When Josh Taylor and Regis “Rougarou” Prograis signed contracts in 2018 binding them to the World Boxing Super Series, they assured themselves of one thing: danger. The wallflowers, morning glories, and small dreamers of contemporary boxing—for whom the off-line world might as well be Panem or Arrakis—can, for one night at least, vanish, like a Snapchat post. Taylor and Prograis, two of the best junior-welterweights in the world, square off in the finals of the WBSS tournament tomorrow evening at the O2 Arena in London, England. Also at stake are a panoply of Alphabet Soup titles and potential bragging rights as the recognized big wheel of their division.
More than once, Prograis has verged on withdrawing from the tournament altogether. Just a few months ago, in fact, Prograis and his promoter, Lou DiBella, sued the WBSS and severed ties with the embattled tournament, which has suffered from financial whammies ever since it introduced Richard Schaefer as its mouthpiece in 2017, thereby making the series a no-go zone for American television. When DAZN stepped in last year, throwing money around like Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in a strip club (except with larger denominations), one would have thought that the WBSS would reverse its reputation for precarity.
For the moment, the WBSS is solvent, and with Prograis back in the fold, it has produced one of those matchups that goes some way in placating the long-suffering aficionado who must endure Ramon Alvarez main events, numberless sinister tweets from fighters who will never meet in the ring, half a dozen national anthems per broadcast, a veritable platoon of shrill, run-of-the-mill shill announcers who seem to be popping the same corporate nootropics, and oversold sightings of an omnipresent Tyson Fury—the boxing version of Zelig—supposedly taking over the American scene one rassling work at a time.
(Years ago, Vince McMahon Jr. contracted pugs with genuine crossover appeal—Buster Douglas, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Floyd Mayweather—for guest appearances, but now, in what can only be considered a reflection of the niche standing of boxing in the US, despite all the talk about a boom, the WWE is featuring a prizefighter whose last outing generated more comps than sales.)
Taylor‒Prograis is also a matchup that underscores the importance of high-stakes in a fight. Given the number of set-ups, mandatory defenses, developmental bouts, and ten-rounders between shot warhorses boxing offers with monotonous regularity, Taylor‒Prograis, like Beterbiev‒Gvodzyk, stands out for its irrefutable authenticity.
A seemingly hostile Taylor, 15-0 (12), seems almost offended by how Prograis has been billed as a genuine threat to him. “He’s hyped up, of course, he is,” Taylor told Hannibal Boxing a few months ago. “He believes his own hype as well. He says he’s got a big following even though there was a thousand people or even a few hundred at his last fight. That doesn’t matter, it’s me and him at the end of the day in a ring and we both have to fight. I just believe I’ve got the beating of him. I think he believes in his own hype a bit too much, but we’ll see.”
If there is any hype surrounding Prograis, born in New Orleans but now fighting out of Houston, it has taken him several hardscrabble years to generate it. Without the corporate backing necessary for a (metaphorical) address on Easy Street, Prograis has had to become, by necessity, a genuine prizefighter. He did not always enter the ring a 10-1 favorite, he accepted gigs wherever and whenever he could get one, and, when headline fights eluded him, he joined the WBSS tournament, which guaranteed him big purses, regular dates, and a series of tough opponents not subject to the protective whims of managers, promoters, or networks.
Early in his career, fighting mostly on the Texas and Louisiana circuit (hotels, riverboat casinos, a fencing center), Prograis, 24-0 (20), found his vocation to be both arduous and not particularly remunerative. In fact, Prograis often fought for nothing. “When I say I made no money,” Prograis told Hannibal Boxing last year, “I mean I made zero dollars. 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.” After a handful of ShoBox appearances, Prograis finally began attracting notice when he topped an ESPN card against Juan Jose Velasco on July 14, 2018.
By contrast, Taylor, a gold medalist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, has been fast-tracked to the top in less time than it takes for Teddy Atlas to finish a sentence. In fifteen professional fights, Taylor has defeated Viktor Postol, Ryan Martin, and Ivan Baranchyk. (Taylor also stopped undefeated if unremarkable Ohara Davis in defense of his Commonwealth title.) That kind of record stands as a rebuke to so many humdrum, risk-averse professionals content just to make another ho-hum title defense.
A lanky southpaw with solid ring generalship, Taylor, twenty-eight, pumps out a steady jab, works a classic one-two, and throws his right hook only when he sees an opening for it. Although Taylor is rangy—an attribute magnified by significant advantages in height and reach—he is no Ken Buchanan, circling the ring full-throttle on quicksilver feet. At some point, Taylor will stop, dig into the canvas, and clash with Prograis at center ring. It may not be for long, however, because Prograis is too dangerous to stand toe-to-toe against for more than a single exchange.
There is a definite throwback air surrounding Prograis, who looks like he might have stepped out of a dusty portrait taken by an Argoflex, circa 1948. His narrow stance, head and shoulder feints, and cunning inside work all suggest a man who has spent endless hours watching grainy YouTube videos. At times, Prograis steps in, squared-up, with his hands down and his chin exposed—a deadly combination against a world-class fighter—and his jittery style is, on the surface, at least, a study in wasted motion. But Prograis is an improvisational fighter, one whose feints, dekes, and twitches are calculated to draw leads, open counterpunching opportunities, and avoid combinations. Prograis, thirty, is versatile enough to box from the outside, where he slide-steps behind a jab, and bang to the body in close. By mixing both styles, he brings a certain amount of unpredictability into the ring with him, which keeps opponents on the defensive.
(If nothing else, Prograis is prepared for Taylor by virtue of his 2018 unanimous decision over Terry Flanagan, another fairly tall UK southpaw, albeit one moving up from lightweight. While Flanagan is a cut below Taylor, he is, in some ways, a fair approximation of “The Tartan Tornado.”)
If there is a key to this fight, it may be the fact that Taylor, Edinburgh, Scotland, rarely counterpunches with any zeal and looks to cover up whenever his legs fail to get him out of trouble. This flaw may allow Prograis to dictate the pace, but the fact remains that this fight is nearly impossible to forecast. It is just as easy to envision Taylor keeping Prograis at bay for twelve rounds with his jab and controlling the action from the perimeter as it is envisioning Prograis pressuring behind his idiosyncratic attack and tattooing Taylor in the trenches from round to round.
Ultimately, perhaps the most significant edge for either fighter is an intangible: Taylor is fighting on friendly ground in the United Kingdom, where scorecards might skew in favor of the Scotsman. With that in mind, the likeliest result is a hairpin decision for Taylor, who has a knack for ring geometry, even if he sometimes looks vulnerable when practicing it.
It must have driven title-deniers batty to see Prograis on the BBC last week, with his gaudy championship belts front and center, glinting beneath the studio lights. There he was, extrapolating on the arcane (read: fugazi) significance of each bauble, as determined by the crooked, haywire reasoning of sanctioning-body racketeers. As devalued and divisive as they are (and it is only going to get worse), the titles remain symbols of the hopes and dreams of longtime hopers and dreamers. But while the winner of this fight may earn the somewhat spurious designation of “three-quarters unified” champion, he will not necessarily earn top billing in the junior-welterweight division. Jose Carlos Ramirez, the rollicking Fresno wrecker who regularly rocks a sold-out Save Mart Arena, remains a hazardous threat to either man. Which makes it likely that Taylor or Prograis will target him after their rumpus in London.
Money, of course, remains the prime mover in boxing. But the urges that drive fighters such as Taylor and Prograis into danger zones while others count cash and succumb to affluenza remains something of a unique, and perhaps mysterious quality, what some might call desire.