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Super lightweight champ Regis Prograis wants to emulate Muhammad Ali

‘I want to follow in his footsteps, not just because of boxing. More because of the person he was.’

If you poll most professional boxers on who their role models in the ring were growing up, chances are excellent that Muhammad Ali will be in every conversation.

It’s no different for New Orleans native Regis Prograis, who is just hours away from possibly being catapulted into stardom in a junior welterweight title unification bout against Josh Taylor in the World Boxing Super Series final, where he has the chance to also earn the Muhammad Ali Trophy. Prograis says he’s a student of the fight game, but following in the footsteps of his idol extends way past the ring, as he makes the effort to involve himself in restoration and youth-centric projects in his native New Orleans; the same way Ali did in Louisville, Kentucky. This inspired him to not only stand up for his hometown, but for the people who don’t have a voice, like many of those who were displaced following a fateful few days in The Big Easy back in 2005.

Prograis was one of them. His road to professional boxing was not easy and included the realities of being homeless following Hurricane Katrina. He recalled that he was angry, but later realized that being forced to leave the city he loved actually set him on a path to a successful boxing career so far. Prograis discussed his journey with The Undefeated.

Boxer Regis Prograis poses by the pitch ahead of the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Watford FC at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Oct. 19 in London.

Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

Can you tell me about your upbringing in New Orleans, what the city means to you, and how it helped mold you in your early years?

Growing up in New Orleans, the main thing I can describe is, it was fun. I pity the kids right now because their childhood, I feel like, wasn’t like mine. My parents used to punish us by saying, ‘Stay inside.’ Now it’s the opposite, they punish you by saying, ‘Go outside,’ these days. That was when I was real young.

Later, when I was a little older, New Orleans was like an inverted capital. I fell in love with my hometown, but definitely, it was a very dangerous city. But when you’re young, it’s just normal to you, you don’t even think about that type of stuff. You grow up and you see how bad the city was as an adult, but as kids it was just a normal part of life. You deal with what you were given, but it’s tough to look back on parts of it now.

You and your family are Hurricane Katrina transplants. Like so many others, you migrated to Houston from New Orleans after losing it all during the storm. How difficult was that?

I mean, at first it was very difficult. I think a lot of people were kind of not welcoming us. They were calling us refugees and all that type of stuff, in our own country. For me, it just wasn’t fair. I think we were kind of looked down upon. When we moved to Houston, I packed up all I had left. Three T-shirts, one pair of jeans, one pair of shoes, three pair of drawers, and two pair of socks. And that’s all I had for months, until we got donated stuff and all that.

When we first got here, I mean we just moved all around. I think I counted 16, 17 different locations. We was everywhere. And at the time I went to five different high schools because of that. Before Hurricane Katrina, I went to two different high schools, then post-Katrina, I went to three other high schools after that. It was just a whole lot of moving around.

Was that difficult for you emotionally?

Thinking back on it, it was. When I was that age — and I was 16, 17 years old — it was, but I mean, I can’t even look at it like that anymore because I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for that. It sounds bad to say, but Katrina was one of the best things that ever happened in my whole life, because it made me move away from New Orleans. If I would have stayed in New Orleans, I don’t know where I would’ve ended up. The wrong crowd was everywhere. Of course, at that time, it was a hard thing because everybody just had to get up and move, your life is gone, your whole life that you’ve ever known is gone. You don’t have it anymore, it’s gone.

Of course, bad things happen to people everywhere. Some people’s houses can catch on fire and then their house is gone, all their material things are gone. But with Hurricane Katrina, the whole city was gone. That was it. Everybody you ever known, you and your whole neighborhood is gone. Everybody is moving and your life will never, ever, ever be the same again. … We had to move away and life was never the same again. But, for me, it was a blessing in disguise. So it’s hard for me to even say how bad Katrina was because it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.

It was right after you moved to Houston that you began to fight. How did you discover your ability?

I was always rough and I loved to fight. I started karate but I kept quitting; it was kind of boring for me. It wasn’t the full physical contact that I really wanted, and so that’s why I quit that and I started playing football. I loved to play those sports, but I hated practice. So I went back to karate a couple of times and I was just so good.

But the last time I ever went to karate, I sparred with somebody, and I hurt him, I really hurt the kid real bad. After that I wasn’t using my legs anymore. So essentially, I was only boxing, and another day we were sparring and I hit somebody and I hit him real hard. And so, the coach at the time was like, ‘Man, you can’t do this. You need to either go back and play football or you need to box.’ And so, that’s kind of what I did. And I still didn’t discover boxing yet, but me and my friends, we would get the boxing gloves and we were fighting.

But that still wasn’t the moment you realized your talent?

No, it wasn’t. That happened one time in 10th grade. One day at lunchtime I heard just a lot of yelling in a classroom, and so I knocked on the door and everything really got quiet.

So somebody opened the door and I was like, ‘What y’all doing here?’ And so they opened up a little bit more, and I saw it was two people with a pair of boxing gloves. They were fighting, and one of the dudes at the door was like, ‘Man, you can’t come in unless you fight.’ At first, I ain’t going to lie, I was probably a little scared. But then, one of my friends looked at me and he kind of just gave me that look, and so I put the gloves on and I started fighting.

There was another dude and he had the gloves on, he was looking for somebody to fight, but nobody wanted to fight him. He was older and bigger, I think he was a senior, and I got in there with him and I whupped him real bad, I just beat him up. And so then everybody was kind of shocked, because I wasn’t known for that. When I was younger, I was known for just being a class clown.

But anyways, after that fight, I kept doing it, and I kept winning, I kept beating up people. And then one day, one of the football coaches, he came in, he watched, and I whupped this dude real bad and at that moment, after it was over, he pulled me to the side and he was like, ‘Man, I don’t think you got a future in football, but you might have one in boxing.’

And then after that, I mean, I just turned in my football equipment and that’s when it kind of hit me, I was 16 and I wanted to box. That’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to fight. And so then around this time, this is, like I say, my 10th grade year in high school, so I told my mom I wanted to go to a boxing gym, and she agreed. I was working in the summertime, so after work I would just go to the gym and just train and train all night long. And that’s just something that I really loved to do. I knew I wasn’t going back to no other sport after I really started boxing.

Do you feel that after everything that happened with Katrina, boxing was an outlet for you?

Looking back on it, when I was a kid I loved the sport, but it also just let me release my anger. Because I had some personal stuff going on in my head after the hurricane hit. I remember being angry. So I look back on it now, I was still a little kid so I didn’t really know what was going on. I just know, I love to fight, I love to hit the bag and it was frustration. I’m a grown man now, so I know it was getting my frustrations out, basically, from all the hurricane stuff, everything. … It was an outlet for me and I feel like I turned it into a golden opportunity now.

You’re 30 years old, 24-0, what does it mean to you have this platform now?

Well, first off, the main thing I do in New Orleans, communitywise, is it’s a lot of work with the kids. I do all kinds of stuff, but I go to a bunch of schools, a bunch of programs, I help out. I always do a camp with the kids, before all my fights, every city I go to. I do a little small fight camp for the kids, go talk to them, and it’s just a routine thing I do now. My main thing is to give back knowledge. I just want to inspire, basically, because growing up in New Orleans as a boxer, I never had the inspiration.

Regis put together a photo shoot reenacting some of Ali’s most iconic photos.

Sye Williams

You look up to a famous boxer that also did a lot of philanthropic work. Of course we’re talking about Muhammad Ali. You decided to reenact some of his famous photos. Can you tell me about that project?

Me and my team kind of came up with the idea. I wanted to kind of mimic the same things he did. At the end of the day, of course, I want to emulate Ali. He was the first true boxing icon. I feel like God broke the mold after him, that was it. It’s never going to be another Muhammad Ali again, and I want to, kind of, follow in his footsteps, not just because of boxing. More because of the person he was. He stood up for people. He stood up for the black race at the time, and he was saying how pretty he was and stuff and he just gave the people belief and confidence.

There’s not too many people that’ll stand up, especially that can stand up and leave all that success and money and all that stuff on the table. The three years that he was exiled would have been his best years in the ring, and that’s just talking about him as a person. Now you talk about him as an athlete, him as a fighter, just look how great he was. They called him the greatest, and I truly believe that he was. Especially in a heavyweight, I think he was the greatest heavyweight of all time. I don’t think too many people would be able to compete with Ali, just because of how strong he was, how strong-willed he was. I can go on and on about Ali all day, I just know so much about him.

Speaking of Ali, you’re fighting for the Ali trophy this Saturday in London. How cool is it to be fighting for a trophy named after your hero?

I mean, it’s everything, man. It’s only two people in the world with the trophy right now. So I’ll be the third person in the entire world that has this trophy. … Of course the belts and I’ll fight for my belt and his belt, the Ring Magazine belt, but to be fighting for the Muhammad Ali Trophy, it’s special, and it is my history, it’s my personal history, with being mixed, so I just can’t wait.

Regis Prograis (left) looks at Josh Taylor (right) during the head-to-head face-off after the news conference ahead of the World Boxing Super Series Super-Lightweight Ali Trophy Final at Canary Riverside Plaza Hotel in London.

James Chance/Getty Images

You’re fighting Josh Taylor of Scotland. What kind of fight are we expecting to see Saturday?

He’s the IBF champion right now. He’s undefeated, he’s tall, he’s long, he’s a softball, just like I was, he has power. I think he could take a punch. I respect him totally, 100%. I don’t see how he can beat me, and I’ve been saying this forever, I cannot see how he can possibly beat me. But he’s a very good fighter and I respect him to the fullest.

Stefano Fusaro is a bureau reporter for ESPN, and has covered sports in major markets for 13 years. He’s a proud first generation American of Hispanic descent, but he was too short to make it to the NBA. So he settles for being an NBA 2K Hall of Famer.