NEW YORK - In their high-stakes game of pugilistic poker, challenger Joshua Clottey used his skull to deal WBO welterweight champion Miguel Cotto a severely cut left eyelid in the third round. Referee Arthur Mercante Jr. ruled the clash of heads to be accidental, which appeared to be the proper call.

Perhaps frustrated that the blood dripping into his eye was at times blurring his vision and forcing him to deviate from his standard come-forward, apply-pressure fight plan, Cotto saw Clottey's gashed eyelid and raised with a fifth-round body-slam. Clottey, a native of Ghana who now resides in the Bronx, writhed on the canvas in pain for more than a minute before rising on a sore right knee that had him hopping around like a three-legged dog. Mercante, who had tripped on a ringside photographer's camera and thus was out of position, incorrectly determined that Clottey had gone down on a slip instead of as a result of a foul.

By the end of 12 entertaining but sometimes-difficult-to-read rounds Saturday night in Madison Square Garden, Puerto Rican national hero Cotto had retained his title on a split decision that left 17,734 mostly pro-Cotto spectators - the HBO-televised bout took place on the eve of New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade - giddy and the challenger disgusted.

Judge Don Trella saw Cotto as the winner by an overly generous 116-111 margin while Tom Miller's scorecard favored Clottey, 114-113. That left the outcome in the hands of swing judge John McKaie, who had Cotto (34-1, 27 KOs) ahead, 115-112. The nod for Cotto can be called disputed if only for the fact that Clottey (35-3, 21 KOs) swept all three statistical categories compiled by CompuBox.

Clottey won on the very unofficial Daily News card, 115-113.

Punch stats in boxing substantiate quantity, not always quality, but the numerical reality is that Clottey landed more punches (222 of 622, 36 percent, to Cotto's 179 of 723, 25 percent) and more power punches (168 of 413, 41 percent, to 123 of 404, 30 percent) and was more accurate with his jab (54 of 209, 26 percent, to 55 of 319, 17 percent).

After the scoring totals were read by ring announcer Michael Buffer, an incredulous Clottey refused to shake the proferred hand extended by Mercante, who also did not penalize the champion for throwing a rabbit punch to the back of Clottey's head and a left hook below his belt line, both infractions occurring in the 11th round.

"Oh, no. I'm through with boxing,'' Clottey said in immediate reaction to the decision going against him. "I can't do this anymore.

"I'm very, very upset. I think I won the fight. I was robbed. I want Bob Arum [whose company, Top Rank, promotes both fighters] to give me a rematch.''

Except that Arum is the guy holding all the cards when it comes to deciding who fights whom in the now-hot junior welterweight and welterweight divisions. Not only does Arum call the shots for Cotto and Clottey, but also for the man widely recognized as the best fighter in the world, Manny Pacquiao, and former welterweight champion Antonio Margarito, who in January comes off a 1-year suspension handed down for being caught with illegal handwraps prior to his losing bout against Shane Mosley.

In Arum's view, Cotto-Clottey II is less economically feasible than Cotto-Pacquiao or Cotto-Margarito II, which would be of major interest when you consider that Margarito dealt Cotto his only loss as a professional.

"We're going to try to see if we can make Pacquiao-Cotto in November,'' Arum said. "That's the fight I really want to make.''

So where does the once and perhaps future pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr. fit into the picture? Not at all, according to Arum.

Noting Mayweather's proclivity for choosing naturally smaller opponents - it was revealed yesterday that Mayweather's July 18 comeback bout against Juan Manuel Marquez was postponed because of a rib injury incurred by Mayweather in training last week - Arum, who once promoted Mayweather, derided him as a talented fighter who has never been much of a risk-taker.

"Mayweather doesn't like to fight big guys, and he won't fight anybody that he believes has a chance to beat him,'' Arum said in stating his reasons for why Mayweather will never share a ring with Pacquiao, Cotto or Margarito.

Arum's take on Mayweather no doubt is biased, but he is spot-on in describing Cotto's performance as "gutty.'' Although Cotto floored Clottey in the first round, the cut he sustained was so early that he fought backing up down the stretch, going on offense only when the opportunity presented itself instead of standing and trading, a tactic that surely would have invited a worsening of the wound.

Pacquiao, who received the Fighter of the Year Award for 2008 at the 84th annual Boxing Writers Association of America dinner Friday in New York, was seated next to Arum throughout the bout and at one point expressed concern that Cotto was fading.

"At the end of the seventh round, Manny said to me, 'I hope the doctor [Anthony Curreri] stops the fight, otherwise Cotto is in for a long night,' ''Arum said.

Cotto won, but it was a long night nonetheless.

"He hit me,'' said Cotto, who came to the postfight press conference sporting a big bandage on his left eye. "Anybody who looks at my face can see that.'' *