NEW YORK – Gamesmanship has been a part of boxing for as long as there have been ropes pulled tightly around four ring posts. Popular boxers have regularly leveraged their notoriety to gain some sort of edge, real or imagined.
Sugar Ray Leonard famously used his influence to land all sorts of advantages in his 1987 middleweight title fight in Las Vegas with Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
The ring was bigger, at Leonard's request. The gloves were 10 ounces instead of eight, at Leonard's request. The fight was a 12-rounder instead of a 15-rounder, also at Leonard's request.
The concessions presaged bad things for Hagler, who so desperately wanted the opportunity to face Leonard that he essentially gave away the fight at the negotiating table.
More recently, Floyd Mayweather used his leverage to prevent Marcos Maidana from wearing the type of boxing gloves he wanted when they met last month in Las Vegas, even though the pair of gloves Maidana wanted to use had been personally examined and approved by Nevada Athletic Commission chairman Francisco Aguilar.
So if Miguel Cotto asked for his WBC middleweight title fight against champion Sergio Martinez to be capped at 159 pounds, there is ample precedent for it.
Cotto denies asking for the fight's weight limit to be capped at 159 instead of the middleweight limit of 160 and insisted that the Martinez camp brought it up first. Martinez is the naturally bigger man and it would be harder for him to cut weight than it would be for Cotto, who is fighting at middleweight for the first time.
But that, and a host of other small demands during negotiations, has clearly rankled Martinez and members of his team. It led to a heated face-to-face session between the fighters during the filming of a preview show with HBO's Max Kellerman a few weeks back.
Martinez was uncharacteristically aggressive and angry, so much so that he had to answer questions Wednesday at a news conference at Madison Square Garden about whether he hates Cotto.
"I don't hate Cotto," Martinez said. "Never. I got upset with some of the things he says and does, but I don't hate him. We are professionals and we act like professionals."
There is an undercurrent of tension between the camps, however, that usually doesn't exist in a Martinez or Cotto bout. After each of his last two fights, wins over Julio Cesar Chavez in Las Vegas in 2012 and Martin Murray in Argentina in 2013, Martinez had surgery on his right knee.
Three weeks ago, the New York State Athletic Commission requested that Martinez undergo MRIs on both his right knee and left hand.
It's incredulous that the request would come so close to the fight, because if Martinez would have failed, the fight would have been off and promoters as well as HBO Pay-Per-View and Madison Square Garden had spent millions already getting the fight together.
Martinez passed both MRIs, and was medically cleared. But when he requested to wear an elastic compression sleeve around his knee, it became an issue. The commission finally agreed that Martinez could wear the sleeve, but not a brace with metal hinges.
Martinez's team believes Cotto's team has been behind many of the requests, as a means to tweak Martinez, if nothing else.
Cotto shrugged when asked about the sleeve and said, "I don't care. He can wear as many knee pads as he wants," but that didn't satisfy those on the Martinez side.
Promoter Lou DiBella and manager Sampson Lewkowicz each made it plain they know what is going on.
"I can't prove anything, but it seems like people are messing with us," DiBella said.
Cotto trainer Freddie Roach has fired a number of well-aimed barbs at Martinez and members of his team, which had their desired affect.
When asked about Roach, Martinez fired back.
"Freddie Roach is a joker and he loves to do and say jokes," Martinez said. " … He likes to talk, and he's a joker. He's only a joker for me."
At the news conference, Lewkowicz got to the podium and made similar comments. That prompted Roach to once again take a shot, this time one of a more personal, cutting nature.
"Sampson," Roach said from the podium, speaking directly to Lewkowicz, seated about 10 feet to his left, "I'm glad you find me funny. I like your hair piece."
The promotion has been that way, a stunning development considering the classy manner in which both men have conducted themselves throughout their careers.
Cotto is a big supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project and will have an injured soldier walk to the ring with him on Saturday. Martinez has been a tireless and outspoken advocate against bullying and in favor of women's rights.
It's stunning to see them and their teams getting into the gutter, but it's part of the business.
Even the official name of the fight caused consternation between the camps. The bout is officially known as "Cotto-Martinez," even though Martinez is the reigning champion and boxing history and tradition dictates that the champion's name usually goes first.
But Cotto twice was the reigning champion, against Manny Pacquiao in 2009 and Mayweather in 2012, and on those occasions he took the backseat. Their fights were officially known as "Pacquiao-Cotto," and "Mayweather-Cotto."
Cotto believes he has a bigger name than Martinez and a bigger fan base – which seems accurate – and so he demanded that his name be first on signage and promotional materials.
Top Rank president Todd duBoef insisted way too much has been made of these things and said there was no gamesmanship of any type. The name of the fight, though, was important to Cotto, duBoef conceded.
"Part of it was negotiated with a series of gives and takes, and we're only looking at a couple of issues," duBoef said. "The weight thing was more of an issue where the Martinez team offered to Cotto's camp, saying, 'We can come in lower,' and offering a number. Cotto said 'OK,' but they were enticing him and all of a sudden they said, 'Well, we can't come lower.'
"But at the end of the day, is one pound really an issue? Of course not. It was an item that was negotiated. Really where there was an issue from Miguel's perspective, and I get it, is about the name of the fight. He felt he's earned the name as a premier name, or brand, over Martinez. He ceded his name first as the champion to Mayweather and Pacquiao, because he understood it was good for business to do that. But he felt he'd earned the right over Sergio Martinez to have his name first. That's all."
None of these tweaks, quips and negotiated advantages figure to have much of an impact once the bell sounds on Saturday, unless they've been able to so raise Martinez's ire that he gets off his gameplan.
It's extraordinarily unlikely that it has, but in boxing, it's always worth trying.
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- Miguel Cotto
- Sugar Ray Leonard
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- Sergio Martinez
- Marvelous Marvin Hagler
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