Peter Nelson ensuring HBO boxing still packs a powerful punch

Before it decamped to Lisbon, Dublin’s Web Summit was the place to take the temperature of the tech world, a bewildering feast of cutting edge apps and software, high value pitches and, supposedly, multi-million euro deals sealed over a third-wave coffee.
Peter Nelson ensuring HBO boxing still packs a powerful punch

It was also a venue where you could appreciate top-class presentations from a dizzying array of speakers, and few were as impressive as Peter Nelson, vice president of HBO Sport.

Nelson went far beyond the bog-standard PowerPoint to share a powerful mix of striking images — Floyd Patterson featured — and unexpected retro literary references. It was a surprise, for instance, to hear him drop the name of the man who wrote one of the greatest boxing pieces of all time, the sumptuous ‘Ahab and Nemesis’. Mind you, given Nelson was the only man at the entire Web Summit who was able to carry off a pocket square, perhaps a fondness for AJ Leibling shouldn’t have been a surprise.

“I was always a fan of the writing of Leibling,” Nelson said after his presentation. “You can pick up any of his writings about boxing and find something new — every time I do that I see a new line, something I never saw before. The ability to capture a moment in time so perfectly is something that, visually, we try to achieve just as he did on the page.

“Fundamentally, culture is what matters most in terms of producing end results, in terms of content. I think the core values have to be there first and foremost, and that’s very much the spirit of the company where I work — there’s a real sense of storytelling being the driver, and stories come from people, from being attuned to and empathetic with people.

“That, I think, was at the core of what I wanted to speak about.”

HBO isn’t just associated with sport, of course. Groundbreaking comedy and drama like ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and ‘The Wire’ jostle with the traditional fare of the broadcaster, the raw confrontations in the square ring.

“My role is on the boxing side, and we do our best to communicate the narratives in boxing that will communicate beyond just boxing fans. But in terms of the growth of those other terrific shows, it’s a privilege to be associated with a company that produces those brilliant shows.

“Gloom about boxing? I think it’s got an incredibly bright future ahead of it. There’s always a great growth of talent — this is something that’s always been said, and being said, that boxing is on the decline. But critics make poor morticians, so with great sorrow many have said that boxing is dead.

“Remember, that’s been said since back before the bareknuckle days of Jack Broughton. You go back through history, at various times — after Muhammad Ali retired, after Mike Tyson retired, after Joe Louis retired — there was always a sense of ‘well, this generation can’t possibly be as good as the last generation’.

And yet another light emerges. There’ll always be people on the fringes saying, ‘no, it can’t be as good as it was’, but that’s part of sport, and one of the great things we like about sport — that it gives us a place to argue about those things.” Other American broadcasters like ESPN have made stunning documentaries, like the 30 for 30 series. Is that an area HBO is likely to move into?

“My role is primarily on the boxing side, but as I say, we’re a storytelling company. And one of the great privileges of my role is trying to formulate events so that our producers and our artists can then go and tell the stories, to paint on the canvas we’ve provided for them.

“Athletes, their promoters and managers, they’re the ones who are driving towards excellence and any quest for absolute excellence is going to have a pretty good story behind it.” He finished up by looping back to where he began: the writer’s eye.

“I was a journalist before I started doing this. I have a deep appreciation for other journalists, it’s an incredibly difficult profession and it’s very hard to do, particularly in these days with the 24-hour news cycle. It’s hard to take a beat and think about how best to be a reporter, be a storyteller and an aphorist all in one.

“The best journalists are able to do that. People like AJ Leibling, Gay Talese, Gary Smith, these are the kinds of writers I look to all the time for the wisdom they can convey — not so much about sport as the human condition.

“That, I think, is really at the heart of what our company is about — in comedy and drama, obviously — and if we can even provide a hint of that in the sports space, then we did our job that day.”

A couple of weeks ago we noticed that there was some movement in the Himalayan zones of the HBO organisation: Peter Nelson was appointed executive vice president of sport at the broadcaster, effectively taking over the entire department.

In Dublin last October we saw that one coming.

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