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How much blame does Peter Nelson deserve for HBO being out of boxing?

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HBO boxing is in its final days, but how much blame does Peter Nelson deserve for its death?

FilmMagic for HBO

The exit from the boxing sphere from former lead dog HBO didn’t hit like a ton of bricks when word dropped on Friday, Sept. 27.

Probably not coincidentally, the news hit the wires while many adults were transfixed with the drama in the Senate, as the judiciary committee alternately grilled and massaged Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

While partisans took sides on that scrum, boxing fans were told that HBO would not be presenting live boxing anymore. They had a date set for Oct. 27 and then, maybe, nothing apart from that.

Peter Nelson, at the helm of the department since 2016, told the NY Times that research showed that subscribers were not so much in love with boxing as they were. Boxing doesn’t move the subscriber needle, he said, and the company would be better suited in putting its eggs in other baskets.

As we said, the news came as no surprise; it didn’t take an FBI agent to discern something was up when Main Events said that HBO took a pass on televising a Sergey Kovalev v Eleider Alvarez rematch. Not in December, and not in January, when maybe there’d be budget money freed up. Not in Neveruary, it turned out, when some weeks later we heard that after 45 years, HBO Boxing as we knew it would be no more. But, we were told, HBO will put out a Muhammad Ali documentary next year!

If you were in the camp that lamented this development, you may have reacted quizzically. HBO thinks there is a market for another Ali doc? Does that program move the subscriber needle?

Naturally, inquiring minds pondered and are still asking themselves how we got here. Normally, we’d try to reach a reasoned conclusion, and then wait for Thomas Hauser to help us reach a point of clarity. But Hauser had been hired by HBO as a consultant back when Ken Hershman steered the ship, and that arrangement held up while Nelson took the rudder. So, while Hauser touched on the HBO exit and the reset in the space, with DAZN and ESPN the new gorillas in the jungle, he didn’t take a deep dive into how we got here.

Some folks had said for a few years, when it was stated that the fare Nelson was purchasing from Top Rank, Roc Nation, Golden Boy, Main Events, Tom Loeffler and Joe DeGuardia — is there a bigger Joe DeGuardia fan than Peter Nelson? — wasn’t A-grade. Shoot, they said that in Hershman era too, and Ross Greenburg heard hooting during some of his 2000 to mid-2013 reign.

This isn’t often enough the best fighting the best, it was whispered and then screamed in the direction of Nelson. And when it is, subscribers are told to reach again into their pockets, and pay a PPV fee to watch topmost tier fights. Or, at least, fights that it was determined would warrant a PPV charge. Too often under Nelson, that bar was a low one; Canelo Alvarez in showcase fights, man, shouldn’t they change their tag line, the grousing went, to “The best fights are on HBO PPV?”

And then, apart from that, the fights that Nelson bought that appeared on regular HBO, way too many were clearly designed as showcases. No, not rigged bouts, but ones in which it was pretty clear to those in the know, that the A-side would get the W, unless fate intervened. 13 of 19 main events were showcasers in 2016, the first year at the top for the Harvard grad with the passion for art history, who was barely known in the industry for his fightwriting. He’d been able to convince Vanity Fair to post a bunch of boxing articles, and that spoke for his ability to persuade.

He looked a good part, he wore a suit well, and maybe he possessed a super keen eye for talent and ability to fashion deals that he’d kept hidden in his work as a journalist. I mean, did he interview really well, that crossed my mind as a wondered why HBO picked Nelson.

(Disclosure: I sat down for a breakfast meeting with Nelson not long after his hiring. I was following up on discussions I’d had with HBO in the Hershman era, when I’d gotten on the same page with Bill McCullough, a “Real Sports” and boxing producer-director type who wanted to get me doing some interviews with a bit of an edge, a departure from the old school and staid buttoned down HBO way. Then McCullough went to Go Pro, and the momentum languished. I pitched some ideas to Nelson and company and nothing came of it.)

By April 2016, that curiosity grew louder in my head; why was Nelson buying fights like Luis Ortiz against Tony Thompson? And he had the checkbook, what good did GGG facing sad sack Domonic Wade do the cabler? And OK, Andre Ward was a favored son, he worked for HBO, but letting him fight Alexander Brand, no, that wasn’t the way to attract subscribers. By this time, I wondered, and asked people at HBO, what’s going on? Are they staying in the space? Why was this new face brought in here, to do what? Reinvigorate? Bring a youthful verve to the mix, inject a Gen Y sensibility to the product? But you want to be watching good fights, so maybe you err toward optimism. And you note that you enjoyed the drama in Joe Smith wrecking Bernard Hopkins’ retirement bash, but looking back you understand that was a fluke, that this fight was another Nelson-bought showcase.

Or was it? People would say that Nelson inherited some past their prime products and deals. He wouldn’t be inclined to tell you that; for a media man, he was ludicrously averse to sharing with media anything meaningful on a regular basis. Sometimes he would, but his protectors in HBO’s PR department guarded him with a Secret Service-man’s zealotry. And when he spoke often he’d offer terminology that was apparently de riguer in his sphere, but wasn’t dumbed down enough for regular Joes. Lou DiBella was a Harvard guy who didn’t come off like that; Nelson was one who did. And that I suppose helped land him the job and keep it.

In 2017, maybe Nelson would get his legs, and put his stamp on the fare, was my thinking. He showed acumen in putting the Vargases and Berchelts and Salidos and such on the docket. He knew these sorts of hitters had throwback hearts, wouldn’t put on “skills pay the bills” efforts. They rewarded, usually, watchers who decided to give ole boxing a try. But again, showcases were too often the norm. Why was he paying premium prices for fights not even close to 50-50 tossups. He’d help build them up, and once they go good and popular enough, he’d usher them to the PPV department. And again, there was a showcase which was an accidental hit; Miguel Cotto was upset by Sadam Ali in NYC, and again, drama was conjured. Accidentally. But hey, better to be lucky than skilled, right? Maybe 2018, Nelson would be able to make moves within a changing sphere, and he’d use his horse-picking chops at filling up the schedule to fill the gaps left by Bob Arum’s move to ESPN. Arum was no Nelson fan, he savaged him as being half as bright or less than he thought he was. But Bob was no stranger to verbal volleys at those who’d not seen things his way. We’d let Nelson have a little more time to prove his worth….

A showcase for Lucas Matthysse against Tewa Kiram made him look bad at the start of 2018, and then another showcase for Sergey Kovalev, and was he trying to curry favor with Eddie Hearn to land Anthony Joshua, is that why he paid for Dillian Whyte against bouncer-brawler Lucas Browne? Danny Jacobs, he signed him to an exclusivity deal, and then had him fight Luis Arias, and then Maciej Sulecki, in showcase scraps? Why pay multi-millions or whatever and then not demand he go in tough? Jaime Munguia was now being lauded as the next big thing on narrative heavy shows, and the blowback on social media was now persistent and intense.

And then came the AT&T crew. The Justice Department was seeming to give the OK to the merger, the swallowing up of a mega corp by a more mega corp. Now we heard that AT&T wanted, wait for it, more money from ole HBO. They weren’t paying heavily for prestige and the library. Game of Thrones, give me more of that. Boxing, not so much. Jaime who? The incoming AT&T guy, John Stankey in July told the assembled HBO old guard that, “You will work very hard, and this next year will — my wife hates it when I say this — feel like childbirth. You’ll look back on it and be very fond of it, but it’s not going to feel great while you’re in the middle of it.” His analogy was errant, for the boxing bunch. Birthing was not an accurate description of what was to come.

After Nelson couldn’t lure Joshua into the fold, that was probably the death blow. Or maybe the program got softened up, and was susceptible to a final dagger thrust when Al Haymon consolidated talent in his PBC fold, and Hershman and then Nelson chose not to walk across that aisle and try to mix Haymonites into their fold. Also, boxing aside; HBO hasn’t been hitting home runs like they did back in their days. Bill Simmons’ trajectory hasn’t gone as hoped when the ex-ESPNer hopped onboard in the summer of 2015.

”We are excited to bring his unique vision to bear on an array of new programming initiatives under the HBO Sports banner in 2017,” Nelson said in a statement when Simmons’ talk show was axed in November 2016. Nelson had a knack for not acknowledging downsides and disappointments, and layering shop-talk lingo, luxuriating in “virtuosity” and promising “linear” this and that, which must’ve played well in the corner office suites. At times, I appreciated his masterpiece theater type presentations during press conferences, but when not in the mood, found too much of his chatter heavy on style, but lacking substance.

My three cents: You want to be fair and equitable, and not look at this HBO self defenestration like a Brett Kavanaugh looks at his world, through filters of auto-focus. Kavanaugh said he thought allegations levied against him were lobbed because of payback from the Clintons and warned that what goes around, comes around. He forever disqualified himself from being seen across the board as an impartial arbiter of law. My point here is that outside looking in, you want to consider all aspects of the business, and not simply look to lay blame at the feet of Nelson. But until he chooses to sit down and take questions, and engage in some of the transparency he asked for when he worked as a journo, it follows that the post-mortems done on HBO boxing will be aiming microspscopes on him, and his decisions. Summing it up, he wasn’t graced with a glory days budget…but his choices of purchases with the money he had to work with, in retrospect, don’t indicate that he was a sharp and judicious choice-maker. And thus, is it any surprise that over the last couple years, audience enthusiasm waned, and it was decided that now, not enough subscribers and potential subscribers mentioned boxing as a reason to get HBO, or not cut the cord? This all seems, in retrospect, like a self fulfilling prophecy. I wondered in 2016 if Nelson, who started out writing for the HBO website, and then was elevated to be a programming director in 2013, was brought in because he was seen as having an impressive outward facade but even more so because overseers figured he’d be malleable if and when they decided that HBO needed to reboot. I still wonder that now, even more.

Here is a list of all the main events that HBO ran while Peter Nelson ran the show. Atop each year is the number of shows they put on, and in parentheses, how many were PPVs.

2018 11 (1 PPV)

Sept. 15, 2018

GGG v Canelo 2 (PPV)

Sept. 8, 2018

Juan Francisco Estrada v Felipe Orucuta

Aug. 4, 2018

Sergey Kovalev v Eleider Alvarez

July 21, 2018

Jaime Munguia v Liam Smith

May 12, 2018

Sadam Ali v Jaime Munguia

May 5, 2018

GGG v Vanes Martirosyan

April 28, 2018

Danny Jacobs v Maciej Sulecki

March 24, 2018

Dillian Whyte v Lucas Browne

March 3, 2018

Sergey Kovalev v Igor Mikhalkin

Feb. 24, 2018

Srisaket Sor Rungvisai v Juan Francisco Estrada

Jan. 27, 2018

Lucas Matthysse v Tewa Kiram

2017 20 (4 PPV)

Dec. 16, 2017

Billy Joe Saunders v David Lemieux

Dec. 9, 2017

Orlando Salido v Miguel Berchelt

Dec. 2, 2017

Miguel Cotto v Sadam Ali

Nov. 25, 2017

Sergey Kovalev v Vyacheslav Shabranskyy

Nov. 11, 2017

Danny Jacobs v Luis Arias

Nov. 4, 2017

Dmitriy Bivol v Trent Broadhurst

Oct. 21, 2017

Jezreel Corrales v Alberto Machado

Sept. 23, 2017

Jorge Linares v Luke Campbell

Sept. 16, 2017 (PPV)

GGG v Canelo Alvarez

Sept. 9, 2017

Srisaket Sor Rungvisai v Chocolatito Gonzalez 2

August 26, 2017

Miguel Cotto v Yoshihiro Kamegai

July 15, 2017

Miguel Berchelt v Takashi Miura

June 17, 2017 (PPV)

Andre Ward v Sergey Kovalev 2

May 20, 2017

Terence Crawford v Felix Diaz

May 6, 2017 (PPV)

Canelo Alvarez v Julio Cesar Chavez Jr

April 29, 2017

Anthony Joshua v Wladimir Klitschko

April 8, 2017

Vasyl Lomachenko v Jason Sosa

March 18, 2017 (PPV)

Gennady Golovkin v Danny Jacobs

March 11, 2017

David Lemieux v Curtis Stevens

Jan. 28, 2017

Francisco Vargas v Miguel Berchelt

2016 19 (5 PPV)

Dec. 17, 2016

Bernard Hopkins v Joe Smith

Dec. 10, 2016

Terence Crawford v John Molina

Nov. 26, 2016

Vasyl Lomachenko vs Nicholas Walters

Nov. 17, 2016 (PPV)

Sergey Kovalev v Andre Ward

Nov. 12, 2016

Luis Ortiz v Malik Scott

Sept. 17, 2016 (PPV)

Canelo Alvarez v Liam Smith

Sept. 10, 2016

Chocolatito Gonzalez v Carlos Cuadras

Sept. 10, 2016

Gennady Golovkin v Kell Brook

Aug. 6, 2016

Andre Ward v Alexander Brand

July 23, 2016 (PPV)

Terence Crawford v Viktor Postol

July 11, 2016

Sergey Kovalev v Isaac Chilemba 11

June 4, 2016

Francisco Vargas v Orlando Salido

May 7, 2016 (PPV)

Canelo Alvarez v Amir Khan

April 23, 2016

GGG v Dominic Wade

April 9, 2016 (PPV)

Manny Pacquiao v Tim Bradley 3

March 26, 2016

Andre Ward v Sullivan Barrera

March 5, 2016

Luis Ortiz v Tony Thompson

Feb. 27, 2016

Terence Crawford v Hank Lundy

Jan. 30, 2016

Sergey Kovalev v Jean Pascal

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