In New Orleans in 2005, just a few months before he ran from Hurricane Katrina with little more than the clothes on his back, Regis Prograis started boxing.
He was a sophomore in high school, an all-around athlete who played offense and defense for the McDonogh 35 football team. "I was always fast, always aggressive, always real strong for my size," he says.
On Fridays, the team would hold a sort of play-boxing fight club in the locker room before games. Prograis wandered in, passively at first, before a friend shot him a glance, like, If you want to be here, you have to fight.
For whatever athletic ability he had, he wasn't a fighter back then; not really—he was more of a class clown who liked to chase girls. But he says he more than held his own in that locker room. "After that, the whole school knew I could fight."
That summer, Prograis frequented a local boxing gym. His tenure there wouldn't last long. In August, with Katrina banging on the door, Prograis left New Orleans with his grandparents, a cousin and his younger sister.
At the time, he wasn't concerned—August was always hurricane season in New Orleans, after all. There had been other threats of big storms. Prograis recalls when his family gassed up the car, taped up the windows and emptied the grocery store just for some winds to pass through town. So Prograis, not sold, packed lightly, figuring he'd return after a few days. "You never think you'll never come back," he says.
The family drove to Houston, where it stayed in the garage of a distant friend. That's where Prograis eventually settled and began his boxing career in earnest, training at the Savannah Boxing Gym, which has produced a number of renowned fighters.
Prograis turned pro in 2012 and has not lost a fight since, stringing together 22 wins while earning and defending the WBC interim super-lightweight title. At 5'8", 140 pounds, he is considered among the best fighters in his class. On Saturday, his belt will be up for grabs as Prograis faces Terry Flanagan (33-1), a fellow southpaw, in the first round of the World Boxing Super Series. The fight will take place in Prograis' native New Orleans, where he's 1-0 as a pro.
"I live in Houston, but New Orleans is always home," Prograis says. That much is clear. Prograis has the New Orleans skyline tattooed on his chest, and he shares his nickname, the Rougarou, with a Wolverine-like mythical creature from Cajun lore. "I want to be a franchise in New Orleans. We have the Saints, the Pelicans—I want to be the same thing. That's why it's so important to me to perform and have as many people as I can in the city come out and support me."
Prograis is always surrounded by New Orleans' finest. For starters, his family—parents, grandparents, cousins, everybody—attends his fights. There are often more flashy fans in the crowd, too. At one recent match, Jaguars star running back Leonard Fournette—a New Orleans native and LSU alumnus—stood ringside. At another fight, Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu, who grew up around the corner from Prograis, said the fighter was "making New Orleans proud." The city's mayor, LaToya Cantrell, is a big fan. Lil Wayne recently spoke about Prograis on ESPN; the two of them have led various community events together.
Prograis carries star power, too, and not just in the boxing world. He recently acted alongside Cuba Gooding Jr. in Bayou Caviar, a boxing movie in which Prograis portrays a fighter.
"Regis has star appeal. You sense it right away," says Steve Farhood, the boxing broadcaster and historian.
"The kid has every intangible known to man," says Prograis' promoter, Lou DiBella. "He's bright. He's interesting. He's colorful. He's got swagger. He's cocky but funny. He's a married guy with kids; a family guy. He reads books over watching TV."
Adds Prograis' longtime friend, Tony Flot: "You never know what you're gonna get with Regis. He's kind of dry but interesting. He's very outgoing. He likes the outdoors—he's like the Crocodile Hunter with boxing gloves."
Outside occasional interactions with snakes, Prograis leads a relatively mellow life. Most of his friends and family moved back to New Orleans in the years after Katrina, but Prograis says it would be too fun and distracting for him to live there year-round. In Houston, he can focus on his boxing career, and, yes, his reading.
He boasts that he's finished at least 100 books in the past eight years; some 70 percent of them relate to boxing. Currently, he's reading Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers. He also likes to research and test various training and recovery methods. He took a liking to cryogenics, which has him sit in minus-200 degree chambers for a few minutes at a time. He's unbothered by the temperature.
It seems he's tough to faze in any setting. When Prograis enters the ring, he dons a colorful, frightening rougarou mask, but once the fight starts, he doesn't carry an overly intimidating demeanor. Instead, he wears a sort of blank expression, which is scary in its own right. "It's a zone," he says. "I don't worry about nothing else."
At some point during every fight, DiBella says, Prograis locks in and "the opponent's like, 'Oh f--k.' You can see it in their faces."
Nineteen of Prograis' wins have come by knockout. His March fight against Julius Indongo (entered 22-1) was a textbook victory—Prograis calmly withstood and ducked Indongo's early attacks before he went on the offensive, striking with both fists until Indongo's legs buckled. The fight was called in the second round.
"His speed is excellent," says Farhood, "and he has something that a lot of young fighters lack: a comfort, a maturity, that belies his age. He looks comfortable, like he knows what he wants to do."
Prograis' ease could be connected to his simple approach to boxing. He admits that, at age 29, he's still green, still figuring out the technical details. In the ring, his objective is to beat up the opponent.
"I'm such a natural fighter that it can take me a long, long way," he says. "In amateurs, I was just a raw fighter, and nobody was gonna outfight me—maybe outbox me, but not outfight me."
He still carries much of that, though of course he's upped his game, especially lately. Not only is he undefeated, but he's also made short work of his recent fights. Since 2016, only one of his bouts has gone more than four rounds (his last one, against Juan Jose Velasco, who had been 20-0, ended with an eighth-round knockout).
"When a boxer moves up in competition and wins easily—as if it's not a step up—that's a sign of a special prospect," says Farhood. "That's what Regis has done."
Meanwhile, Flanagan dropped his last fight to Maurice Hooker and has gone 12 rounds in four of his last five. Saturday's bout will be his first outside Great Britain, and it, of course, is in Prograis' backyard. The oddsmakers in Las Vegas consider Prograis a heavy favorite; he's listed as high as 5-1, per OddsShark. It's possible Prograis will make short work of Flanagan, too, rising to the top of his class.
"This tournament could be a springboard," says Farhood of the event that features eight boxers. "The 140-pound division doesn't have one guy that stands out and everyone says he's the best. This is a chance for whoever wins the tourney to emerge, and he has as good a chance as anybody."
Flot can see it now. "I remember when the Saints were in the Super Bowl; people were just going crazy and dancing and partying on Bourbon Street—no crime, no racial tension, everyone was happy," he says. "When Regis wins this World Boxing Super Series, we want the city dancing on Bourbon Street as if the Saints won the Super Bowl."
That's the dream. In the short term, though, Prograis' objectives are simple: "Just keep winning and doing things for the community."
He can accomplish both on Saturday in New Orleans.