By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s good to be Peter Nelson.
Not only can the guy reach into a briefcase and pluck a resume with the word “HARVARD” scrawled across the top in big crimson letters, but he’s also pulled off what might just be the coolest college major/real job metamorphosis of all time.
Just think, one day you’re in Massachusetts slogging through a semester of ancient and classical Greek language and literature. And the next you’re in New York helping assemble a roster of boxing talent that’s returned HBO to a long-professed spot as premium cable’s “Network of Champions.”
No offense to the Byzantine-philes in the crowd, but it looks from here like Nelson’s landed on his feet.
These days, as vice president of sports programming, he’s got a behind-the-scenes seat as the three-lettered juggernaut endeavors to build Nicaraguan dynamo Roman Gonzalez into something that might resemble Manny Pacquiao 2.0.
You remember that barrier-breaking drill, right?
One day he’s a small guy from another country. The next day he’s a global phenomenon.
“Manny made significant strides in that respect,” Nelson said. “He fought so many great Mexican fighters along the way that I think he became someone that the Latino community came to embrace. You saw a similar kind of thing occur with Golovkin when he said that he fights in a Mexican style, and you saw that a lot of fans in the Mexican community were embracing Golovkin.
“In boxing – and tennis has this to some degree as well – there’s kind of a Genghis Khan effect that occurs where if you’ve defeated someone I admire that I start to like you and I start to root for you. It’s a wonderful sport in that respect because it’s not as narrow as ‘I’m going to root for this person because he’s from the same place as I’m from.’ I think there’s a greater expanse of what a fighter’s fan base can achieve in that respect.”
Gonzalez was a three-division champion with a 42-0 record by the time he reached HBO’s air five months ago, and the second-round blitzkrieg he executed on Edgar Sosa – who scored the first of his 11 title-fight wins when “Chocolatito” was still a teenager – was barely short of breathtaking.
It yielded a quantum leap in respect from veterans and novices alike, and elevated Gonzalez, now 28, to man-in-waiting status for the pound-for-pound throne since abdicated by Floyd Mayweather Jr.
A 20-minute chat with Nelson hit on when Gonzalez first became a must-see commodity for the network, the factors that have lent to his quick ascension and where the ride might ultimately end.
Q: From a TV perspective, I’m guessing this is a pretty good time to be in the Roman Gonzalez business. Yes?
A: He’s a phenomenal talent and I think that he’s garnered so much attention recently because, in light of his HBO debut, he got introduced to a wider public who then took note of the record that he had previous to his debut. What they saw was that previous to that fight he had won 42 consecutive fights with no losses, no draws. He’s an undefeated fighter and he’s fought a lot of top-tier talent as well as being a three-division world champion. So I think that it was an opportune time, but that would’ve also applied a couple years ago as well. He’s certainly earned his right to be counted among the best.
Q: As far as debuts go, you couldn’t have really asked for much more. He was exciting. He was violent. He was all the kinds of things that I’d imagine make a TV audience to want to see the guy again, right?
A: I think that fans walked away feeling like they hadn’t seen flashes like that in the ring of just such incredible ring generalship and aggression, always in position to throw, always wanting to throw, always wanting to engage. It makes for an incredibly telegenic style and luckily for him it’s a successful one as well.
Q: When you go about trying to get guys to put on your air, how much advance work is done? How long were you aware of how good this guy was and what goes into the process once you say ‘Hey, we need to get him in front of a camera’?
A: I think he’s been on everyone’s radar for years. It was just a matter of time, timing and the right partnership coming about. And to that end much credit is owed to Tom Loeffler, the managing director at K2, and Mr. Honda of Taiken Promotions, who both worked together under the Golovkin fight last May at the Forum to ensure an opportunity where this top-tier talent would be able to be seen. It is a wonderful pairing between the two of them. Because not only are both these fighters gifted, Golovkin and Gonzalez, but they’re both willing to fight anyone. So what you see is that you have a title unification fight coming up ahead of us with Golovkin and Lemieux and you have Chocolatito Gonzalez going in against one of the top opponents available in Brian Viloria. Neither guy has ever stepped away from a challenge. And those are the kinds of fighters that the fans embrace the most.
Q: It’s got to be feeling pretty good these days when it comes to boxing at HBO – with guys like Golovkin, Kovalev, Gonzalez and Canelo. I know there was a pretty stern challenge a couple years ago, but do you feel comfortable competitively with the roster of talent you’ve now assembled?
A: Our bet is on the authenticity of the competition. Our bet is on the quality of character that that elicits from the athlete. Our bet is on the quality of athlete and their willingness to get in the ring and perform for the fans. I think that that’s been a winning combination for HBO or a long time. And I think that Roman Gonzalez folds well into that same portfolio. We’ve seen critics and fans embrace Roman, particularly you’ve seen it on recent pound-for-pound lists. He’s obviously a signature talent in the sport right now.
Q: Now that Floyd is gone, I’ve seen some lists with him at No. 1 and certainly just about everyone has him in the top three or at the very least the top five. Surely he’s a guy who some people are going to look at and say ‘He’s 112 pounds and he’s not American, so those are going to be strikes against him.’ But is he the kind of guy who you think can transcend the size and nationality more so than others who’ve tried before?
A: I think fans are incredibly sophisticated and that they don’t look to the sport simply on the narrowness of is someone American or not. I think it’s a global sport and it speaks to people based on the quality of athleticism that you see, and that’s what attracts people. I don’t think that how big or small a fighter is, or what nationality he is, has anything to do with the ultimate arc that a fighter’s career can take. If you’re in the gym working harder than everyone else, there’s no limit to what you can achieve. It’s one of the great things about a sport like boxing that a fighter from the Philippines like Manny Pacquiao could resonate so well with an American audience. That a fighter like Golovkin from Kazakhstan can resonate with an American audience. And I think that Roman Gonzalez is building a fan base in the U.S. that certainly goes beyond just his native Nicaraguans.
Q: Roman is 28 years old. He’s had 43 fights. What kind of ceiling do you see or him? Can he get to a level of popularity and attention that a guy like Golovkin has gotten to? Can he get to the level or even approach the level that Manny got to eventually? What do you guys see for him in the future?
A: It’s a great question and it’s one of the wonderful things about boxing. That it’s hard to predict how much appeal any given fighter with their talent can eventually achieve. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Manny Pacquiao would have achieved the kind of stardom that he eventually achieved. I don’t think anyone had really predicted – apart from Gennady Golovkin, Tom Loeffler and their team – that Gennady would ascend to become the next pay-per-view attraction. It’s one of the great things to see. I think they‘re going to continue to take the best fights possible and the fans will have a referendum as to how big or small his fan base will reach.
Q: In the weight class environment he’s in, do those steppingstone, next-level fights exist for him? Manny had to climb an awful lot of divisions to do the things that he was able to do. Is that the path Gonzalez will have to take or can he, at 112, build a base that’s significantly bigger than what he’s got?
A: There’s no replicable path to what creates a star in this sport that is certain. In Roman’s case, he’s 28 years old, and what you see is that he’s in a division with a lot of great fights to be seen, a lot of great fights he’s already been in, and those fights can be pursued. And I think there are certain fights where there are rematches that would have tremendous appeal and there are certain fights that could be made down the line that are new fights and compelling fights that can be built.
Q: He’s ridden alongside Gennady in May and again coming up. Is he a guy in the not too distant future that we’ll see headlining an HBO card?
A: I think that he’s got tremendous potential and I think that as long as the fans are continuing to gravitate around him and he’s giving the quality of performances that fans want to see that there’s no ceiling for him whatsoever. You always have to be cautious with these things. There’s an Andre Siegfried line which is, “If you want to injure someone’s reputation, don’t speak ill of him. Speak too well.” So I don’t want to speak prematurely and say that something is a definite or a foregone conclusion. Brian Viloria is an incredible test that’s in front of Chocolatito and he’s going to have to pass that. I was just at Wild Card and I saw Brian training, and he’s in the shape of his life. I know that both fighters feel there’s a lot on the line. Particularly in light of Roman’s ascent in the pound-for-pound rankings, that there’s a feeling like there’s a lot at stake. It’s not just about titles and it’s not just about exposure, but it’s also about a kind of prestige that you don’t always get with a fight like this. There’s a lot of pride on the line and he’s going to have to get through Oct. 17 and then we’ll see what’s on the other side of that.
Q: Assuming things go well for him in the ring, what will be the other determining factors that you’ll look at come Sunday or Monday morning that say ‘OK, we can go forward with the plan we have for him?’ What are the X factors that’ll help decide what you’ll want to do with him next?
A: I don’t think there’s any need to wait after a fight to start thinking about those things. We see how the fight performs in the ring and the quality of fight it is, and what each guy does and who comes out the winner. We’ll evaluate it from there.
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBF featherweight title – Glendale, Arizona
Lee Selby (champion/No. 6 IWBR) vs. Fernando Montiel (No. 10 IBF/No. 23 IWBR)
Selby (21-1, 8 KO): First title defense; First fight outside the United Kingdom
Montiel (54-4-2, 39 KO): Twenty-first title fight (17-3); Won titles at 112, 115 and 118 pounds
Fitzbitz says: Montiel has had a terrific career at lighter weights, but he’s moving up against a young talented guy who’s probably the wrong sort of matchup at this point on the arc. Selby by decision
IBO featherweight title – Venue TBA, South Africa
Lusanda Komanisi (champion/No. 34 IWBR) vs. Roli Gasca (No. 24 IBO/No. 61 IWBR)
Komanisi (18-3, 16 KO): Second title defense; Defeated Gasca (SD 12) in December 2014
Gasca (23-6-1, 7 KO): Fourth title fight (0-3); Lost two title tries at 122, one at 126 pounds
Fitzbitz says: They had a close one 10 months ago and it’ll likely be close again. But nothing that’s happened since definitively indicates the end result will change. Komanisi by decision
WBA super flyweight title – Chicago, Illinois
Kohei Kono (champion/No. 9 IWBR) vs. Koki Kameda (No. 2 WBA/No. 21 IWBR)
Kono (30-8-1, 13 KO): Second title defense; First fight outside Japan
Kameda (33-1, 18 KO): Fourteenth title fight (12-1); Held titles at 108, 112 and 118 pounds
Fitzbitz says: Somewhere there’s a next incarnation of the Kameda dynasty shadowboxing in his playpen and trash-talking his pals on play dates. But the current generation isn’t done yet. Kameda in 10
IBF/IBO/WBA middleweight titles – New York, New York
David Lemieux (IBF champ/No. 5 IWBR) vs. Gennady Golovkin (IBO & WBA champ/No. 1 IWBR) Lemieux (34-2, 31 KO): First title defense; Second fight in the United States (1-0, 1 KO)
Golovkin (33-0, 30 KO): Twelfth IBO title defense; Twenty straight wins by stoppage
Fitzbitz says: I’ll be an Oscar De La Hoya fan until the day he dies or the day I die, whichever comes first. But even he has to know that his guy is in over his head here. Another belt for Gennady. Golovkin in 5
WBC flyweight title – New York, New York
Roman Gonzalez (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Brian Viloria (No. 2 WBC/No. 5 IWBR)
Gonzalez (43-0, 37 KO): Third title defense; Nine straight wins by stoppage
Viloria (36-4, 22 KO): Thirteenth title fight (8-4); Held titles at 108 and 112 pounds
Fitzbitz says: Try as I might, I can’t remember the last time a guy broke into a network’s consciousness in a more superb fashion than Gonzalez did in May. Viloria is as tough, but he’s not as good. Gonzalez in 7
WBO junior flyweight title – Carson, California
Donnie Nietes (champion/No. 2 IWBR) vs. Juan Alejo (No. 8 WBO/No. 30 IWBR)
Nietes (36-1-4, 21 KO): Eighth title defense; First fight in the United States
Alejo (21-3, 13 KO): First title fight; Twenty-one straight wins since starting 0-3
Fitzbitz says: Nietes got to his mid-30s before finally graduating to a fight in the U.S. And though he may not have a lot more years left, this won’t at all be his final chapter. Nietes in 9
Last week’s picks: 2-1 (WIN: Linares, Smith; LOSE: Flanagan)
2015 picks record: 65-19 (77.3 percent)
Overall picks record: 704-242 (74.4 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.