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Part 3: What Do We Make Of The Peter Nelson Era At HBO? Final Conclusions

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Part 3: What Do We Make Of The Peter Nelson Era At HBO? Final Conclusions

Peter Nelson’s response on Oct. 5 to ESPN’s Dan Rafael when asked to dig down some on HBO’s exiting the arena, and getting out of the boxing sphere after 45 years, will stand as a superb summation of his handling of media during his three years at the helm of the cabler.

“Our mission is to use sports as a lens into socio-economic, political and cultural issues. I think humanizing individuals, creating empathy around different communities, allowing that to cross-pollinate for people in a way that allows them to contextualize themselves and the world around them. That’s the heart of what we strive to do.”

Where’s the past tense, Peter?

Isn’t “did” the right term?

Now, it wouldn’t be right to simply gape at that statement and dismiss it out of hand as gobbleygook corporate speak, would it? But the temptation is there, if you judge by the responses to the quote on Rafael’s Twitter timeline.

The writer termed the quagmire of language “pure gibberish,” and there wasn’t one defender of the head of boxing in the Twitter responses.

Maybe we should try and take a step back, and see if there are bits and pieces of truth and meaning hidden in the ten cent vocabulary show…

I think Nelson communicated more clearly than we’ve heard recently or at all what the HBO brand design is. If you look at their documentary roster, indeed, that “lens” of “socioeconomic, political and cultural issues” is front and center. Most of it skewing to a left and hard left crowd. Bill Maher owns Friday nights, and “Pod Save America,” from Obama admin stalwarts is being promised for next week. Want to watch funny stuff? Then HBO suggests you tune in to Michelle Wolf, and Sarah Silverman, both aligned with far left causes and politicos. Now, to be clear, that aligns with my POV, so it works for me.

But is BOXING aligned with that POV? It has been, or it had been, and probably the biggest reason it isn’t moving forward is because it is a small pond sport, and isn’t ever going to attract the masses of eyeballs that allows for superlative data collection, which AT&T will be rubbing their hands together gleefully as they ponder their acquisition.

So why doesn’t Nelson just say that…or a version of that?

Rhetorical question…

One fight game perennial who is acquainted with the corporate lingo and playing field told me that me that maybe we all shouldn’t be so hard on Nelson. OK, so many of the fights he bought sucked…but none of us know how much he was following orders. None of us know how badly he was knee-capped, budget wise. Fair enough; I wouldn’t expect the man who is pulling in that paycheck which hinges upon him following orders and putting a brave face on the matter to come clean with NYFights and admit that his overlords pulled the rug out from under him and made it very difficult to compete with the Showtimes and ESPNs. (Nelson didn't want to chat on the record with NYF to help us truly contextualize his reign.)

But the talk of “cross pollination” and “contextualizing”…it comes off as disingenuous, as an attempt to divert from reality with tricky wordplay. I could picture a Jared Kushner, clad in a super slim tailored suit, dimples aflairing, offering up similar theme and tone, while we stare and wonder if he fears every knock at his apartment door is to be followed by, “FBI…open up.”

Now, that’s not to even half hint that Nelson is to be compared with Kushner.

C’mon, boxing is just boxing, we aren’t trafficking in matters of world import like Kushner is. But that comparison, in terms of a figurehead who looks a good part and whose actual track record might not merit there station in life, well, that case can be made.

When Nelson was hired, we were told his book in collaboration with Freddie Roach would be available at better book sellers everywhere. Years later, we are still waiting.

A reviewer on Amazon says that Roach told him that a fire at the co-author’s home impacted the manuscript. I requested Freddie clarify the status of the book and messaged an interview request to his assistant, but was told that he was busy working with a fighter. Hey, maybe there is a logical explanation why the promised book never came about, but at the least, this asterisk side note on the Nelson record is curious.

I touched base with a Wild Card Gym insider to seek more clarity on the book and the man. The LA fight factory run by Roach was where Nelson immersed himself in the sweet science. For over a year, he lived with Roach, on Freddie’s property, and picked his brain about the fight game, because he wasn’t a boxing lifer. Art history was more his thing, and then he got the boxing bug. The insider told me that at the gym, Nelson sat, and watched, didn’t mix all that much. People wondered who he was. He struck some as arrogant and aloof. But he did ask questions of those in the know, and, the insider said, that continued as he moved up ladders. He’d call lifers and ask them to weigh in on a match he was considering buying; yes, he knew enough to know what he didn’t know. Now, did the top brass at HBO, the Richard Pleplers and Michael Lombardos know that Nelson didn’t have a deep well of comprehension about the intricacies of the sport…that he couldn’t innately comprehend why someone he was impressed by wouldn’t pan out down the line? Only those executives know for sure. By the way, the insider recalls that word around the gym was that maybe a chapter of the book was actually finished. We may never know what the heck happened to that effort.

Yes, that MIA book in the grand scheme of things isn’t a big deal. But as part of a larger picture, it may be resonative…hey, that sounds like a Nelson word!

As we look back and do that post-mortem, it is instructive to look back at the optimism summoned by the press when Nelson’s hiring was announced.

Harvard!

Boxing is now in good hands!

We the media dutifully passed on the talking points, carried the water and handed it out in convenient cups to the readers. We accepted the narrative, we ate up the storyline and re-gurgitated it to readers and listeners. We didn’t do enough of our own reporting and concluding, that’s one of the lessons to learn from the Nelson stint at HBO.

Fast forward to today…Er, Harvard! And out of business…

Boxing after 45 years is over at HBO, and maybe it was a foregone conclusion.

Maybe nothing could have saved the franchise.

But maybe a true visionary, maybe someone with some fresh ideas and concepts and divine deal-making abilities could have re-fashioned the middle aged but still reputable property.

Less theorizing from Peter Nelson on “cross pollination” and “contextualizing,” and more old-fashioned doing, from someone who truly and actually had a deep breadth of knowledge of the sweet science, and not a handsome visage and sweet resume bullet points, might have kept HBO boxing in the fight.

 

Follow Michael Woods on Twitter.

Editor/publisher Michael Woods got addicted to boxing in 1990, when Buster Douglas shocked the world with his demolition of the thought to be impregnable Mike Tyson. The Brooklyn-based journalist Woods has covered the sport since then, for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com, ESPN New York, RING, and he was editor of TheSweetScience.com from 2007-2015. Woods is also an accomplished blow by blow and color man, having done work for Top Rank, DiBella Entertainment, EPIX, and for Facebook Fightnight Live since 2017. He now does work for PROBOX TV, the first truly global boxing network.