By Keith Idec
Regis Prograis got the sense as soon as Bob Arum asked him to fight on Jose Ramirez’s undercard this summer that the Hall-of-Fame promoter had no intention of putting Prograis in the ring with the undefeated fighter his company developed into an attraction.
Ramirez had just beaten Amir Imam to win the WBC super lightweight title March 17 when Arum made that promotional pitch to Prograis at ringside in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Prograis believes that 140-pound championship rightfully belongs to him and he had no interest in delaying the fight against the Ramirez-Imam winner he was promised when he agreed to fight for the WBC’s interim title eight days earlier.
The 29-year-old Prograis doesn’t think Ramirez is scared to fight him, just that Ramirez’s team doesn’t consider it a particularly good idea.
“I suspected he wasn’t gonna fight me anyway, just from the initial conversation I had with Bob Arum,” Prograis told BoxingScene.com. “As soon as he [beat Imam], he said, ‘I want you to fight on his undercard.’ Just from him saying that, I already knew it most likely wasn’t gonna happen. Now he’s gonna fight in his hometown and I’m gonna fight in my hometown, so I guess things worked out how they wanted it to work out.”
That’s the silver lining for Prograis.
The powerful southpaw won’t get his chance to knock off Ramirez, but he will get the opportunity to fight in his hometown of New Orleans. Prograis (21-0, 18 KOs) is scheduled to fight Argentina’s Juan Jose Velasco (20-0, 12 KOs) in a 12-round main event for the WBC’s diamond title July 14 at Lakefront Arena, near where Prograis grew up in East New Orleans.
ESPN, with which Arum’s Top Rank Inc. has a content partnership, will air the Prograis-Velasco fight before an ESPN Pay-Per-View broadcast begins later that night. The main event of that pay-per-view show will feature Manny Pacquiao (59-7-2, 38 KOs) and WBA world welterweight champ Lucas Matthysse (39-4, 36 KOs, 1 NC) in a 12-rounder from Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia.
“Man, I’m super-excited,” Prograis said. “People are always coming up to me, asking me, ‘When you gonna fight [in New Orleans]? Bring the fight here.’ Now it’s finally here, so I’m super-excited because this is a real big fight for me. Opponent-wise, he’s maybe not as known as a Julius Indongo or Joel Diaz. But this is gonna be huge for me.”
Prograis had just begun boxing when he was forced to evacuate New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. He relocated to Houston, where he has lived the past 12½ years and trains, but New Orleans will always be home for one of boxing’s emerging champions.
“It’s super-special, just to show people you can get through anything,” Prograis said. “I grew up right around the corner from this arena. It’s super-special, just to go back and show the people what you can accomplish if you can see your dreams and live out your visions, go through it and stick with it.”
Prograis admits he didn’t know Velasco existed before their fight was made. His 31-year-old opponent has fought a low level of opposition, but Prograis realizes Velasco will come to New Orleans determined to make his career off of upsetting him.
“All I know is he’s undefeated and I think that’s all I really need to know about him,” Prograis said. “I don’t ever study my opponents, so I don’t know anything about him. But I don’t think it’ll be more challenging to get up for the fight because I always wanna go out there and make a statement. I feel like I have been making statements.”
Prograis couldn’t have made a more emphatic statement in his last fight. He knocked out former IBF/IBO/WBA champ Julius Indongo in the second round to win the WBC’s interim super lightweight title March 9 in Deadwood, South Dakota.
That impressive victory over Namibia’s Indongo (22-1, 11 KOs) came one round earlier than Terence Crawford stopped Indongo in their full 140-pound title unification fight August 19 in Lincoln, Nebraska.
In his previous appearance, Prograis floored Joel Diaz Jr. four times on his way to stopping the then-undefeated Diaz (23-1, 19 KOs) by second-round technical knockout June 9 in Verona, New York.
Prograis realizes his hometown fans will expect more of the same July 14.
“I don’t know about my opponent, but I have to make a statement in New Orleans,” said Prograis, whose fight will be officially announced Wednesday during a press conference there. “So I think this fight is gonna be for just the whole city of New Orleans. I have to go out there and perform my best because I’m in front of my hometown. I think that’s more pressure. For me, I could lose everything with one punch and he can gain everything.”
The unbeaten Prograis wouldn’t just lose his unblemished record if Velasco upsets him. He also would lose his place in the lucrative World Boxing Super Series’ 140-pount tournament.
The official field hasn’t been announced, but Prograis is committed to participating in that single-elimination tournament. His first fight in it could come in October against an undetermined opponent.
By entering the WBSS, Prograis essentially gave up his mandated shot at Ramirez (22-0, 16 KOs), who won’t participate in it. The 2012 Olympian from Avenal, California, is scheduled to make the first defense of his WBC super lightweight championship against huge underdog Danny O’Connor (30-3, 11 KOs) on July 7 in Fresno, California.
Prograis still hopes to meet Ramirez in the ring one day. For now, however, he is focused on beating Velasco and challenging himself against top opponents in the WBSS.
In addition to Prograis, it is supposed to include WBA champ Kiryl Relikh (22-2, 19 KOs), who’ll face mandatory challenger Eduard Troyanovsky (27-1, 24 KOs) in the quarterfinals, Ryan Martin (22-0, 12 KOs), and Ivan Baranchyk (18-0, 11 KOs), who’ll square off against Anthony Yigit (21-0-1, 7 KOs) for the vacant IBF title in the quarterfinals.
“It’s perfect,” Prograis said. “In the tournament, there’s no running, no ducking. It’s the best fighting the best. I feel like that’s how it’s supposed to be. I wanna prove myself. In the tournament, there’s gonna be set dates and set fights. So you’re gonna know who you’re gonna fight. There’s not gonna be running around and hiding, none of that stuff. It’s the best fighting the best. I love those rules. That’s real good for boxing.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.