other fighters in his division like Antonio Tarver want no part of him. Both of those fighters mentioned would rather look elsewhere.

“God bless them,” Toney says.

The new Toney wants to prove that one of the two positive steroid tests was not accurate and he wants to prove it by beating Rahman and any other heavyweight that steps in front of him.

Though Freddie Roach no longer trains Toney, his new trainer Shadeed Saluki, who formerly coached another heavyweight world champion in Lamon Brewster, says his new charge doesn’t need much coaching.

“He’s old school like me,” said Saluki while looking at a slimmer Toney across the restaurant floor. “He’s the easiest guy I’ve ever trained.”

Does Toney expect an easier fight?

“He’s a professional and a former world champion like me,” said Toney breezily. “I won’t leave it to the judges this time.”

Toney takes this fight very seriously and leaves histrionics out of the equation. He’s 11 pounds lighter than in the first encounter. Rahman is six pounds heavier.

“Loser should retire,” Rahman says.