NEW ORLEANS -- It has been decades since New Orleans hosted major title bouts like Muhammad Ali's historic third championship win over Leon Spinks or Sugar Ray Leonard's "no mas" victory over Roberto Duran -- not to mention "Gentleman Jim" Corbett's knockout of John L. Sullivan a century earlier.
Regis Prograis plans to change that.
The 29-year-old junior welterweight, who felt he had to leave his hometown as a teenager because Houston was a better breeding ground for young boxers, is now on the right path to become New Orleans' first major titleholder in more than 50 years.
And it's his dream to one day make a triumphant return inside the Superdome while helping to spark a boxing revival in the Big Easy.
Prograis (20-0, 17 knockouts) will get his breakthrough opportunity on Friday when he faces Julius Indongo for the vacant WBC interim junior welterweight belt in Deadwood, South Dakota on Showtime.
When he does, the "Rougarou" (a mythical werewolf-like creature from the Louisiana bayous) will proudly carry New Orleans on his back, just as he has the city's skyline tattooed across his chest.
"You just gotta put it back on the map with boxing, man. Really, New Orleans needs a hometown hero that's from here," said Prograis, who recently recorded a "Dear World" mini-documentary dedicated to New Orleans. He also came home for a promotional event and workout open to the public at the New Orleans Boxing Club that was attended by former NFL players Ike Taylor and Robert Meachem, among others.
"I know we have a lot of talent here, football, basketball, entertainment, rappers, musicians and all that type of stuff. But we don't have like a real big boxer. And that's what I want to be," Prograis said, referencing his NFL friend and former NOLA native Leonard Fournette as an example. "I saw those kids out there [at the promotional event]. One day one of those little kids might be a superstar, because they see me. But they need to know that you can do it."
Prograis, who grew up in New Orleans East, had to leave because of a tragedy at first, when his family evacuated because of Hurricane Katrina when he was 16 years old. But he quickly learned that it was the best thing that could have happened to his fledgling boxing career.
The southpaw had just started boxing that summer before Katrina hit, after he had given up on football and was struggling in school. He admits that he never put enough effort into those areas until he finally found his real passion.
"You just gotta put it back on the map with boxing, man. Really, New Orleans needs a hometown hero that's from here... I know we have a lot of talent here, football, basketball, entertainment, rappers, musicians and all that type of stuff. But we don't have like a real big boxer. And that's what I want to be."Regis Prograis
"What happened to me is I really knew I could do it when I moved to Houston, and I was training next to [former heavyweight champion Evander] Holyfield. And I'm like, 'S---, that's Holyfield.' ... I'm hitting the heavy bag right here next to him," said Prograis, who also trained alongside fighters like Juan Diaz, Rocky Juarez, Raul Marquez and the Charlo twins (Jermell and Jermall) at Houston's Savannah Boxing Club. "We all looked up to each other. And it does something to your brain like, 'I can do this.' And you have role models you can look up to. So in New Orleans, I didn't have that.
"So even though I'm living in Houston, I'm only living in Houston because of boxing."
Prograis, who also met his wife and is now raising two young children in Houston, has been on a great path during his 12 years there. His biggest win to date came last June -- a knockout of previously-undefeated Joel Diaz Jr. in the second round.
Now Indongo (22-1, 11 KOs) will be an even bigger step up. The former world titlist's only career loss came to one of the best fighters in the world, Terence Crawford, last August.
Crawford vacated the 140-pound belt to step up in weight class. So the winner of Prograis-Indongo will became the interim titlist until Amir Imam fights Jose Ramirez on March 17, in the main event of a Top Rank on ESPN card at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. The winners of those two fights could then meet in a mandatory title bout.
"This is my big opportunity," Prograis said -- although he vowed to keep working and climbing after the bout, with a desire to "take over the division."
Prograis was originally scheduled to fight another former champion, Viktor Postol, for the interim title. But Postol had to withdraw because of a fractured left thumb. (Prograis questioned the legitimacy of that withdrawal, suggesting that Postol didn't want to fight him.)
Prograis proudly describes himself as a powerful "stalker" who wants to bring offense back to the sport like his two favorite fighters of all-time -- Mike Tyson and Duran.
"I try to base my style on them," Prograis said. "If I need to change it up, then I can change it up. But I want to give the fans an exciting fight.
"Right now we're kind of leaving the [Floyd] Mayweather era. He was like real slick, defensive. But there's only one Mayweather. Now everyone's trying to do that. Now I'm trying to bring back just the savagery -- just a go out there and try to kill my opponent. It sounds bad, but it is what it is. ... At the end of the day, it's entertainment, you've gotta entertain the fans.
"I want to bring it back to like the savages. Tyson, Duran, (Marvin) Hagler, Tommy Hearns, that's basically my style."
Prograis' trainer, Bobby Benton, echoed that description, saying, "He wants to knock everybody out."
When asked if that's a dangerous approach, Benton said, "A little bit, but he's responsible. He plays defense also. He mixes everything in. I mean, he can fight to where he's not gonna get hit at all. But that's not the way he's gonna fight. He's gonna take chances."
There's nothing conservative about Prograis, who enters the ring wearing a big "Rougarou" mask and delights in the howls of the audience.
But what else would you expect from a confident young fighter who has decided to put an entire city on his back?