Going Back to My Roots: The Odyssey of Regis “Rougarou” Prograis
Basking in the spoils of his recent success, Regis “Rougarou” Prograis gallivanted around the beaches of Southern California, just as he would any other bayou or backwood back home.
“The other day I went and swam too far for the lifeguard, and they came to get me because they thought I was drowning. But I was like, ‘I’m good!’ I was OK and they thought I was like dying or something like that. I like to swim and go look under, so where I was at it was probably like 15 feet, and I just went down to the bottom for a little while and then came back up. I’m definitely a big-time outdoors person. I like being outside. That’s my whole thing. That’s just me.”
Only two days had passed since that Santa Monica lifeguard misunderstood the situation of an outdoorsy 29-year-old who’s always looking to explore. One time back home, Prograis was stranded in the swamp after his kayak keeled over and got stuck but even when alone with no one there watching, he never panicked and eventually found his way out safely. More recently Prograis travelled to Brazil and adventured the harsh jungles of the Amazon, trekking the wild mountains of Cachoeira and withstanding the sharp rocks of the Ilha Grande riverbeds, just so he can swim with the turtles. Under his own leisure or not, braving the natural elements has been a constant theme in Prograis’ life, and what led him to Los Angeles ahead of his homecoming fight, this Saturday night, derived from the same kind of curiosity that comes from just putting yourself out there to explore.
Wild Card West was his home gym for the extent of his stay in Santa Monica, and it’s one of the new benefits Prograis has had since recently signing with a couple of Hollywood luminaries turned boxing managers: Peter Berg, who owns the gym, and Mark Wahlberg. Prograis became the new kid on their block after Berg, a film director by trade and lifelong fight fan, stumbled upon the southpaw by chance and never forgot about the guy who walked into the ring wearing a wolf mask.
“From what I heard, they were watching another fighter fight, and they saw me fight,” Prograis said. “They were watching ‘ShoBox’ and they were scouting somebody else. They saw me, and became interested in me. At the time, I was still with my old manager, so I still had a few months left on my old contract. They waited, and now, here I am.”
Prograis was put up in L.A. by the Bergs to start the training camp of a fight more important than any other, even though it isn’t believed to be his most dangerous. Prograis will headline an ESPN (9:00 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) card, this Saturday night, and fight for the first time in front of his hometown of New Orleans, at the Lakefront Arena.
“I can’t wait, man. Everybody always asks me when I was gonna fight there,” Prograis said, out of the crack of his smile. “My family has wanted me to fight there. My friends want me to fight there. We’ve always had big plans to bring a fight to New Orleans, and I have a team there working on things too. They’re gonna make the fight the best it possibly can. Have the set-up and everything nice. It’s just huge. Like I don’t let it get to my head. I know it’s so big, and a lot of people like my friends call me and they’re nervous. I’m like, ‘Why ya’ll nervous?’ For me I just take it like every other fight. Of course after the fight, it’ll probably be crazy and stuff like that but, before the fight, I’m just focused ’cause I gotta go in there and do what I do. Act like nobodies there. Just go out and show out. Do what I’ve been doing: Make a statement and give a great performance.”
Over the course of his televised career – which, until Saturday, was shown exclusively on Showtime’s ShoBox developmental series – Prograis has shown a knack for getting into exciting fights, no matter how dominant he is. Last summer, Prograis really revved up his hype, when he dumped Joel Diaz Jr. on the canvas four times in the second round, to force a stoppage of a preconceived 50/50 match-up between undefeated prospects. He followed that up last March by facing Julius Indongo, a recent unified titleholder at 140-pounds, and walloping him into a technical knockout, that ended with the same stats as his previous fight: four knockdowns within two rounds. With that win, Prograis secured the interim WBC junior welterweight title but there might not be a hotter contender in the sport, let alone the 140-pound class, which has been left wide-open once its champion Terence Crawford vacated all the belts.
“Well definitely financially. I’m way richer than I was,” Prograis responded on how life has changed coming off those two big wins. “Mentally I always believed in myself. When they told me I was fighting Joel Diaz, I knew this dude was not gonna beat me. When I fought Indongo, I knew he’s not gonna beat me. Mentally I’m already there. You gotta have the belief in yourself. I believe in myself more than anybody else. There’s a lot of people that believe in me but my belief is way higher than everybody else. You definitely have to have self-confidence but it can’t be false self-confidence, at the same time. You have to be realistic.”
It was his last day in Los Angeles, and Prograis gave the media an extensive workout with his longtime trainer Bobby Benton. The boxer-puncher showed off some ripping combinations for several rounds on the mitts, and focused on his body punching with Benton holding the strike shield for a few more rounds. After skipping rope outside to get his time under the sun, he grunted through some grueling neck exercises to finish off his hour-long workout. The next day, he would head back to Houston, Texas – Prograis’ second home – where the fighter in him was cultivated, after being driven in by the natural elements.
“Honestly I love it in L.A. Most likely I move here eventually,” Prograis said. “I really do love it out here. The weather is too nice out here though. The weather in Houston: the humidity is crazy, so you sweat way more. I’d be way skinnier. I’m a little big right now. That’s the only reason I need to go back but if I have a training camp in the winter time, I’d definitely come back here for the whole time.”
I’ve been standing in the rain
Drenched and soaked with pain
Tired of short time benefits
And being exposed to the elements
I’m homeward bound
Got my head turned around
Prograis was a mere statistic back in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina wiped out a large chunk of the New Orleans population. All of those who sought refuge had nowhere to go, once the storm cleared, and such is the case for the Prograises, whom avoided any casualties, once heading to Houston, when Regis was 16 years old. Savannah Boxing Club was the first Houston gym Prograis walked into and fought there as an amateur but he eventually found his way to the Main Street Boxing Gym around five years ago. There the fighter in him was cultivated to the next level, and much of it had to do with the fighters who also met up at Main. When family members slowly began to make their way back to New Orleans, Prograis stayed in Houston for one reason.
“That’s my home. To be honest, that’s the whole reason I’m in Houston,” Prograis remarked about the Main Street Gym. “We had such good work, good sparring. We didn’t have to bring in these dudes at our gym; they’re all over. Real good work everywhere and that’s just the reason why I don’t want to leave because I know that if you want to be the best, you have to compete with the best. Now I have a target on my back because I have a belt, and a lot of people want to beat me and stuff like that. They’re coming after me but they’re all my friends. They bring it every time and it’s only making me better.”
Fighters of note who helped Prograis the most include former junior middleweight titleholder Austin Trout and two current beltholding twins, Jermall and Jermell Charlo. Prograis, who isn’t exactly a big guy, at 5-foot-8, sparred the twins in his early time in Houston before turning pro, and while they were undefeated prospects. Getting that experience against bigger guys, at a young age, toughened Prograis up at the right time, and helped shape the unwavering attack he distributes when fighting men his own height and weight. Once turning pro, Prograis got in there with Trout, and there’s no doubt he provided the best experience.
“The first time I sparred with Austin, I whooped his ass,” Prograis remembered. “To be honest, he knows I whooped his ass. Then he told Bobby (Benton) to bring him back, and he kicked my ass the second time. He beat the shit out of me. It was good sparring with a champion. I think he had just come off his (Miguel) Cotto win or something like that. As far as the twins go, yeah, I grew up with them. We all used to hang together in high school, and all that stuff and sleep at each other’s house, and all that type of stuff. As you get older, everybody gets a family and kids, so you kind of separate. They went to a different gym, and I stayed at Savannah for a while. They went with Ronnie Shields to a gym called Plex. It’s always love with them. They motivated me for a long, long time. I remember when Jermell was on ShoBox fighting, and I was still an amateur but it was my ‘patna’ fighting in there. And when they won their belts, it’s motivation for me. I can do the same thing.”
Making the L.A. trip. as Prograis’ main sparring partner. was Jerrico Walton, 9-0 (6), a welterweight prospect out of the Houston gym scene. Wearing a sweat-drenched New Orleans Saints tee, he too was another product of the hurricane but didn’t meet Prograis until five years ago, in Houston.
“It’s his work ethic,” Walton said about Prograis. “He does more than what he’s supposed to. He’s at the gym more than everyone else. HIs work ethic separated himself from a lot of people.”
Training Prograis for the extent of his pro career, Benton, 40, a working trainer for the past 22 years, remembers the work ethic Prograis had long before he started training him.
“My first memory of Regis was when I used to run the fighters at five in the morning,” Benton recalled. “He was out at the park running at five in the morning. He was still in high school. I said that kid is gonna do something. What kid is up at five in the morning running before school?”
Benton was eventually asked to train Prograis full-time, when he was 7-0, and didn’t hesitate at taking the opportunity.
“He grew up tough. He’s a fighter first,” Benton said. “When he first came to me, he was just a beast. He just wanted to run through everybody, walk everybody down, hands up and just bogart everybody but, when we started working, I realized he’s got really good vision. His defense is really good, head movement; everything is there, so we started working on that. He doesn’t have to get hit. He’s one of these guys who can spar 12 rounds and not get touched one time, with good fighters, not just regular guys. Then we have days where he wants to fight, and he does. So we just take the rounds down. We argue about that sometimes. I’ll ask if we’re gonna fight or we’re gonna box today. And he’ll tell me, ‘We’ll see.’ If he wants to brawl, then we’ll just have less rounds.”
Juan Jose Valesco, 20-0 (12), will be Prograis’ opponent on Saturday night, and, much like just about any undefeated prospect out of Argentina, there wasn’t much to talk about because there isn’t much known about the 31-year-old. According to Benton, Prograis, 21-0 (18), doesn’t like to watch tape anyways but he still knows the situation. He’s expected to win but how he does it will matter in this showcase, considering its stage, and the many first impressions he’ll be making. Not even a hardcore boxing fan would know about Velasco but he certainly should know of Prograis by now, which, in itself, has already been an accomplishment for a club fighter who used to fight for free.
“I didn’t get paid when I was first coming up,” Prograis admitted. “I didn’t have a manager that was paying me, and so I had to sell tickets and all the money I made went to my opponent. It was crazy. I used to tell people about it and I thought it was a normal thing but, at the time, my manager…he’s a good manager but he just didn’t have the money to pay me. That was just something I had to do. I think my first big paycheck I ever got was like $1,400 – and, at the time, for me, that was huge. I was a trainer at L.A. Fitness. making like 12 dollars an hour, so I got $1,400 and thought I was rich. That’s the crazy thing about the club shows. A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of fighters do the same thing. I wasn’t getting paid and they might be getting paid but it isn’t a lot of money for getting their head beat in. I guess that’s just how boxing is. That’s how it goes.”
So far, Prograis’ boxing career has resembled the meandered life he’s lived, and it’s no surprise that he handles both with little to no complaint. Remarkably he’s fought in 10 different states that range from New York to South Dakota to some Indian Casino in the Southern California desert. His exposure to the mainstream boxing public really started after signing with promoter Lou DiBella, and steps have been taken, when it comes to future fights. Saturday night’s event is co-promoted by Top Rank and is the third weekend in a row in which ESPN is televising a proverbial homecoming fight. Last week WBC junior welterweight titleholder Jose Ramirez – the only person preventing Prograis from being the full-fledged WBC 140-pound titleholder – was supposed to fight on ESPN but his opponent Danny O’Connor would be scratched the day before. It seemed as though them fighting two weeks in a row would set up a Ramirez vs. Prograis fight but that has pretty much gone by the wayside, with Prograis planning to enter a boxing tournament, should he emerge victorious on Saturday evening.
Going into its second season, the World Boxing Super Series has already named a few contestants for its junior welterweight tournament, and the winner of Prograis-Velasco is expected to be the next participant made official. WBA beltholder Kiryl Relikh, Josh Taylor, Ivan Baranchyk and Anthony Yigit are confirmed to be in the eight-man tournament, and Prograis would certainly be an exciting addition, let alone one of the favorites to win but not by a large margin. The WBSS would take Prograis global and its something that already has fighters from four different countries confirmed. Perhaps it’s fitting that this nomad from New Orleans could end up being the American representative, and maybe a new favorite, should he emerge as the winner of the Muhammad Ali Trophy.
Talkin’ ’bout the roots in the man
I feel my spirit gettin’ old
It’s time to recharge my soul
I’m zippin’ up my boots
Goin’ back to my roots
“My name is Regis, so I got a nickname for a real name,” he said. “You’re not gonna find anybody else with my name.” What about Regis Philbin? “Yeah, but a black dude,” he quickly answered.
With an unmistakable Louisianan drawl and French name – one he didn’t like as a kid – Prograis is creole to the core and, quite frankly, couldn’t reek of New Orleans more, if he tried. Not even a film director could come up with a better prototype of a fighter the Cajuns would adore, and that’s not even counting the “Rougarou” nickname.
“My daddy gave me the name,” Prograis said. “At first I didn’t like it, then it stuck. Now I’m the Rougarou.”
Prograis’ father is two-for-two in giving his son a name. If you ever get a chance to see them together, they are a spitting image of each other, and so are Prograis’ son and daughter, who carry their dominant genes. The Rougarou is a mythical creature that dates back to French folklore, and, of course, its stories made their way into the imaginations of those who grew up in the bayous when America was still in its infancy. Similar to a werewolf, the Rougarou has the body of a man and head of a wolf, that roams the swamps at night. To exemplify how relatable the nickname is to the city, when the New Orleans NBA franchise was about to rebrand a few years ago, they trademarked “Rougarou” as a possible candidate before renaming its team the Pelicans. The Rougarou theme explains the wolf mask Prograis wears into the ring for every fight. Some may think it’s cheesy or gimmicky but here’s nothing inferior about the way Prograis fights.
New Orleans is tattooed across his chest, along with the city’s most recognizable building: The Superdome. On his right oblique, a tornado-like figure with feminine eyes, to commemorate the storm that forced him out of there, and, on his calves, “East Beast” is marked over the year he was born: 1989. Of course Rougarou Regis was born at night just after a full moon, and January 24 shares the same birthday with NOLA music legend Aaron Neville, who Regis said he actually knows personally through his cousin Leo Nocentelli, another famous musician in New Orleans. Prograis hasn’t lived there in years but the city most certainly hasn’t left him.
“For me, Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Prograis proclaimed. “I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I wouldn’t be in L.A. with Peter Berg, if the storm didn’t happen. Of course you know, it was a tragedy for a lot of people. Some people died but, as far as my personal story, it was a good thing because it brought me to Houston. I’m around a lot of good fighters, and mentally it made me who I am right now.”
Prograis went through another terrible hurricane last summer in Houston but Harvey didn’t amount to the type of devastation Katrina had, nor did it bring the same kind of drastic change, aside from being stuck at a friend’s house for five straight days, after going there to watch the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor fight. When asked about seeing his old New Orleans neighborhood gone, Prograis revealed a basic principle of his philosophy that could help explain the mindset of an adventurous man, both in and outside the ring.
“Old neighborhood was wiped out,” Prograis said about the aftermath of Katrina. “We had six to eight feet of water in my house. My grandma had like 14 feet of water at her house. Everything was gone. At our house we had salvaged some stuff but, with my grandma, everything was gone. I think she took it the worst because, for older people, it’s not about the house; it’s memories. She was there like 30 or 40 years. It’s about the pictures…she’ll never get those pictures back. My grandma was a big party person and we used to always have the holiday parties at my grandma’s house. She broke down crying, and stuff like that, but, after the storm, she actually got a better house. It’s small blessings, of course. It depends how you look at things. It’s all in your mindset. If you look at that it’s bad, then it’s gonna be bad. If you look at it like it can be good, then it will be good.”
All interviews in this piece were conducted by UCNLive.com at a media workout held at the Wild Card West Gym, in Santa Monica, California, with interwoven lyrics from the tune “Going Back to My Roots” by Odyssey.