NEW ORLEANS — Super lightweight contender Regis “Rougarou” Prograis admits he is not familiar with acclaimed author Thomas Wolfe’s final novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, which was published posthumously in 1940. It’s probably just as well; the central figure in Wolfe’s pessimistic take on a prodigal son’s painful and long-delayed journey back to the place of his birth, George Webber, laments that “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame.”
Although he now lives and fights out of Houston because of a forced relocation brought about by Hurricane Katrina, the killer 2005 storm that flooded much of Prograis’ beloved hometown of New Orleans, the southpaw slugger goes above and beyond wearing his municipal pride on his sleeve. He literally wears it on a broad expanse of his flesh, in the form of tattoos that cover his entire chest.
Lou DiBella, who promotes Prograis, the WBC Diamond 140-pound champion, said he has seldom, if ever, been around any boxer so absolutely dedicated to the notion of carrying the banner of a particular city, in this instance a city that has come to define all Prograis is and ever hopes to be.
“He has a Creole background,” DiBella, drenched in sweat along with everyone else under steam bath conditions at the New Orleans Boxing Club on Wednesday afternoon, said of the 29-year-old Prograis. “His nickname (a reference to a legendary creature in Louisiana’s French communities linked to European notions of the werewolf) comes from Louisiana folklore. Regis is New Orleans. He’s extremely proud to be from this area. This is what is heritage is. New Orleans is in his blood.”
It’s also the site of Saturday night’s ESPN-televised main event, at Lakefront Arena on the University of New Orleans campus, in which Prograis (21-0, 18 KOs) defends his fringe title against Argentina’s Juan Jose Velasco (20-0, 12 KOs) in a scheduled 12-rounder that likely won’t go the distance. Prograis has won his last six bouts, and 14 of the most recent 15, by knockout, including a two-round devastation of former unified super lightweight champion Julius Indongo on March 9 in the very un-New Orleans-like town of Deadwood, South Dakota. Such a force of nature was Prograis that he blew away Indongo in much the same manner as Katrina’s howling winds and rising waters laid waste to Prograis’ old neighborhoods in the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.
A similar demonstration of power and cruel intention would not only serve to enhance Prograis’ status as a major star-in-waiting, but guarantee his inclusion in the eight-man World Boxing Super Series that launches later this year, in which the emerging pride of New Orleans would be among the favorites, and possibly the odds-on choice.
“I’m not saying I go in looking for the knockout, but I go in trying to hurt my opponent,” Prograis told a phalanx of reporters. “Boxing is a brutal sport. That’s how it’s supposed to be. I feel like I’m a killer. Of course, I’m nice, and I smile a lot. But when I get in there, I’m a killer. I try to beat my opponent up. Mike Tyson is, like, my favorite fighter. Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler are right up there as well. They went in and knocked their opponents out. But if I need to box, I can do that, too.”
Prograis is fighting to advance his own ambitions, but he is also shouldering the burden of restoring, to whichever degree he can, New Orleans’ long-dormant reputation as a great fight town. The city has not had a world champion since Hall of Famer Willie Pastrano relinquished his WBC and WBA light heavyweight belts on a ninth-round TKO loss to Jose Torres on March 30, 1965. No wonder so many of the Big Easy’s pugilistic hopes and dreams have been attached to Prograis, who will be fighting within its city limits for the first time, although he has logged ring appearances within the metropolitan footprint with single bouts in Metairie and Gretna, as well as those within easy driving distance in Baton Rouge and Biloxi, Miss.
“If he can draw a good crowd for this fight and wins impressively as a local guy, there’s a good chance a couple of those (WBSS) tournament dates are going to come to New Orleans,” said Saturday’s event coordinator, Les Bonano, who has been a part of the city’s boxing scene for what seems like forever. “Both Lou DiBella and Bob Arum want to come back here if Regis wins against Velasco and looks good doing it.”
No fighter is ever a sure thing to fulfill what seems to be vast potential, but DiBella doesn’t believe he is going too far out onto a limb in predicting a rosy future for the emerging standout of his promotional stable. “This kid has ungodly talent,” DiBella said, the kind that can’t be taught. I think he has transcendent ability.”
Is it transcendent enough to inspire local kids to try to replicate his success? Well, maybe. One of his stops on this return trip was to the Lower Ninth Ward outdoor ring where he received a rough introduction to the sport.
“Fighting in that ring is one of my fondest memories,” he said in recalling his early teenage years. “There was this dude named Red. He was a real good fighter and he used to whip me every single day. But I always came back; I wanted to learn and find out what made him so good. That’s what made me decide I wanted to be a professional boxer, and a great one.”
In the co-featured 10-rounder, highly touted lightweight prospect Teofimo “The Takeover” Lopez (9-0, 7 KOs), the chatty and ultra-confident Las Vegas resident by way of his native Brooklyn, N.Y., takes on much more experienced Brazilian William Silva (25-1, 14 KOs). Lopez, who turns 21 on July 30, is getting the big push from Top Rank and, if anything, he is even more certain of future success than Prograis. Asked if he agreed with some people’s assessment that he was boxing’s “next big thing,” Lopez said, “They should think that. I definitely agree.”
And his nickname?
“`The Takeover’ means everything,” he responded. “You ask, what am I taking over? I’m taking over the sport of boxing. I’m conquering everything.”
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