Super lightweight contender Regis “Rougarou” Prograis has never heard of Joe Btfsplk, the iconic character from Li’l Abner. As imagined by cartoonist Al Capp in the syndicated comic strip that ran in newspapers nationwide from 1934 to ’77, Btfsplk was the world’s worst jinx, a small, dark rain cloud hovering over his head and drenching him wherever he went.
As boxing’s most literal orphan of the storm – uh, make that storms – Prograis sometimes has had reason to wonder whether he has been a lightning rod for killer weather events on a much more epic scale. A native of New Orleans, Prograis, then 16, fled with several family members on Aug. 28, 2005, the day before Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster ever to hit the United States mainland, flooded his hometown and washed away all the group’s possessions that couldn’t fit into the trunk of their car. After his relocation to Houston, Prograis again was left high and not-so-dry when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Aug. 25, 2017, lingering for days over the Houston area, inundating the city with an almost incomprehensible 60.58 inches of rain and causing near-Katrina-level flooding.
Until an even bigger and less defensible storm comes along, Katrina and Harvey share the dubious distinction of being the costliest hurricanes ever to douse and destroy significant swaths of contiguous America, each resulting in an estimated $125 billion in property damage. Katrina resulted in at least 1,245 deaths, Harvey a lesser but still tragic body count of 107.
“Maybe storms just follow me around,” said the now-29-year-old Prograis, not entirely in jest, when asked about his personal experiences come hell and high water. “But Harvey had a different feel than Katrina. With Katrina, everything we had was gone, but we were lucky in that we got out – barely — in time. With Harvey, I actually felt the water on my body. I went to my aunt’s house in southwest Houston to watch the Floyd Mayweather-Connor McGregor fight and wound up staying five days. She lived on a lake and her house wound up with three or four feet of water in it.”
But, like his cherished birth city of New Orleans, Prograis is resilient, determined and ready to claim the place in the sun he believes is his boxing destiny. Ranked No. 2 by the WBC, Prograis (20-0, 17 KOs) faces his most formidable opponent to date when he takes on fellow southpaw Julius Indongo (22-1, 11 KOs), the former IBF and WBA 140-pound champion from Namibia, in the Showtime-televised main event Friday night at the Deadwood Mountain Grand in Deadwood, South Dakota. The interim WBC super lightweight title will be on the line in the scheduled 12-rounder.
“I want to show the world how good I am,” said Prograis, whose boxing style and strengths have been compared by his promoter, Lou DiBella, to those of former WBC middleweight champion and possible future Hall of Famer Sergio Martinez. “I know there are people that doubt me. With this fight, against a former world champion like Indongo, I can make a statement that I’m here, I’m not going away and I am truly one of the best fighters in the world.”
“There are certain abilities, athletic abilities, that very few fighters have,” DiBella, who also promoted Martinez, said on June 9 of last year in describing Prograis’ potential for achieving elite status. “Roy Jones had them, Sergio Martinez had them. This kid has them, too. I’m not saying he’s at that level yet. He has to prove himself. But there are things he does that you are not taught to do. His angles are weird, his movements very agile, and his reflexes and unbelievably powerful punches are God-given.”
A signature victory over Indongo, a fill-in for another former world titlist, Viktor Postol, who pulled out last month with a fractured left thumb, would put Prograis at or near the front of the line for a shot at a more widely recognized (read: non-interim) world championship. Strangely enough, the WBC, WBA and WBO titles in Prograis’ weight class are all currently vacant, with Sergey Lipinets (13-0, 10 KOs) the IBF ruler.
If and when Prograis makes it all the way to the summit of one of the world sanctioning organizations’ mountain, he would become the first New Orleanian to hold a world championship since the late Willie Pastrano, who was 62 when he died on Dec. 6, 1997, relinquished his WBC/WBA light heavyweight belts on a ninth-round TKO loss to Jose Torres on March 30, 1965. Not that Prograis is any more familiar with Pastrano than he is with Joe Btfsplk, but he figures it is time – past time, actually – for a once-great boxing town to take back some of what has been lost in the pages of history, much as the city itself has had to reclaim the bits and pieces of itself surrendered to the periodic ravages of Mother Nature.
“I want to become a world champion and fight in the Superdome,” Prograis said. “That’s definitely one of my goals. (Muhammad) Ali, (Roberto) Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard all fought there, but they weren’t from New Orleans. I feel like I have the stuff to become a superstar in boxing, and the first from New Orleans since … man, I don’t even know when. I just know it’s been a really long time.”
Prograis’ reference to the now-Mercedes-Benz Superdome is telling. Like almost every sports-loving native or resident of New Orleans, the former high school cornerback is a diehard devotee of the NFL Saints. He recalls, in a general sense if not every specific detail, the Monday Night Football game of Sept. 25, 2006, in which the team and the city demonstrated to a national television audience that being down does not necessarily mean being out. Twelve and a half months after the badly damaged and refugee-packed Superdome stood as an international symbol of anguish and despair, the refurbished stadium and its helmeted heroes rose up to produce a story line straight out of Hollywood. The Saints, who went 3-13 while playing home games in Baton Rouge and San Antonio during the storm-ravaged 2005 season, brought a 2-0 record into the game against the arch-rival Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta lined up to punt after going three-and-out on its first possession, but Steve Gleason blocked the kick, which was scooped up and run in for a touchdown by Curtis DeLoach, keying the Saints’ 23-3 victory and surprise march to the NFC South title.
“There was a moment during the national anthem, minutes before kickoff,” Gleason, who now suffers from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, said some years ago of a game that was so much more than just another date on the schedule. “I vividly remember looking across the field and seeing the Falcons, and looking up at the crowd in the Dome and thinking, `It is impossible for us to lose tonight.’”
In Houston, watching on TV, a 17-year-old Regis Prograis had the same feeling. “Watching the Saints win that game gave people hope. It gave them a reason to unite,” he recalled. “That game told the country, `OK, New Orleans got messed up for a little while, but it can and will come back strong.’ It showed what our people could do in a crisis situation. The city has this incredible spirit that I feel can’t be broken, no matter what.
“I’m biased, but to me there’s no place like New Orleans. When you stop and think about it, the city probably shouldn’t even be there. It’s six feet below sea level and you got water all around it with Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. The city is in a bowl, and if there’s a bad hurricane with a big enough storm surge, and if the levees break, it’s gonna fill up with water. And it has, more than once.
“But despite all that, there’s a culture there that isn’t like anywhere else. It’s just a very special place. I love it, and I want so bad to bring a world title back there. Houston is where I live now, and I do go back and forth, but my roots are in New Orleans.”
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