By Keith Idec
Three weeks. Make that three excruciatingly long weeks.
That’s how long it took after Hurricane Katrina ruined New Orleans for Regis Prograis to find out if his mother, Shelita Martinez Prograis, was alive. She stayed in New Orleans until much of the decimated city was under water in September 2005.
At the insistence of his grandmother, Carol Martinez, Regis Prograis, his grandfather, Clay, his younger sister, India, and a cousin had evacuated their hometown the day before the levees broke and headed for Houston. Their cell phones weren’t working in the aftermath of the disaster, so it wasn’t until late in September that Regis Prograis finally was able to speak to his mom and learned that she had temporarily moved to Atlanta.
Prograis, an undefeated super lightweight contender, realized once he was able to return to his neighborhood in New Orleans’ ninth ward later in 2005 that his life would never be the same.
“My momma and my grandma and everybody, they were devastated,” Prograis told BoxingScene.com. “We went back early to check on the houses. When we seen the damage, that’s when we knew, ‘That’s it. Your life is changed forever. You’re not going back home.’ My grandma had 13 feet of water in her house and her house was cracked down the middle, right down the middle. Like you could walk through the house and look down through the Earth.
“And we had eight feet of water in our house. We saved some stuff, but for my grandma, everything was gone. Once we saw that, we knew we weren’t coming back to our old life no more and we had to start a new life. And that’s what we did. That’s what everybody had to do.”
The 28-year-old Prograis estimates that he moved 16 times following Katrina – all around Houston, to Mississippi, to a suburb of New Orleans, back to Houston, where he has lived for more than a decade. He lived everywhere from hotels to cousins’ homes to strangers’ basements, attended five high schools and spent more time standing in FEMA lines than he cares to remember.
“Everything about your life, you just take it away,” Prograis said. “Everything that you know, it’s just gone. It’s like if somebody had a fire in their house, and it burned down the whole house, that it’s all gone. But imagine your whole city – like all your friends, all your family, everything is gone.
“So of course it has a devastating effect because your whole life is turned upside down. A lot of people couldn’t bounce back from it. Luckily I was young and I used it as motivation – I did something good with it. But a lot of people, it made them worse, I feel. It made me do better, I guess.”
Boxing became Prograis’ salvation in Houston. He boxed briefly in New Orleans before Katrina hit, but spent about a year away from the sport after the catastrophe.
Once he returned to the sport, Prograis produced an 87-7 amateur record, including a pair of losses to emerging star Errol Spence Jr. Spence, the newly crowned IBF welterweight champion, won both bouts. Their first fight was a close contest (3-2) that Prograis recalls many people telling him he won in Dallas, near Spence’s hometown of DeSoto, Texas.
“I didn’t feel I won the fight, but a lot of people thought that I won,” Prograis said. “But it was in Dallas and it was a 3-2 split. So that should tell you right there how close the fight was. In the second fight, I had a different game plan and he caught on to that game plan fast. He kind of got me the second time [again on points].”
The promising Prograis turned pro after failing to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team and five years into his career has developed into a contender. The powerful southpaw is 19-0 and has 16 knockouts entering his pivotal 10-round fight against another unbeaten boxer, California’s Joel Diaz Jr. (23-0, 19 KOs), on Friday night in Verona, New York.
A victory over Diaz in their “ShoBox: The New Generation” main event at Turning Stone Resort Casino would push Prograis closer to a world title shot. Their fight, which will headline Showtime’s 10:30 p.m. ET/PT telecast, will be part of the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s annual induction weekend.
“I’m anxious and I’m excited to go out there,” Prograis said. “I know a lot of people will be watching, not just on TV, but in the audience. I just wanna go out there, excite the crowd and do what I do, like I’ve been doing. I don’t wanna think about all that stuff and bring pressure on me. At the same time, you have no choice but to think about it.”
Prograis and Diaz both expect the most difficult fight of their respective careers.
“He’s coming in to fight,” Prograis said. “He’s 23-0 with 19 knockouts. He has big knockout power, but I think he’s flat-footed and he’s been hurt before. I know he’s been down, too, and I don’t think he’s gonna be able to stand up to my power or my speed or my boxing ability. I know I can bring out so many different things, and that’s what I plan on doing. We’ll see what he can do.”
If Prograis can do what he thinks he can accomplish against Diaz, he’ll set his sights on facing the elite fighters in his division. Ideally, he would like to test himself against unbeaten WBC/WBO super lightweight champion Terence Crawford (31-0, 22 KOs).
Prograis realizes, though, that Crawford first is likely to face IBF/IBO/WBA champion Julius Indongo (22-0, 11 KOs) in a full 140-pound championship unification fight. Crawford figures to continue pursuing a welterweight title fight against Filipino icon Manny Pacquiao if he defeats Indongo, but if Crawford remains at 140 pounds, that’s a fight Prograis wants.
“For me to win a title, it’s big for my personal goals,” Prograis said. “I think it’ll mean even more for my city. I don’t even remember the last time they had a world champion. They need somebody like that. I’m not only trying to be a world champion, I’m trying to be a superstar. So that’s why I’m calling out Terence Crawford. I want a Terence Crawford fight or an Adrien Broner fight because they do have big names. They don’t just have belts.
“You’ve got somebody like Ricky Burns, that had a belt. But he’s not a name or nothing like that. Indongo, he has two belts, but he’s not a name. That’s why I wanna fight Terence Crawford, because he’s pound-for-pound No. 4 in the world. He’s not only a world champion, he’s a pound-for-pound contender. He’s that good. That’s why I wanna fight somebody like that, to put on of course for myself and put on for my city.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.