It is a rite of passage, has been since, really, HBO first started showing fights on their screen. The first one was in January 1973, Foreman's napalming if Frazier, and promoter Bob Arum was still a relative newbie in the space.
He'd started in the sphere in 1966, but his tart tongue and confidence in his POV, he was not afraid to advertise those traits.
Peter Nelson (above, left) is these days the guy in the big seat overseeing the boxing at the cabler, in the throne which had been kept warm by Ken Hershman for four years.
Not that long after Nelson settled some into the seat, he got tested, by that oft salty and ever savvy ultra-vet deal maker, Arum.
Arum, 84, not mellowed an iota by age, as driven and ready to rumble to defend turf like a man who's got Fountain of Youth water in his home Brita, publicly stated he didn't care for some of the choices Nelson leaned towards while evaluating what fights he chose to buy to place on HBO.
Rite of passage…
Seth Abraham (above, right) sparred hundred of rounds, to use fight game parlance, with the Top Rank chief, and was faced with the decision on how to handle it in an age that was actually more contentious. The Manhattan resident, who hooked on with HBO in 1978, chatted with NYFIGHTS, and we touched on what it might feel like for Nelson to digest an Arum slam, and what might be the smartest way to handle such incoming fire.
The Manhattanite Abraham ran the show during some true glory days before exiting in 2000 to work at Madison Square Garden. He runs a consultant firm these days.
Some of the events he helped craft include: Leonard-Hearns I. “That was the one with Dundee, ‘Son, you're blowing it!' Those might have been the two best fighters in the world then.” Then there was the first Arguello-Pryor fight. “The Orange Bowl, November 1982. Outside, Saturday night, 32,000 thousand people, on their feet, screaming. Back and forth action. Both men were sweating pure testosterone! Part of it was the great venue on a gorgeous night.
“And then if you want three, the third one is first. Hagler-Hearns. The bell sounded and both men ran at each other. From the first second they were off their stools everyone was on their feet. The pressure, the drama, never seen anything like it. It was nine minutes of savagery but it was beautiful. No one sat down. From outer space, they would have thought the event was standing room only.”
Abraham told me he realizes his good fortune, in that his boss of 18 of his 25 years at the cabler, Michael Fuchs, liked the sport. No, that isn't a given, especially in a progressive age where a surprising number of people can pronounce chronic traumatic encephalopathy…
“Michael was an enormous fight fan. Very knowledgeable, he realized there are some great one round fights, and some dreadful ones go twelve.”
So when an Arum threw a combo, did he counter, lob his own grenade back or did he save it for a person to person call? “I didn't figure it out right away. Then I saw, HBO subscribers care about good fights. They don't care about lawsuits or the spats in the media.”
But of course, the things, the barbs, the critiques from an Arum get digested by the guy in the big chair, Abraham said. He noted during his tenure, things were in there own way more tumultuous. “HBO sued Arum six times over (contractual challenges),” he said. And during those periods, the executive learned, he had to keep focusing on trying to buy the best fights. “Peter has to know boxing is a three dimensional chess game. It never ends. There's no schedule. Each fight is a Super Bowl unto itself.”
He said that he thinks Nelson is well suited to succeed in the endeavor. “I know Peter, I don't know him very well. He's thoughtful, patient. That is my own personal observation. He's grounded.”
Nelson will succeed if he understands explicitly what his bosses want, Abraham said. “What they want and expect. Do they want to be in the business? Do they want to be home to the best fights and fighters? Do they want to be dominant again? And I don't know what the HBO chess game is. Do they want to be THE dominant player in TV boxing? Just to be in the game, or to be the dominant superstar? What do the bosses want? Is it enough to be in the boxing business? Do they want to be No. 1? Do they aspire to be No. 1? Fuchs and I wanted HBO to be the worldwide leader….think Peter is secure in his space. He isn't rattled (when Arum thunders). He comes from the other side, journalism, which gives him perspective.”
You'll recall that a year after Ken Hershman walked across the street from Sho to HBO Floyd Mayweather himself walked to a CBS deal. If the far and away most skilled and notorious athlete in the game works for and with the other guys, then that dominance is challenged. Now, with Floyd on hiatus, the title belt, I think, is up for grabs. Abraham: “They used to say, HBO stood for “Home Boxing Office.” Do they again aspire to that? Or will they go about it differently?”
During the Abraham days, you also had a dedicated-to-boxing media in play. Yes, boxing was still a beat, and talented and pugnacious sorts like Michael Katz and Wallace Matthews manned the sphere with fists up, and threw written combos regularly. Abraham recalls he was likened to legit gangster Frankie Carbo, a mobster who had his thumb on the scale of the sport in the 50s. “It was hurtful to be compared to a criminal but I still took their calls, and didn't sue them,” he said.
Semi happily, I think, for Nelson, the boxing media pool has shrunk to puddle size. These days, the “Carbo barbs” and nastiest pokes are found on social media and we can assume the Michael Lombardo and Richard Pleplers aren't poring over Twitter to get a sense of how fight fans are assessing the Nelson moves in the first quarter of his first year in the big seat. In that way, this age could be an easier one to navigate. (Then again, that media drain is indicative of the diminished interest in the sport beyond the niche diehards.)
“Garry Kasparov said that most chess players look ahead three or four moves. He tried to see the entire game after the first move,” Abraham said. “I think Peter's job is to see the entire boxing chessboard. It's not about individual moves or one fighter or promoter. It's the entire game.”
The game is so in flux. The Haymon presence which grew massively in the last few years is such a curveball. His war chest warps the board, to an extent. Maybe it hasn't as much as some have expected, as you haven't seen what some predicted, mass defections of most of the best and brightest athletes to the Haymon tent. Also, legal tug of wars are now playing out which could further affect who the people are who have what pieces on the board. I know mover-shakers who think things could be radically different a year from now, that the Haymon ” experiment” will have run its course. Others think Haymon will still be a Godzilla in the space, but there won't be the same factionalization. You'll note that Haymon reps Amir Khan, who is fighting Golden Boy client Canelo Alvarez, and maybe that is a harbinger of more “inter league” cooperation. Time needs to pass for most if not all of us to properly assess what the chess board right now is telling us. We must consider, though, that Arum could be alone or nearly that in his grasp of what the board looks like a year from now. Is that why he went sort of rogue, and has been talking to Showtime about doing deals?
The journalist is supposed to be the omniscient, have a command of facts which render them expert status. But I confess, I am in guesswork mode. I see a model which has been in the last few years seen most of the HBO roster advertising their superiority on the channel with an eye toward placing the most alluring matchups they'd be involved in on pay per view. It's fair to say the overwhelming majority of fans would prefer that the A grade clashes were not pushed to the PPV track. I know, again, smart folks who predict the downfall of pay per view in short order, with continuing economic strain on the Average Joe resulting in a dwindling of eyeballs willing to pony up that extra premium to watch the gourmet fare.
I hear positivity is alive in the HBO building because Nelson has a strong knowledge base, likes and respects the sport and the athletes, and has a personality properly suited to their corporate culture. He owns a facility for ease of interaction which makes him likable politically over there and he gets it, that the cabler has different arms and personalities which can be enfolded into the boxing space to make it that much more robust.
I want to see him succeed because I want the sport succeeding. We are in transition, among who controls the pieces on the board and in the pieces themself. As always, we await and desire the arrival of the next Tyson, the one who by force of fighting skill and personality, commands the attention of the folks who always give us a pass when they are deciding on where to focus their eyeballs and open their wallets. If and when that happens, everyone's job gets easier. Until then, Peter Nelson and the living legend of the boxing business Bob Arum, with 50 years of jousting experience under his belt, will be battling chess masters. How that relationship and the jousting plays out needs to be monitored because how much risk the promoter takes on, versus how much the check-cutters pony up, in this post Mayweather transition period, will help determine the type of fights you see and impact the wellness of the sport.