Peter Nelson talks Canelo-Golovkin, Fury, HBO’s future
Peter Nelson is smarter than the rest of us. He bikes to work at his midtown Manhattan office, thereby avoiding train congestion. He slogs away at a standing desk in order to sidestep back pain from too much sitting. At 34, Nelson is the executive vice president of HBO Sports, where he runs the department, something he can brag about to his former classmates at Harvard. Nelson, who speaks fluent French, looks a little bit like Clark Kent if Clark Kent wore designer suits and had thicker hair. If Nelson is the new face of HBO Boxing, then it’s a suave one.
Of course, behind the sunny veneer, storm clouds may be looming. Despite his cool demeanor, Nelson is overseeing a boxing program at HBO that is in a state of flux. Two high-level sports executives abruptly departed in recent months. The cable giant has just six boxing broadcasts scheduled for 2016, way behind last year’s pace of 20. And although HBO retains the lions share of the elite talent in the sport, most of them are participating in one-sided fights in 2016. The old narrative remains the same: The sport is still fractured with self-interest guiding the alliances of promoters and networks, keeping certain fights from being made. And then Manny Pacquiao had to open his big mouth and spew nonsense.
Nelson’s previous work experience toiling at the art advisory firm Guggenheim Asher in Beverly Hills and at Harper’s Magazine as an editorial assistant likely didn’t prepare him for this. How could it? But the preternaturally calm Nelson, who joined HBO in 2011 as director of sports, smiled through a 50-minute interview on Wednesday, seemingly hovering over these issues untouched. It was as though he knew all the answers to the problems and it is only a matter of time until the public sees what he knew all along.
Q: You’re only 34. When people find out your age and your job title, does it surprise them?
A: We live in a world now when there are college dropouts going on to run IPOs for companies, so I think people have gotten used to the notion, as it’s been socialized, of people at a younger age sometimes inhabiting diverse roles up and down the ladder.
Q: As a former writer and journalist, how do you think the tools you developed in that field inform the job you are doing now? (Nelson has previously done editorial work at Harper’s and The New York Times.)
A: The two are distinct to some degree – writer and journalist. Journalist is about reporting out a story so you’re information-gathering and doing reconnaissance on all that, and writer is telling the story. And we’re a storytelling network by definition and I think that passion for storytelling is one that’s served me well, even when it’s just been negotiating a fight that then allows and enables our production folks and our promoting partners and the fighters to then tell that story out on the canvas and from a journalistic perspective.
… you have to stay tuned and make people understand that you’re there to see all sides of it. You’re not just trying to rush something just to do it that way. And people can get impatient, but when you get the right fights that come together it’s all worth it.
Q: Does your age allow you to forge close relationships with the boxers?
A: I couldn’t speak for them but I think that a passion for seeing the mechanics of the sport – as a journalist I spent time in gyms and really getting acquainted with the process of becoming a fighter – gives you a different type of perspective on the sport than just attending fights ringside and writing on deadline about them. You see how trial and error operates in the gym and you see how people decide how to perfect a given move or just their schedule in terms of how they want to do strength and conditioning, the amount of sparring that they do, how they taper off – all those things. I think that’s a large part of the process of understanding the mechanics of how someone gets to be an HBO fighter.
Q: What is your background in boxing?
A: Well, when I was a journalist (working on stories and later a book with trainer Freddie Roach that is still unfinished) I was fortunate to have a number of great teachers and one of them was Freddie. And Freddie, as anyone can attest, is an open book. As long as you’re willing to listen and not tell him how boxing works, he will take the time to tell you what he sees. So I was very fortunate in that I knew that I didn’t know anything. And I spent time in the gym and Freddie would point out what he would see on tape. He would point out what was going on in the ring during sparring sessions. He would talk to me ad nauseam about, style-wise, what he thought could work and what he thought would work. It came back to intelligence-gathering on some of that stuff.
Q: Let’s talk fights. Of the six main-events scheduled so far on HBO, five of them seem to have predetermined outcomes. I’m talking about Canelo Alvarez vs. Amir Khan on May 7; Gennady Golovkin vs. Dominic Wade on April 23; Andre Ward vs. Sullivan Barrera on March 26; Luis Ortiz vs. Tony Thompson on March 5 and Terence Crawford vs. Hank Lundy on Saturday. How do you explain these matchups to the average fan who wants to see Golovkin vs. Canelo or Crawford vs. Viktor Postol instead of someone with five losses in Lundy?
A: Bringing those fantasies to reality is part of the job and trying to corral disparate entities that sometimes want to do business with each other — and sometimes don’t — and trying to minimize the noise of that and maximize the visible results is what we’re striving to do every day. Lundy has always shown up for every fight he’s ever been in. And William Silva is an undefeated fighter fighting (Felix) Verdejo (in the Crawford co-main event). With (Sadam) Ali and (Jessie) Vargas (in the Ortiz-Thompson co-feature) you have two guys fighting for the welterweight title. They’re both top contenders. Luis Ortiz is off a spectacular knockout (against Bryant Jennings) but people still haven’t seen that much of him yet, so we’re excited if he can deliver on a big stage. And Sullivan Barrera is off a spectacular knockout (against Karo Murat in December) facing Andre Ward and Gennady Golovkin hasn’t faced an undefeated fighter at the championship level. So for Dominic Wade to step up to take the fight is I think a good indication of where the sport is heading. I think the fighters realize that it inures to their legacy, their profile, their endorsement deals, their popularity, to take on the biggest fights out there for them and how to sequence it for themselves in a way where they feel they’re at their peak is always the challenge, and that’s why you have to stay tuned and make people understand that you’re there to see all sides of it. You’re not just trying to rush something just to do it that way. And people can get impatient, but when you get the right fights that come together it’s all worth it.
In Golovkin’s case, he wants to unify all the belts – he wants to be one of the only guys to do that. And in Canelo’s case, he takes being the lineal middleweight champion very seriously so we’re excited to see where those ambitions go in terms of colliding in a fight that I think will define legacies.
Q: The biggest fight that can be made is between Canelo and Golovkin later this year. Will the fight happen? And what is HBO’s role in making it happen?
A: As a fan you want to see the fight. Golovkin – I just mentioned what his test is in front of him. And Canelo is in the classical speed vs. power matchup on May 7 against Amir Khan, so they both have significant challenges in front of them before they’re going to be able to start discussing that kind of mega-fight. I think we have to see come May 8 where everyone is at and what the road ahead is going to be.
Q: Do you think the fight will happen by the end of the year?
A: I mean, I’ve seen these things long enough to know 99 percent is still zero percent in boxing so until we know for certain that’s the direction it’s heading, there’s little point to speculate. I know that Golden Boy and K2’s Tom Loeffler have had conversations about the fight because they’ve had conversations about the belt – but timeframe, all of that, it seems it remains very much ‘Let’s figure out what we have in front of us on April 23; let’s figure out what we have in front of us on May 7 and then we’ll talk.’
Q: When the WBC allowed Canelo and Golovkin to take an interim fight before they face each other as a way to increase interest in the bout, what was your reaction?
A: We’re always more for cooking than marinating. But when it comes to how the politics of sanctioning bodies are superimposed on schedules it rarely seems like … I would say we’re in a position of trying to make the fight and how the fighters feel about the belts is a consideration. You can’t ignore it. I think you can also look at these two fighters and their popularity also outgrowing the need to amass titles but they also recognize their own ambitions. In Golovkin’s case, he wants to unify all the belts – he wants to be one of the only guys to do that. And in Canelo’s case, he takes being the lineal middleweight champion very seriously so we’re excited to see where those ambitions go in terms of colliding in a fight that I think will define legacies.
Q: Switching gears, the biggest mystery in boxing is probably whether Floyd Mayweather Jr. will return. Would you like him to come back? After all, Mayweather’s six-fight deal with Showtime ended in September and he’s technically a network free agent.
A: He’s retired. So we respect his word at that and if he decides something else in the future we’ll have an opinion about it then.
Q: What went through your mind after Manny Pacquiao made disparaging comments toward gays with his HBO Pay-Per-View fight with Timothy Bradley on April 9?
A: Never mind his image and the effects on his image, the comments themselves were just so abhorrent and hurtful to a lot of people and callous, so it’s regrettable. And he and his camp are going to have to figure out how he wants to go about making it right with the communities he’s upset and his fans, and whether that’s an effort to repair an image or whether that’s an effort to do the right thing, we’ll see.
Q: Was there ever any conversations about not going forward with the fight?
A: No discussions.
Q: There are six broadcast dates on the HBO calendar for 2016 that have been announced. Last year there were 20 fights total for the year. Obviously some matchups are in the works but should we expect less boxing this year?
A: More fights are in the works and we’re working on them every day so as the fights can get made they’ll get announced and we certainly look to try to do the best quality that we can, so to that extent volume, I think, as we’ve seen, is less sine qua non than quality. So sometimes fights that you want to make end up not getting made and that delays the process. Sometimes the fights that you’re working on take a little longer and that delays the process but all in all we’re excited about the calendar in front of us and we’re excited about the things we’re working on as well. We’re well-stocked. We’re well-armed and we’re ready to go.
Q: What’s the status on the Wladimir Klitschko-Tyson Fury rematch?
A: Right now, I think that each fighter is enjoying a little time off. We did a “Real Sports” profile on Tyson Fury to give people a better sense of his background and Wlad, I believe is teaching a business management course at a business school in Switzerland? So I think each guy is taking a moment – one to savor and the other to reflect – and we’ll see when they want to get back into the ring in due course. But I think the early date estimates for it now are a little bit later, looking more toward the summer. I’ve heard a lot of different sites mentioned at this point so it’s hard to speculate about it. I think they’ll zero in on what the best site for them is and once they have that pinned down we’ll go from there.
Q: Miguel Cotto returns on June 18th. How firm is that and have you made any headway on who he is facing? (HBO holds an option to put it on pay-per-view but no decision has been made)
A: It’s premature at this point. June 18th is still months away but we have been talking with Roc Nation and trying to get a sense of what Miguel would like to do next. I can say more names [for possible opponents] if we want to create more rumors but it’s probably better to let it play itself out. We’re still in the early stages of it.
Sometimes the fights that you’re working on take a little longer and that delays the process but all in all we’re excited about the calendar in front of us and we’re excited about the things we’re working on as well. We’re well-stocked. We’re well-armed and we’re ready to go.
Q: Bob Arum recently made a commotion about not being able to land a date on HBO for a doubleheader involving featherweight titleholder Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Nicholas Walters in one fight and junior welterweight titlist Viktor Postol in another. Do you not like what he’s offering?
A: There are a lot of great fights out there and as a fight fan you want to see them all. And boxing doesn’t have the luxury of a development process. We can’t put a fight on a sound stage and have the guys for 12 seconds and decide whether or not we like it. We have to be judicious about the fights we go about in terms of the quality of the fights and the strategy with which they’re being deployed. So we’ll see in the coming weeks and months how certain fighters and certain fights align with what we’re trying to do.
Q: What are the plans for Roman (Chocolatito) Gonzalez? Will he be in a main event in his next fight?
A: I think we’re still in the growth phase and I think you’ve seen fighters in their development be accelerated in ways in recent years that were unimaginable 10 years ago, so I think we’re going to take it fight by fight and see what the next step is.
Q: HBO has had two high-profile departures in recent months with former HBO Sports president Ken Hershman and senior VP Mark Taffet leaving. There are rumors of more turnover coming soon. Do you plan on filling those positions?
(At this point a public relations official chose to answer the question) PR RESPONSE: Peter’s old position is going to be filled – VP of programming. The job is posted. Anybody can go online – Timewarnercareers.com – read the job description and apply. So while Peter moved up, his old job is going to be replaced and there’s nothing else to report at this time. We recognize there’s always gossip in the industry but the television industry is about change and there’s going to be turnover every year. It’s just when you have high profile names and figures- it gets more attention.
Q: What’s your philosophy in terms of doing business with Al Haymon? HBO has for years seemingly had an unwritten policy where they didn’t use his fighters. And now Khan and Wade, both Haymon fighters, will be on HBO. Does that signify a philosophical shift?
A: We’re open to do business with any promoter. So any promoter that calls me up and wants to talk about a fight is a call that we will take. We’ve always subscribed to the policy that we’re an open shop. If fighters want to dare to be great and fight the best talent that’s out there and have business interests with their promoters that align with ours then it makes sense (to work with them).
Q: It’s one thing to utilize a Wade or a Khan on HBO but what about using one of his signature fighters, such as a Danny Garcia or a Danny Jacobs?
A: I think that in boxing what we’ve seen is that anything is possible in the realm of business and what you hope is that the vast infinitude of the things that can happen that when they exceed expectations it’s in a good way and that’s what we’re hoping for in 2016 and beyond.
Q: Is it a goal of yours to break up the two-league system that exists with Haymon fighters mostly toiling on his various platforms against each other while the rest appear only on HBO?
A: When people work together we’ve seen again and again that the quality of the competition pool expands and having optionality in the sport is always beneficial to the sport in terms of the fights the fans get to see. What dovetails with our business interests in terms of the boxing franchises at HBO and where we want to go with them, the type of storytelling we like to do and the quality of presentation we like to do – can that align? You always hope it will and it’s always a conversation because risk and reward is a constant ebb and flow and scale that people are weighing within the sport — each negotiation is a snowflake. Wade was a mandatory to Gennady Golovkin so Tom (Loeffler, Golovkin’s promoter) pursued it and he spoke Tom Brown, who’s Wade’s promoter, and they got a deal done. With Khan, Golden Boy figured out a deal with Amir Khan. So I think it’s about what from a business standpoint, when we contract with promoters, what makes sense as we go forward.
Q: How close did you get to making a light heavyweight unification match between Sergey Kovalev and Adonis Stevenson in the first half of the year?
A: Again, in boxing, 99 percent is zero percent and everything else doesn’t matter. And fighters have to want the fights.