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Challenging Boxing Myths - Part III: Gamesmanship - Believe it or not?
By Jim Cawkwell (July 6, 2004) 
Gamesmanship - Believe it or not?

It is desirable for any fighter to act on a potential advantage in the event that one should arise. Beyond their own physical gifts, the experience of their training team and the occasional bonus of biased audience support, additional pluses rarely appear. But there are many examples throughout boxing history which suggest that certain fighters have taken it upon themselves to exercise one particular advantage to the maximum, that being the employment of psychological warfare.

Despite the immense physicality inherent to it, boxing is a far more cerebral discipline. Courage, determination and self-belief are psychological tools that are paramount to a fighter’s success. Therefore, it makes sense that some fighters have chosen to try to infiltrate the mental make-up of their opponent to bring about their physical collapse. Here we will discuss mind games and intimidation, which are two key elements in the concept of gamesmanship.

An extraordinarily physically imposing fighter possessing destructive punching power portrays the simplest example of intimidation; naturally, his opponents approach him with greater caution. One need only look as far as Mike Tyson now, stripped of all but his punching power and yet he is still revered and respected. Unpredictability is another factor that some fighters have manipulated into a great asset. A young Cassius Clay’s wildly unpredictable behavior unsettled the once formidable Sonny Liston before their fight. It could be said that Clay’s manic disposition was the perfect smokescreen for his unexpected mastery of Liston. He who would become 'The Greatest' truly shocked the world.

Another direct example of gamesmanship surfaced when Irishman Steve Collins challenged the then undefeated WBO middleweight champion Chris Eubank.
Eubank the eccentric was no stranger to mind games; his elaborate ring entrances and arrogant demeanor infuriated many. However, Eubank was on edge before the Collins fight after Collins indicated that he had enlisted the help of a hypnotist during his training for the fight. Collins’ pre-fight disposition was so intensely focused on his task that an eerily unsettling aura surrounded him. Eubank felt it and threatened to call off the fight, contending that he felt that he was facing a man capable of anything. A grueling fight between the two saw Collins emerge as the victor and although he later indicated that talk of a hypnotist was merely a ruse, it was one that caused a stir in the boxing world for some time.

'Prince' Naseem Hamed was another master of intimidation. Hamed truly possessed incredible punching power, but he often succeeded in derailing his opponent’s confidence long before the opening bell. While thousands of fans danced and cheered him on during his ring walk, I have seen fighters trying to zone out of the atmosphere with towels over their heads or by listening to walkmans. When Hamed fought Paul Ingle, Ingle’s manager Frank Maloney had his fighter leave the arena and return just when Hamed was ready to enter the ring, some ten minutes after his walk had begun.

Some fighters have played mind games more indirectly. Roy Jones spoke at length about the possibility of being roughed up unnecessarily by John Ruiz before their heavyweight title fight. The last time I checked, Roy Jones was a professional prizefighter and such dangers come with the territory. However, Jones was protected as much as possible by the referee as Ruiz was completely denied the chance to fight in the manner to which he was accustomed, and Jones danced his way to a win.

Bernard Hopkins pulled a similar trick before his third fight with Robert Allen on June the fifth. Hopkins implied that the fights designated referee Joe Cortez, would hold malice towards him for an incident in Puerto Rico where Hopkins and Felix Trinidad were promoting their middleweight unification fight in 2001; Hopkins insulted the Puerto Rican people by throwing down their national flag. Hopkins decided that Cortez’s Puerto Rican nationality would prevent him from officiating one of his fights without exercising extreme bias against him.

Hopkins-Allen III was an untidy affair, but Hopkins comfortably won. The point is that Hopkins’ comments focused the spotlight on the referee’s performance which perhaps prevented Cortez from reprimanding Hopkins as much as he may have and therefore, helping to preserve Hopkins position to collect his career highest purse against Oscar De La Hoya this coming September.

Therefore, I ask you the following questions:

How much of a factor do you think gamesmanship plays towards a fights outcome?

Do you think it is fair for a fighter to employ such tactics?

Does a fighter’s utilization of gamesmanship add to the dramatic appeal of boxing and the general entertainment level of the sport?

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