Aware of his city’s rich history, Regis Prograis brings world-title boxing back to The Big Easy
When Regis Prograis walks to the ring on Saturday to defend his WBC junior welterweight title against Danielito Zorrilla, he will do so knowing he is the champion in the first world-title fight staged in New Orleans for 23 years.
On that occasion, in September 2000 at the New Orleans Arena when Prograis was 11 years old, the great Roy Jones Jnr – from Pensacola, Florida, and therefore three hours away – won inside 11 rounds when defeating Eric Harding to defend the IBF, WBA and WBO light heavyweight titles.
It was the prospect of fighting in his home city of which he is so proud that did so much to tempt Prograis to Matchroom over Top Rank. It is also the prospect of fighting Jack Catterall at the Smoothie King Center, in the event of victory over Zorrilla at the same venue, later this year that will potentially be in the back of his mind.
Willie Pastrano was Prograis’ predecessor as the last world champion from The Big Easy. Since Pastrano’s peak, the Superdome, which casts a shadow over the Smoothie King Center – the home of the New Orleans Pelicans – has hosted none other than Roberto Duran, “Sugar” Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali.
In the case of Ali, who Prograis referenced little over 48 hours before he is due to defend his title, the rematch with Leon Spinks in 1978 represented the last ever victory of perhaps the finest of all careers. In the case of the rematch in 1980 between Duran and Leonard, what unfolded was a victory for Leonard that did so much to define his career, and, in what is so widely referred to as “No Mas”, the moment that so harshly defined Duran’s similarly great career above all else.
At Friday’s weigh-in, at which both fighters – Prograis, at 34, is five years Zorrilla’s senior – weighed in at 139lbs, Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn was wearing a New Orleans-branded jumper. Prograis’ arrival on stage was preceded by that of an associate wearing an expensive, customised Rougarou body suit – a symbol of not only Prograis’ nickname, but appreciation of Cajun folklore and specifically the tale of the beast said to haunt Louisiana’s vast wetlands.
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On Thursday, at the final press conference staged to promote Saturday’s date at the Smoothie King Center, undercard fighters Jeremy Hill and Mark Davis also briefly indulged in a similar sense of appreciation. “I know a lil’ something about the swamp and the gumbo,” Davis, of Baton Rouge, had responded when Hill, his opponent and another local fighter, had spoken of his fondness of the dish so synonymous with New Orleans.
There is regardless little question that Prograis – not only because of his roots but because of his city’s proud traditions in his livelihood that have for so long been neglected – is not only the poster boy for Matchroom’s expansion here, but the individual most aware of its significance.
“This one’s so special because I’m the first world champion since Willie Pastrano,” he said, respectful of the legacy of a fighter who retired in 1965, decades before he had even been born. “I’m the only two-time world champion from here. Obviously, they had a lot of big fights, but [the last] from a fighter that was from here, was Willie Pastrano.
“Roy Jones was the last big fight that was here, but Roy’s from Florida; he’s not from here. So, for me to be fighting here, is crazy. This is history, I am the only fighter from New Orleans in history to be a two-time world champion. I’m in the history books.
“All my people always tell me, ‘Bring it back here; bring it back to New Orleans’. We gotta have a big fight in New Orleans, and I wanna put the spotlight on New Orleans. New Orleans was a big fight town back in the day, and now it kinda faded away, but now I’m the person to bring it back. I did it back in 2018 – we had a big fight here [when I beat Terry Flanagan] – and now this is even bigger. So I’m just glad to be the one to be able to do that.”
In 1870 in Kenner, a suburb in New Orleans, Tom Allen and Jem Mace fought for the bare-knuckle heavyweight championship of the world. Twenty-two years later at New Orleans’ Olympic Club, 10,000 were present when “Gentleman” Jim Corbett fought and beat John L Sullivan to become the first heavyweight champion under the Queensberry rules.
“I don’t have to be told [about the city’s boxing history],” continued Prograis, regardless the product of an era in which the rigged gambling game razzle dazzle has become more a feature of its culture, and in which the Superdome is better known with residents for providing a shelter during the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“I’m a boxing historian; I watched all the fights. I’m cool with Roy Jones; I’m cool with Duran; he fought here.
“The first heavyweight championship fight ever was here – it was in New Orleans. So, boxing kinda started here. It was like here, and then it went to New York and stuff like that. So, for me to be bringing this here, it’s really special, and it’s historical.
“I grew up fighting on the street here. I started kinda reading and studying when I was probably like 22. That’s when I started learning about all the history and stuff. I’m a boxing head, first off, not just New Orleans boxing; I just love the sport of boxing all together.
“So, it don’t matter the cities; the countries; where they’re from. I just like good fights no matter what. Obviously, to find out all these fighters came to fight here from different places – I like doing that too.”