Josh Taylor will be on his phone a lot in the coming days, but he won’t use facial-recognition technology to unlock it. Regis Prograis will draw double-takes from strangers for a while, though if you think his face is bad, Prograis might suggest you “see the other guy.” Except he would never do that. That isn’t how prizefighters, people who normalize such grotesqueries, regard their wounds. And it is very often not how they regard their opponents, not after they do to one another what Taylor and Prograis did.
The World Boxing Super Series junior welterweight tournament ended at the O2 Arena in London on Saturday. And it ended the right way. The two best fighters (because this is what a tournament final is designed to furnish) tore each other up in the tournament’s best fight. Taylor won a hard-fought majority decision and, if judge Matteo Montella’s 117-112 score in the Scottsman’s favor seemed a home-canvas generosity, honestly, who cares? Taylor was deserving of the victory and the hardware that came with it, and Prograis himself admitted as much.
“It was a close fight, I know he was at home, so I was pretty sure it was gonna be close, but the better man won tonight, so it’s cool,” a gracious Prograis told the crowd at fight’s end, “I give no excuses at all.” And then the unthinkable happened: he gave none.
A thoughtful fighter, Prograis understood the flow of the action, the shifts in momentum that determined the fight’s outcome, what role he played, and could’ve better played in manipulating those shifts. “I thought it was pretty even all the way, until the last three rounds, and then I caught up,” he said, wiping at his still bleeding nose. The hint of inconsistency in that utteranUce, the notion of an even fight Prograis needed to catch up in late, explains the action well.
Prograis, 24-1 (20), established himself early, where his tireless head and upper-body movement had Taylor whiffing and eating counters. Working himself under Taylor’s chin, Prograis forced the taller fighter onto his heels, and from this position used his body to hide the punches he ripped into “The Tartan Tornado.” One of the charming aspects of Prograis’s style is its hurtful fluidity, the way his offense and defense bleed into each other. He had them calibrated perfectly in the second round, where Prograis reddened Taylor’s right side with left hands, positioned his arms to catch Taylor’s counter-uppercut, and ripped his counters off that.
Competitive but confounded, Taylor, 16-0 (12), backed away as if to better parse Prograis’s attack. It was on the outside, however, that the fight threatened to really get away from him. At that range, Prograis’s movement nullified Taylor’s jab and the combinations it intended to unlock. Struggling to get his offense working, Taylor spent too much time watching his opponent, an opponent who’d found his rhythm and the confidence it gave him. The crowd cheered Taylor’s every move, but the tone of that chorus was more pleading than celebratory.
Taylor is a fighter; Prograis had denied him that identity. How then to regain it? How to make Prograis fight him? Anyone familiar with Taylor knew what to expect. He hit Prograis after the bell in the fourth and fifth round, the second of these blows shivering Prograis just a bit. In the sixth, he willed his fight into existence.
In a sense, that sounds silly, the notion that a fighter could, by his volition, bend the moment to his favor. Willpower plays a romantic role in sports, where a lifetime of programming, repetition, and familiarity underlie the dramatic and unexpected. We project ourselves onto athletes who share none of our ignorance (and therefore none of our anxiety or self-doubt) about what success might demand of them and their ability to provide it. But surely there is something to whatever it is that allows a fighter to give more of himself in courting the impossible, and whatever that thing is—willpower, mental toughness, guts—it is not distributed evenly among fighters.
Taylor has it by the truckload. Unable to beat Prograis on the outside, he suffered the counters, the taxing misses, those tiny failures that might discourage a lesser fighter, to get his shoulders into Prograis—and at that intimate distance, showed Prograis what beating a proper champion demands.
It demands unwavering concentration, as Taylor is willing to miss his first three, even four, punches, provided the last one finds the mark; it demands supreme conditioning, lest under constant assault your body abandons you even if your daylights don’t. And it demands you suffer the shoulders, elbows, headlocks that Taylor uses to test your desire against his own. You can lose a fight for breaking the rules, but you can win one operating at the margins. Taylor dares you to meet him there.
Throughout the middle rounds, Taylor queried Prograis and found the answer he was looking for. Puffy, bleeding, bereft of answers, “Rougarou” seemed a fighter on the verge of not only losing for the first time but maybe being stopped. But he responded to impending defeat in a way that explains why the post-fight photographs of the fighters together are marked by smiles of mutual admiration. The final round was all Prograis and, when the two continued to trade after the final bell, and there was nothing tentative or retaliatory about his punches.
Prograis, too, is a man of will; Taylor understands that now, he appreciates it, such that there was relief in his rejoicing.
Jose Ramirez, owner of the two other junior-welterweight titles, awaits because a fighter like Taylor could never abide an unanswered challenge—certainly not one as daunting as Ramirez. Having refused to enter the WBSS tournament, Ramirez chose an easier, far more profitable path to unification. While slighted for letting a promoter, rather than earnest competition, determine his opponents, Ramirez is no fraud: he does not see in Taylor a man who can outfight him. The sooner we find out if he’s right, the better.