Regis Prograis vs Josh Taylor: How Rougarou escaped tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to become world champion
The WBA light welterweight title holder lived in 17 different places after his New Orleans home was lost to the flood
The Louisiana Rougarou can shift shape, take souls and slip back under the thick green slime of the swamps that surround the burning lights of New Orleans.
When Regis Prograis wanted a fight name, something that he felt represented him, he picked the Rougarou and then had the hellish mask made, part wolf, part rabid bat and pure New Orleans black magic midnight. The mask will come out this Saturday at the O2 when Prograis fights Josh Taylor for a glittering pile of world title belts.
“There is New Orleans in my blood - I can feel it,” said Prograis, who is the first world champion from the city since Willie Pastrano lost his title in 1965. “The Rougarou is me, it’s my way of warning opponents that I will change, adapt and take everything they have when we fight.” The Big Foot of the Bayou, as the shape-changing monster is often known, has been used by generations of parents to scare their kids.
It has been a bloody, unforgiving road so far to the O2 for Prograis, a journey with so many twists, deaths, uncertainties and violent turns that it is amazing he is here. In 2005, just hours before Hurricane Katrina landed and destroyed large parts of New Orleans, left the city flooded and killed 1,833 people, Prograis and his family fled.
It was his grandma’s idea, Prograis thought it was just another scare, but his grandma had heard the tearful mayor, Ray Nagin, say that the coming storm would be more vicious, powerful and deadly than Hurricane Betsy. “She lived through that and said she would never do it again,” added Prograis. In 1965 Betsy tore through the feeble New Orleans flood defence system, obliterated blocks, especially in the Ninth Ward, and the water surge covered homes and killed 81 people. In New Orleans the annual hurricane season fills nightmares just like the Rougarou.
“We got out with our bags,” said Prograis. “I had two shorts (pants), two jeans, two socks and two shoes. I had three shirts. That was my life when we left, but I realised that you can’t worry about material things.” It was not a simple journey for Prograis, his grandma and cousins; his mother stayed with her job in New Orleans and his father, they divorced in 2004, went to Detroit. They were all part of a human disaster and exodus that, looking back now, defies logic, thousands of people walking away clutching children, bags and ragged pets as the killer storm approaches at hundreds of miles an hour. The Prograis home on Kuebel Drive in the Lower Ninth Ward vanished in the flood and remains an empty piece of flat land to this day.
Prograis lived in 17 different places, motels, garages, begged living room floors before settling in Houston, a city of refuge for so many Katrina victims. He went to five different high schools. He had started to box just weeks before leaving and he went back to boxing in Houston, hitting bags at the famous Savannah gym as Evander Holyfield was in the ring sparring. “I just had to get on with life,” said Prograis. “I had to keep telling myself that there is no such thing as bad.” Prograis was doing his best against the familiar, sickening elements that can, like the Rougarou, take a young boy forever. He fought 94 times as an amateur, winning 87.
“I live in Houston, but New Orleans will always be my home,” said Prograis, who has the city’s skyline inked across his chest. “I will go back, I will put back, but right now there are just too many distractions in the city for me, now it’s about my boxing career.”
After Prograis turned professional in 2012 he insists that he fought for free or next to nothing five times in his first ten fights; one promoter paid him with a cheque for just one dollar, which he has framed somewhere in his home. “That is the boxing world that people never get to see and that is where I started,” said Prograis, an expert on sacrifice.
Prograis is now unbeaten in 24 fights, 20 have ended quickly and he enters the ring behind his mask holding the WBA and WBC belts at light-welterweight; Taylor is unbeaten in 15 fights and he will be defending his IBF belt. It is a rare, rare fight for a British boxer, a once each generation event, both unbeaten, both world champions.
Prograis has lived a life of suffering, survived death and destruction, lost his home, his friends and his community. He is a displaced idol, searching for a place of permanent safety in many ways and also one of boxing’s best fighters. “I guess I’m just lucky,” he said. He meant it and that tells you all you need to know.