“Yeah, one more, one more,” Regis Prograis says urgently as his gray T-shirt darkens with the sweat that pours down his face and body in the corner of a blue ring. We’re tucked away in a back room of the Peacock gym in East London and the smile of the thirty-year-old Prograis, the WBA super-lightweight world champion, is hidden beneath the heavy black headgear he wears on his last morning of sparring. Ten days before he steps into the ring at the O2 Arena in London to fight Josh Taylor, the IBF world champion, Prograis pushes himself hard.
I sit on a little wooden bench with Evins Tobler, a big and powerful man who is Prograis’s strength and conditioning coach. “Didn’t he just say that two rounds ago?’ Tobler asks with a dirty cackle. A former track-and-field athlete from Houston, Tobler nods in satisfaction. “Regis is ready. You can tell. That’s fourteen rounds so far.”
Prograis and I had met two days earlier in the much more sanitized setting of a giant shopping mall in Stratford, three miles down the road, and we had decided I would come and watch this final sparring session before he fights Taylor. “It’ll be a good one,” Prograis promised. “It will be hard and it will be intense. I’ll do twelve rounds and that’s it. The work for this fight is over.”
I arrived at the Peacock just in time to see Prograis and Taras Shelestyuk, his main sparring partner, begin training. Shelestyuk is a friendly but relentless Ukrainian welterweight whom Prograis flew over from Los Angeles to help him prepare for Taylor. His record is 17-0 while Prograis, having fought better opponents on his way to becoming world champion, has an even more impressive 24-0 resume.
As the salty sweat and the heavy blows flew I remembered the wry words Prograis had said earlier that week. “Me and Taras just finished trying to kill each other, and then we came over to the mall for some lunch and to meet you. We ride to the gym together each day. We sit next to each other before we spar, we ride back together. It looks like we want to murder each other but it’s just friends at work.”
As the fighting intensified in the Peacock it became harder for Prograis because, after three rounds, Shelestyuk stepped aside for a breather and he was replaced by Austin “Ammo” Williams, an unbeaten middleweight from Houston who will also fight on the O2 bill this Saturday night. After three rounds of artillery from Williams, a refreshed Shelestyuk returned for two more. He then gave way again so that Williams could spar against Prograis in rounds nine and ten.
Prograis then faced alternate rounds from two local featherweights as a way of sharpening his speed and defense. Twelve rounds had passed, then thirteen and fourteen before Prograis made his echoing “one more, one more” call.
Fifteen rounds seemed an evocative way for an old school boxing connoisseur like Prograis to end his preparations for a throwback fight against Taylor. The American and British champions have thrown the occasional barb at each other but, for the most part, it has been a pretty civilized build-up. It is a rare occurrence for two unbeaten world champions in their prime to settle the small matter of who occupies the number-one and two slots in their division. There is also a real scent of danger to this contest because both men are desperate to win on Saturday and walk away with the Muhammad Ali Trophy as the undisputed champion of the World Boxing Super Series tournament that has made this fight possible.
Prograis completes his fifteenth round of sparring to sustained applause. His drenched T-shirt is stuck so tight to his skin that it looks as if it will be difficult to remove.
“Fifteen rounds!” Tobler says admiringly.
Prograis, however, is on a loop. “One more,” he says again.
Bobby Benton, his genial trainer, looks at him carefully. “One more?” he asks.
“Just one more,” Prograis insists before he accepts a slug of water from Chris Hernandez, his assistant trainer.
The buzzer sounds and Prograis turns sharply back to the center of the ring. The younger featherweight, who is just starting his third round, looks much more exhausted than Prograis, but adrenaline kicks in and he tears after the champion. Prograis concentrates on moving and slipping, knowing that he can’t really hit a kid who is so much more inexperienced and smaller than him. But it’s still work and more sweat leaves small dark circles on the canvas.
After the round it looks as if Prograis might say “one more” again but Benton is adamant. “That’s it. Sixteen rounds is enough. Good work, Regis, good work.”
The two featherweights climb back into the ring so that they can have a few selfies as proof that they really did spar with a world champion. Prograis smiles patiently and then thanks Shelestyuk and Williams for their much more serious work. He finds a chair in the corner of the gym and, after he has peeled off his hand wraps and sodden shirt, he reaches into his bag.
“I wanted to show you what I bought after we spoke the other day,” Prograis says. I remember that, after our interview, the fighter said he was in the mood to buy another new book.
He holds up a pristine copy of Unbeaten—Mike Stanton’s magisterial biography of Rocky Marciano. “It looks pretty good,” he says.
Prograis and I are back on familiar territory. We started emailing each other over the summer after he read Hamilcar Publications’ US edition of my book Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing. I had sent it to him after seeing numerous tweets from him about his love of reading. The emails flowed easily and spontaneously and I quickly realized that Prograis is a writer as well as a reader. We spoke about other fighters and authors, and his own hopes to write a book one day. Prograis wrote with such intelligence and insight that I encouraged him to turn that vague idea into the hard reality of his own book. I arranged for Hamilcar to send him a copy of Kevin Mitchell’s Jacobs Beach—a great book about boxing and the Mob. Prograis then asked to read A Man’s World, my book about the tortured double life of Emile Griffith. It always meant a lot whenever Prograis quoted lines from that book and Dark Trade on Twitter.
So it feels right to now be back in one of the very gyms where Dark Trade is set. It was here that I saw Michael Watson walk again for the first time after his bitter second fight against Chris Eubank left him in a coma. Watson survived and overcame the paralysis which seemed to have left him permanently in a wheelchair. I was so moved when he walked towards me years later inside the Peacock.
And it is outside this same gym that there is a statue of a dead boxer. In this gritty little corner of east London the gold inscription on black marble reads: “In loving memory of Bradley Stone—A brave young man who died in the pursuit of his dreams.” Stone was twenty-three when he lost his life and a British title fight against Richie Wenton, in April 1994. He was a super-bantamweight who trained at this very gym—and I also wrote about him in Dark Trade.
Twenty-five years later I have a different book and a different fighter in mind. I reach into my bag and find another book I’ve brought for Prograis to read. It’s Fighter by Andy Lee.
“Oh, man,” Prograis exclaims. “Andy Lee!”
“Do you know Andy’s story? I ask.
“Of course!” Prograis says and grins.
We are away again, talking about Lee and his years with Emanuel Steward at the Kronk in Detroit, both of us utterly lost in boxing again.
Whenever Prograis and I have met in London, or messaged each other, it’s been hard to escape Josh Taylor. Prograis’s compelling battle with the skilled and dangerous Scot has stalked us at every turn. I’ve not been this interested in a fight for a long time and the tension and power of the contest has seemed more gripping the closer we have come to Saturday night.
Prograis speaks thoughtfully but, as he is a fighter, he also probes constantly for weaknesses in the twenty-eight-year-old Taylor. “I think he’s a little nervous,” Prograis suggests. “Of course you’ve got the macho type of thing where you can’t show fear and stuff like that. But when I sit across from him, I feel his nerves. In me there’s no nervousness at all. It’s all confidence. But I think he has to convince himself that he’s going to win. So that’s why he talks so much about the fact he’s bigger than me, he’s taller and longer, and he feels like he’s better than me in every department. I tell him. ‘You can be faster than me, you can be stronger than me, you can hit harder than me, and you already are taller than me. But even if you have all those advantages, you’re still not going to win.’ When I told him that he looked kinda nervous.”
Did Taylor say anything in return? “No—apart from the usual that he’s going to beat me and all that stuff. I can see through all of that. I’ve been studying and reading about boxing for years and years. I tell him, ‘You can look at me mean all you want, but that doesn’t win you the fight. You can stare at me, say this and that, but it don’t win you the fight. The only thing that’s going to count is when I get in the ring on the twenty-sixth. That’s when we’ll discover the truth about each other.’”
That truth will start to emerge when he and Taylor each make their lonely walk to the ring while the arena seethes with noise and venom. Has Prograis ever fought in an atmosphere as fevered as the O2 will be on Saturday night? “No. It will be interesting. You never know how you will react until you get in there. But there’s going to be more pressure on him. His people have been talking a lot of shit and I haven’t been saying too much about him. So, as the home fighter, there’s a lot more pressure on him. And then he’s got to fight me on top of that.
“But, look, he’s real good. I think Taylor’s the best in the world at 140 pounds after me. I thought that a year ago. I still think it. We’re going into a real fight. It’s going to be very serious. But that’s what I want.”
Prograis has been staying in an Airbnb in Plaistow, in East London, and the weather has been horrible for most of his three weeks in town. But he seems to have relished being here and he has done so much media work he almost feels like an honorary Londoner now. “I know that the UK fans are some of the best, boxing-wise, in the world,” Prograis says. “The UK and the Mexican fans probably know boxing better than anyone. I will enjoy fighting in front of them.”
Cutting weight is not enjoyable and, as Prograis says, “it’s never going to be easy. It’s important not to make it super-hard on yourself. Before I used to cheat and eat stuff I shouldn’t. I’d think, ‘I will always get it off close to the fight.’ Now, as I’m getting older, I feel it’s easy because I know more about food and nutrition. I know what to eat. At first, oh man, it was horrible. One time I lost twelve pounds in two days. Just sucking the water down but not really eating much. Just running. I know I can’t do that no more. It’ll kill my body. So I’m doing it nice and steady.”
This Thursday, the day before the weigh-in, we swapped texts again and Prograis wrote: “Everything is going fine. My weight is right on point. Thursday is the toughest day for me but it’s fine. It’s actually getting easier for me because I’m learning about my body more.”
In person, Prograis is even more emphatic when addressing the tension and even the dread that precedes a big fight. “You know, I don’t get the nerves just before I walk to the ring. You’ve written about that fact that twenty-four hours before the fight—when you’re in your hotel room and you’re just waiting and waiting—it can seem as if time goes so slow. That’s true but once I get to the arena, then it’s time to go. I’m shown my dressing room, and I’m with my people, and we’re watching the fights before me and just talking and kidding around. Once I start getting ready, wrapping my hands and then putting my gloves on, you know it’s time. Then there are no more nerves. But, yeah, the day before the fight, maybe even the week before the fight, you really are nervous. You are in a room alone and you’re thinking about the fight. It’s just so much anticipation and a little anxiety. Even right now, when I close my eyes, it’s Josh Taylor who I see. I can’t wait. I try not to—but most of the time I think about him.”
As a way to get his mind off Taylor we start to talk about Prograis’s favorite fighters. He lights up when I mention Mike Tyson. “For me, Mike was the first person that got me really into boxing. I loved him as a fighter but I like Mike personality-wise too. Of course I don’t know him, and you’ve been close to him, but he was so important to me. His boxing knowledge is massive. That’s one thing I will always respect about Mike. He did the same thing as me: studying it, and reading a whole lot. He always watched old-school boxing films, and he read so many books. He was like a boxing encyclopedia. And that’s something I pride myself on too. I always read a whole lot. I always buy a new book unless [he laughs] you got another one for me.
“So Mike introduced me to boxing. He won his first title [in 1986]—three years before I was born. So obviously I didn’t see him as a kid. But when I watched his highlights, I was like, ‘I want to be like him one day.’ I just loved his intensity. Mike Tyson wanted to knock you out or kill you. But at the same time he had so much skill. He had so many tricks. And while I am studying Mike I learn that his favorite fighter is Roberto Duran. Now I’ve been studying Duran and I put him up there with Sugar Ray Robinson. He was just so good. That’s why he competed so long because he knew all the tricks. I love Duran.”
So Duran has always been his favorite of the Four Kings—ahead of Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, and Tommy Hearns? “Yeah, but I also love Hagler. I’m a southpaw so I watch a lot of Hagler. I love his style too. Same thing with Sugar Ray. I watch him a lot. I’ve been talking to Sugar Ray and I love watching him. People forget that, beneath the good looks and the amazing skills, Leonard was so hard. He beat all those guys. So I’ve been talking to him. We’ve also been emailing and I met him in New York. He’s been giving me tips. It all helps me so much. Like I’m in the gym with Shane Mosley, and I met Pernell Whitaker before he died.”
Did he talk much to the great Sweet Pea before his death? “Not really. I just saw him in New York, at the Boxing Hall of Fame. I spoke to him a little bit. We were friends on Facebook. He was writing to me and after watching him my boxing IQ shot through the roof.”
What about the modern masters—especially Terence Crawford and Errol Spence who fight at welterweight, one division above Prograis? “I fought Spence twice in the amateurs. He won both. The first time it was really close. We fought in Dallas, which is his hometown. When I got out of the ring, people were telling me, ‘Man, you won that fight.’ But I still feel like I lost. Spence knocked out everybody going into the fight—three guys back to back. We were in the final of this state tournament and even my coaches at the time were like, ‘Look, if you get dropped, do this or that.’ I said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to get dropped. He’s not going to hurt me.’ I’m thinking he’s good, but he’s still a person. He’s not superman. They were scared for me because Spence was a three-time national champion. People were telling me he was dangerous but I wasn’t nervous. I was happy to fight him.
“He was—and still is—a good body puncher. It wasn’t like his power shots to the head. I saw a lot of that stuff coming. He just knocked out everybody to the body. But I did well. I’ve still got a copy of that fight on DVD at home. I’ll put it online one day.”
What happened in their second fight? “He won that more convincingly on points. But he was more experienced than me then. I think he started late too, maybe at sixteen, but he was just a natural.”
It seems as if Spence had an exceptionally lucky escape after his car accident earlier this month. “He sure did. Hopefully he’ll be all right. And hopefully he doesn’t suffer. I hope boxing-wise he can come back and be OK because that was a horrible accident.”
Who does he feel is the better fighter—Spence or Crawford? “Man, you know what? Before his Shawn Porter fight, I was saying Spence all the way. I was so surprised he struggled against Porter. I thought he was going to dominate him. But it was a close fight. If it wasn’t for that [eleventh round] knockdown, it could have gone in Porter’s direction. Now, once he’s healthy again, I think a fight between Spence and Crawford really is fifty-fifty. Spence has the style to give Crawford problems, and Crawford has the style to give Spence problems. It depends on who takes the punches better because they are both very good.”
Prograis and Crawford have also engaged in some testy exchanges on Twitter. “I called him out first,” Prograis admits. “I was waiting for big names and Crawford’s a great fighter. But a fight for me against Crawford at welterweight is a while away. I would love to totally unify my division and beat Jose Ramirez [the WBC and WBO champion]. I think Taylor’s better than him so best we take this one fight at a time. But this one against Taylor will really get me the recognition I’ve not had so far. As a world champion, I always want to fight all over the world. Like Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson did.”
He is already a pretty worldly fighter, as his wife is from Brazil and Prograis now speaks fluent Portuguese. “The first time we went to Rio it was like, ‘Damn, these people are just like us in New Orleans.’ We’re very family-oriented and it’s the same in Brazil. I also noticed that they don’t really care about money in Brazil. My wife’s family was poor. And being poor in Brazil is definitely tougher than being poor in America. Life in a favela in Brazil is very hard. But when I first went there, everybody was happy. It made me think like, ‘Damn, this is what life is about. It’s about relationships and being happy.’ Of course it’s not great being poor and you gotta mix the two together, to make some money and be happy. Brazil taught me a lot.”
His wife has been sending videos of the kids shouting out hello to him from L.A. while he has been in London. “My son also turned six on the twentieth of October so it’s tough to miss that.”
Prograis pauses when I ask how he would feel if, in another ten years, his son said that he also wanted to become a boxer. “I don’t know, man. Boxing is such a hard sport. You know it. I read most of your books and there’s so much death in boxing. It’s so dangerous. I mean, you got to really commit yourself fully to this sport. You got to be 100 percent in because the risks are so high. The dangers are so real.”
How are his family before a fight? “I don’t think my wife gets nervous at all. She’s never seen me lose. She’s never seen me even get close to losing. Never been hurt. My mom is different. She is a mess before and during a fight. She cries and all that stuff. My mom actually cries for the opponent. Like when I’m hitting them, beating them up, my momma cries for my opponent.”
Prograis looks up and laughs. “As long as she don’t cry too much for Josh Taylor . . .”
Time passes and, a few days after his sixteen-round marathon spar at the Peacock, Prograis messages me. “I just finished Andy Lee’s book,” he writes. “It’s a great book and perfect reading a week out from my fight. It seems as if he had an up-and-down career but he finally won the title and retired when the time was right. He rode off into the sunset.”
When I tell Lee he messages me back almost immediately. “That’s a pretty good summary of my book and my life,” Lee says. “I’ve seen Regis quoting Dark Trade and A Man’s World. Interesting guy. I’m hoping he wins now.”
It strikes me again that, as different people who love to read books and talk about boxing, we’re all still totally smitten with the battered old fight game. Saturday night, in London, cannot come soon enough for any of us. We’re all still lost in boxing.