Long before op-ed columnists decided that precarity was the exclusive condition of Uber drivers, Air B&B hosts, and other foot soldiers of the so-called “gig economy,” professional fighters were already toiling under a cloud of uncertainty. Just ask Regis Prograis. As the highly touted 140-pound contender prepares to headline a Top Rank/ESPN-televised card at the UNO Lakefront Arena in his hometown of New Orleans this Saturday, Prograis finds himself reflecting on the unsteady pursuit of a boxing career.
“I remember coming out of the Olympic trials that there was this dude who had just signed a big contract [with a promoter],” Prograis recalled in a recent phone call. “Then he got in a motorcycle crash and his boxing career was over. I was thinking to myself back then, ‘Anything could happen.’ I’m just fortunate and blessed that nothing like that ever happened to me.”
That is one way of putting it. When he was sixteen, Prograis witnessed Hurricane Katrina rip through his city and ravage his childhood home, forcing him and his family to relocate to Houston, Texas, where Prograis has remained for the past thirteen years. (It was there that he befriended the Charlo brothers, training with them and even sparring on the streets, “with no headgear and six-ounce gloves.”) As fate would have it, Prograis would find himself in the throes of yet another natural disaster when Hurricane Harvey hit the shores of South Texas last year. Fortunately, the brunt of the storm eluded him. In the end, the fact that Prograis and his loved ones escaped unscathed from two of the most significant natural disasters in the past twenty years has made him more appreciative of the role boxing has played in his life.
“I could always depend on it,” said Prograis, now twenty-nine. “Some people have death or sickness in the family. I could always depend on boxing.”
For psychological reasons, this might have been true. Materially, the sport gave him a pittance. Without a major promoter subsidizing his early fights, Prograis claims he received thousand-dollar paydays only twice in his first ten or so fights. (He finally signed with New York promoter Lou DiBella in October of 2014, right before his eleventh fight). For his other outings, the remuneration was much lower—as in nil. “When I say I made no money, I mean I made zero dollars,” Prograis stated. “Actually, they can’t pay you nothing so they have to write you a dollar check. I still have the dollar checks in my house right now.”
So for the better part of eight years, Prograis shored up his fledgling boxing career as a freelance boxing instructor, grinding away part-time at an L.A. Fitness Club and later, at a Title Boxing Gym. “I worked for a very long time. I just actually just recently made some real money so I don’t have to work in the morning. But yeah, I struggled and busted my ass for a long time.”
“That’s what people don’t know about me,” Prograis, 21-0 (18), continued. “I had to struggle. That’s why I feel like nobody can beat me. I was training like I am now but still having to work, and still making no money, so I still have that in the back of my mind. I know a lot of my opponents didn’t have to go through what I went through. They’ve been making money since their pro debut. Not me. I wasn’t. But I’m still not there yet.”
Indeed, in many ways, Prograis’ boxing career is only really just beginning. Since scorching former multiple-belt champion Julius Indongo in two rounds back in March on a ShoBox broadcast, Prograis announced himself as a major player in a division that up until recently seemed to be nothing more than a pit stop for fighters on the way to more lucrative engagements at 147. That is not the case anymore.
With former unified champion Terence Crawford having moved up to welterweight this year, the 140-pound division has suffused itself with fresh blood. There is Fresno draw and WBC champion Jose Ramirez, whose first title defense last week was scuttled after his opponent, Danny O’Connor, was hospitalized after trying to make weight; Scotland’s Josh Taylor, who recently edged former champion Viktor Postol in a competitive fight; Oklahoma’s Alex Saucedo, whose brutal scrap a few weeks ago with Lenny Zappavigna elicited both admiration and squeamishness; new titleholder Maurice Hooker, who wrested the WBO title from Terry Flanagan on the latter’s home soil in June; and there is even Mikey Garcia to consider, who, amid his hopscotching weight classes, has fought at 140 against Sergey Lipinets earlier in the spring. In short, the division is full of young talent and enough storylines to sustain itself for the next few years.
Similarly, like the division in which he is now a major participant, Prograis is experiencing something like momentum for the first time in his career. Up until his win over Indongo, Prograis was shunting back and forth between nondescript hotel and casino ballrooms for fights, in boxing backwaters such as Pascagoula and Cabazon. Two impressive outings on Shobox have changed that. “I always thought I was going to get here,” reflected Prograis, “but you never really know if [your career is going to take off].” And yet, “Rougarou”—Prograis’s nickname is a reference to a mythical Cajun werewolf—understands that he has accomplished nothing yet that merits satisfaction.
His opponent on Saturday is Juan Jose Velasco, an undefeated and undistinguished fighter from Argentina, who does not figure to offer much satisfaction nor much resistance. “I don’t know anything about him,” admitted Prograis. “But I feel like I don’t need to. When I get in there and fight him, I’ll see what he’s got.” In many respects, however, Velasco, 20-0 (12), may the most important opponent of Prograis’s career. Nothing less than a victory will secure a spot for Prograis to face off against other elite 140-pounders (which includes Taylor) in the increasingly blameless World Boxing Super Series, which at times seems like the only promotional outfit in the sport that is interested in the idea of elite competition. “I see me and (Ivan) Baranchyk in the finals,” Prograis predicted. “Nothing against Josh Taylor. If that Postol would’ve fought me that night, I would’ve knocked Postol out. There’s no way that Postol that fought Josh Taylor would’ve gone 12 rounds with me. I can guarantee you that. And I don’t think Josh Taylor will be able to keep [Baranchyk] off of him.” The winner, no doubt, would walk away with a career payday and put himself in position for bigger fights.
Such a career path is ideal, considering that the fight Prograis wanted the most, and for which he expended no small amount of trash-talking, will not happen anytime soon. (Prograis was the WBC mandatory to face Ramirez for the title, but Top Rank, Ramirez’s promoters, wanted to stage that fight later in the year after an easy title defense). “I plan on going to the WBSS and Ramirez is not. So that will be another year. And after Ramirez, I may be looking for a superfight, with Mikey Garcia or maybe a Manny Pacquiao if he’s still around, or maybe (Vasyl) Lomachenko. He might come up to 140. Of course, I want to collect all the belts at 140, but I don’t think [the Ramirez fight] will happen anytime soon.”
But with Top Rank having appeased Prograis to some degree by offering him a coveted slot on ESPN, things are as relatively rosy as they could be for the Big Easy native. He looks forward to basking in the attention that he will receive this homecoming weekend while making it clear that the fight could just as easily have been staged somewhere else. “At first [Top Rank] offered me the fight in Vegas. But I wanted to bring this fight to my hometown. I know it’s going to be a big deal in the city. All my people have been asking me when I’m going to be fighting in New Orleans. You don’t have to pay state taxes in Vegas so I’m definitely sacrificing. I wanted to bring it here.”
And while becoming a world champion and regional draw in his hometown are longstanding professional goals, Prograis also has other ambitions in mind. He wants to make New Orleans a boxing destination, much in the way Los Angeles or New York currently are. New Orleans, after all, was the site for major fights like Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks II in 1978, Sugar Ray Robinson-Roberto Duran II in 1980, and, many moons ago, John L. Sullivan-Jim Corbett in 1892.
“It’s not just about me, but about getting Canelo or Triple G or any big name, even Crawford or (Errol) Spence, to come over here,” said Prograis. “That’s my goal. It’s not just bringing Regis back, but bringing big-time boxing back to New Orleans. I want to be the first step.”
These are tall tasks for someone who has yet to contend for a world title. Asked if he was perhaps getting ahead of himself, Prograis disagreed.
“I always said that I’m gonna put everything into [boxing] and if I don’t make it, then at least I know I gave it everything I got,” said Prograis, adding, a bit fatalistically, “If it’s God’s will, it’s God’s will.”