NEW ORLEANS — Tuesday was a typical summer day in Regis Prograis’ hometown.
A bright, blue sky gave way to afternoon showers that drenched the New Orleans area, forcing Prograis and his team to head inside the empty Smoothie King Center early before beginning the open workout for the media as part of the promotion of his upcoming fight — a WBC junior welterweight title defense against Danielito Zorrilla.
The only thing that let anyone know a fight was coming was the Smoothie King Center’s giant video board hanging close to the floor. It was still inside the arena, with only the wind and rain crashing against the building filling the void.
There was no boxing ring. No seats on the floor. Nothing that resembled what lies ahead on Saturday night.
This was time for Prograis to reflect on his past.
The New Orleans native now fights out of Houston, moving there after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 flooded the city, forcing millions of people to flee.
At first, the then-16-year-old Prograis packed up with his family and traveled to Houston. Next, to Mississippi for three weeks. Then back to Louisiana, this time in Slidell, a 45-minute drive northeast of New Orleans. There, he stayed with grandparents and cousins for about three months. Finally, his mother — who resided in Atlanta temporarily — relocated to Houston, and Prograis followed suit.
In his second spin in the city, however, he had a game plan, which included finding Savannah Boxing Club in southwest Houston.
Of that time, Prograis said, “I knew want I wanted,” and that he was, “Still bad in high school and I was focused on the wrong things, but more of my focus was on boxing.”
And that’s when his boxing career finally got underway.
Prograis would compete in 94 amateur fights until 2012, amassing an 87-7 amateur record, a No. 4 national ranking and a regional Golden Gloves championship. Prograis turned pro in 2012 after unsuccessfully attempting to make the U.S. Olympic boxing team.
Ten years later, Prograis defeated Jose Zepeda via an 11th-round knockout for the vacant WBC light welterweight championship.
For Prograis, he’ll always be grateful to Houston, for giving him and his family a chance to start over. But for “Rougarou,” New Orleans will always be home, and being around him in the Smoothie King Center provides a glimpse into his homecoming.
The 34-year-old Prograis walked in and pulled out his cellphone, capturing the moment so he could reflect on it later. He didn’t want to be overwhelmed by the moment, wanting to keep his focus on Zorrilla.
“This is a dream come true type of thing,” Prograis told ESPN. “This is just fire. Coming in and seeing this. It’s going to be pressure because it’s my hometown, but that’s how it is. But to see this just because of me, it’s crazy how I even got to this point.”
Saturday will be Prograis’ 30th professional fight and his fifth in New Orleans. He’s fought on smaller cards at the outset of his career in smaller venues, but this is the third time he’s had a chance to headline.
The first two times were in 2018 — victories over previously undefeated Juan Jose Velasco and former lightweight title holder Terry Flanagan. Those two fights were at the Lakefront Arena, a venue that seats just under 9,000 on the University of New Orleans campus.
This is the first time Prograis has had a chance to fight at the Smoothie King Center and the first boxing card of any kind at the venue since 2006. It will also mark the first time a major belt will be defended at the arena since then undisputed light heavyweight champion Roy Jones Jr. defeated Eric Harding in 2000 at what was then called New Orleans Arena (Derrick Gainer also defeated Freddie Norwood for the WBA featherweight title on the same card).
“I think when I fought at the Lakefront, I was a little more nervous,” Prograis said. “That was my first big fight I had in New Orleans. Now, I’m just cool. It’ll be pressure but I’m just ready for this moment. I’m ready to come out here and really just have fun. This is what I do. I love this and this is what I do. I’m just ready to go show out.”
On that first card at the Lakefront in the summer of 2018 — a card broadcast on ESPN that featured a soon-to-be 21-year-old Teofimo Lopez Jr. in the lead-up to the main event — Prograis was adamant that other New Orleans fighters be on the card.
One of those fighters was Jeremy Hill, a New Orleans native. That night, Hill won a unanimous decision to improve to 3-0. On Saturday, Hill (18-3, 11 KOs) will make his 22nd professional fight and again be a part of a Prograis undercard.
“I went out there and I showcased my talent and it was literally because of him and the doors that he opened for me,” Hill told ESPN of that fight five years ago.
Another fighter that Prograis made sure got on this card is 2020 U.S. Olympic women’s boxing team captain Ginny Fuchs. It’ll be just the third professional fight for Fuchs, who last fought in October.
“I want to bring [the city] back and put the spotlight not just on me on some others too. I just want to bring the spotlight back to New Orleans.”
Fuchs, who graduated from LSU, trained in Houston with Prograis and the two share a strength coach. She said it meant a lot to her that Prograis wanted her on the card.
“The boxing game is a hard game and us boxers have to look out for each other,” Fuchs told ESPN. “He has a lot of boxers that are asking him to help so the fact that he chose me and believes in me is an honor.”
This will be Prograis’ first fight since signing with Matchroom, which originally lined him up to face undefeated Australian Liam Paro. When Paro pulled out with an injury, Zorrilla jumped at the chance to get his first world title shot and took the fight on roughly four weeks’ notice.
Bobby Benton, Prograis’ trainer, said he remembers Prograis being a little nervous heading into his first big bout in his hometown, but not anymore.
“He’s the same guy,” Benton said. “Fight night, he’s going to be leveled out and ready to go.”
But this quest has been challenging for Prograis. Following the Flanagan fight, Prograis beat Kiryl Relikh for the WBA junior welterweight title, setting up a match against Josh Taylor in the World Boxing Super Series finals with Taylor’s IBF belt on the line.
Prograis traveled overseas to meet Taylor and lost by majority decision in October 2019.
Since then, Prograis has slowly built himself back up. He’s won his past four fights and defeated Jose Zepeda for the vacant WBC title last November, stopping Zepeda in the 11th round.
But before Prograis can turn his attention to unification fights at 140 pounds, he has to take care of business in a fight he’s heavily expected to win (Prograis is a -1400 favorite, according to Caesars Sportsbook).
Wherever those fights happen and whoever it takes place against, the focus now for Prograis is on Zorrilla — and New Orleans.
“I want to bring [the city] back and put the spotlight not just on me on some others too,” Prograis said. “I just want to bring the spotlight back to New Orleans.”