Regis Prograis is not your typical fighter or even your typical human being. He talks in-depth to Donald McRae about the dreams that both inspire and haunt him, and the ‘peaceful and demonic’ spiritual episodes he’s encountered. He realises all too well he sounds crazy
EVERY time I interview Regis Prograis we go somewhere new. It is like catching a train to some unknown destination that emerges, from out of the mist, as a place of mystery and surprise after we have followed a curved track around a mountain or rattled past the steamy swamplands of Louisiana. Today is no different. After we remember the death last month of his favourite fighter, Marvin Hagler, Prograis talks about the visions he sometimes sees either awake or in his sleep. They can be serene or terrifying figures, or simply the face of a murdered friend who wants to pass on a message to the fighter at night.
We talk about death, and how Prograis feels no fear but just acceptance that he will leave this world when his time is up, and about so much happiness and hope. It is no ordinary boxing interview even though, this Saturday night in Atlanta, Prograis will be back in the ring against Ivan Redkach as he becomes the second major American fighter, after Teofimo Lopez, to be promoted by the ambitious new outfit Triller which hopes to change the US boxing landscape.
Prograis has lost only one fight, an agonisingly narrow defeat to Josh Taylor in the final of the World Boxing Super Series super-lightweight final in London in one of 2019’s great contests. He has won all his other 25 bouts and he remains in the top three of the world in the 140 pound division. Taylor, the IBF and WBA champion, and José Ramírez, the WBC and WBO title-holder, meet in a unification contest on 22 May in Las Vegas – with Prograis hopeful he will eventually fight the winner. But, as has happened so often in his career, this most accomplished and fascinating of fighters feel like he is on the outside looking in while Taylor and Ramírez battle for all the belts and glory.
It hurts and it makes Prograis feel an even deeper affinity with Hagler, an undoubted boxing great who suffered early on and at the very end of his career. Hagler only fought for a world title in his 50th bout and he was on the raw end of decisions both in and out of the ring. “I love Hagler, man,” Prograis says. “He was so determined because he had a chip on his shoulder. It’s the same with me. I’ve got a little chip on my shoulder and I’m out to prove people wrong. You know I had a real good amateur career. I was ranked No4 in the country, I went to the  Olympic trials. But when I came out of the amateurs I didn’t get signed. Nobody wanted me at first. It took Hagler even longer but we both became world champions [Prograis won the WBA title two years ago this month before losing it to Taylor].
“So I’ve just got to keep cool. I’m always looking at ways to get better – like Hagler did. Now most fighters look up to Hagler. He was just so good but there were a lot of times when nobody wanted him. He had to work so hard. I also busted my ass to become world champion. I didn’t get the decision I wanted against Taylor, and so the title has gone, but I’m back on the grind and I’m going to be a world champion again. I want to prove I’m still the best at 140.
“It was the same with Hagler. No matter the obstacles he showed dedication and persistence. And I’ve been persistent since I was young. Ask my mom about it. I used to bug the s**t out of her. She would say: ‘No, you can’t have that candy’ and I would say: ‘Why?’ I just kept asking. I’m rare because I’m a very, very persistent person. I’m going to get what I want. Ask anybody around me. Whatever I said I’ll do, I did. Now I’m telling you I’m going to be boxing’s No.1 one day and I can guarantee I’ll do it. Hagler was the same. I am following his path.”
I have seen a photograph of Hagler and Prograis together and he explains that, “It was taken in Verona in New York [State]. I normally don’t get star-struck by anybody but I did with Hagler. I just told him: ‘You’re a legend.’ Pernell Whitaker was also there but it was different with Hagler. That meant so much more. Evander Holyfield was there too but I had met him a bunch of times. Hagler got all my attention. Being around him, in his presence, you felt that aura. Same thing when I met Ray Leonard. It was like: ‘Damn, it’s Sugar Ray Leonard!’ I’ve been around movie stars and rappers and singers. But, when it’s a giant of your profession, I just love it. I wish I could have talked to Hagler. I would have learnt so much.”
Prograis is always open and he explains how, as we talk about death, that a kid he knew at school, a boy called Shaddy Boo, was murdered a few years ago in New Orleans. Shaddy Boo occasionally returns to Prograis in his dreams and it feels like, the fighter explains, “He is trying to tell me something, like he wants to get a message to me. I always wonder what it means.”
The story sounds so intriguing that I ask Prograis to tell me more. “All right,” he says with a smile. “So Shaddy was not a close friend. He was somebody I knew and then hung with a little bit. But Shaddy would pick on me when we were younger. We went to the same high school and he was a big-time football player. He was also known as a fighter. He was big and rough. I wouldn’t say he was a bully but people knew not to play with him. One day all of the football players were in the classroom and they was making a lot of noise. I knocked on the door and went in with a few of my friends behind me.”
Prograis pauses and then opens his eyes wide as if surprised all over again. “Man, they were boxing in the classroom! I was a soft boy at the time and he was like the cool kid, the older kid, with all the cool football players. Shaddy Boo says: ‘You can’t come in unless you fight somebody.’ All of my friends were scared and they wasn’t about to fight nobody. I said OK to Shaddy Boo and I ended up beating someone up. That’s how I got known as a fighter. Until then I had been the class clown but this gave me something different. Shaddy Boo liked that because he was running the whole boxing thing at school.
“Years later he got murdered at his house in New Orleans. He was shot up and stuff. And now, I don’t know why, I always dream about him. I wouldn’t say he got me started in boxing but I wanted to prove something to him and it led me to where I am now. I think my dream is also me talking to him, saying, ‘Hey, Shaddy Boo. Look who I became.’ But, more than that, I feel him trying to tell me something. Maybe one day I will understand.”
Prograis has not dreamed about Shaddy Boo for a while but I learn something new about him when he tells me he sometimes sees visions. He talks so calmly that his words sound genuine and credible. “I’ve not really spoken about this but my grandmother said I was born with a veil over my eyes. I am not sure what that really means but I know she believes I saw spirits. The first time I described what I saw my grandma said, ‘You have something about you.’ People won’t believe me but I’ve been seeing things for a long time. It’s not just four or five times. I’ve seen a bunch of stuff and it’s hard to explain.
“The first one I saw was like a really, really tall lady. I was in my bed and I remember I was laying down. I used to sleep with the TV on when I was younger and I rolled over and she was standing there. She was real tall, taller even than the doorway. She kept looking at me. I turned away to the other side because I was scared. Then I was like: ‘All right, maybe I’m tripping after watching too much TV.’ So I rolled back over and she was still there, just looking at me. I kept looking at her for quite a while and then I turned away. When I rolled back a little later she was gone.
“The second time I seen something was in my room in New Orleans. It was two little kids sitting on the top shelf I had. They were watching me and their feet were moving. I’ve been seeing stuff like this a long while. I sometimes wake up from my sleep and see things. It’s like I’m hallucinating but I don’t take drugs or drink. I don’t do that type of stuff. So what is it?
“Sometimes it’s peaceful and sometimes it’s like a demon. One of the worst things I ever seen happened when I went to sleep early as I had to get up to train. This was about four years ago. I turned over and it was like a black thing right here [over his head] looking deep in my face. I screamed to my wife: ‘Raquel! Raquel!’ She came in and she was f**king scared because I never did that before. That was one of the worst ones.”
Prograis nods when I ask if he regards the visons he sees as some kind of eerie gift? “Yeah, being from New Orleans I’m into this stuff. And I feel it because I’ve seen it so much. I know other people won’t believe me because it sounds crazy. But I’ve had this since I was about 11 years old. The first one I saw was there for a very long time. She was looking over me and it’s why I feel I have something over my shoulder. I do so much dangerous stuff and I could have died a bunch of times. But I feel like I’m here because I have something that’s protecting me, basically.
“It helps me when I am in the ring. We know how dangerous boxing is but I’m very, very resilient. My coach has seen me being willing to die every single day. I go into the gym and every sparring session and every fight I’m willing to put everything on the line. I’m not wanting to die but I’m going to bust my ass every day until I almost pass out. I know the human body is capable of so much more than we think. There are so many extraordinary people in this world who can pick up thousands of pounds or run hundreds of miles or swim under the ice.
“I look up to those people – like guys who can be underwater for 10 minutes at a time [without an oxygen tank]. Our bodies are capable of so much more than we think. I can hold my breath for almost four minutes underwater. I can do that if I’m static. When you dive it’s different because you’re moving and so I can only do maybe two minutes.”
Prograis loves to do wild and daring activities and, he says, “I’m not scared to die. When it’s time to go, you know it’s your time. That’s how I felt even when I was skydiving and the parachute got tangled in the sky. I was with this guy [strapped to an instructor] and he was panicking and screaming in my ear: ‘Kick! Kick! Kick!’ But you’re going down so fast it’s hard to hear. When we got to the ground he told me that he’d had to cut it [to open the emergency parachute] and if he hadn’t done that we would have died. I was cool about it. I just feel I will know when it’s my time to go. I also feel I have, like, a guardian angel watching over me until then. So I’m going to live life every day to the full extent.”
The 32-year-old could also be seen as a risk-taker in boxing because, on Saturday, he will box on the undercard to a YouTube fighter in Jake Paul and Ben Askren, who is better known in the MMA worlds of Bellator and UFC. Rather than seeing it as an insult to a world class boxer of his reputation, Progais embraces the change. He also admits that the staggering amount of money that Triller paid to Lopez, after he beat Vasiliy Lomachenko last October, encouraged him to also switch to the new company for this next fight.
“I was happy for Teofimo Lopez when Triller came in because he deserved it. I’m also glad it’s another network in town. It means more money is being thrown around so it’s a good time to be a fighter. They’ve been really good to me and I’m just excited about fighting in Atlanta for them on the 17th. Boxing has been the same for a long time and they are doing it in a different way. I was talking about doing this two or three years ago so we have artists [such as Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube who will perform between the fights on the Triller bill]. We tried to do it with Top Rank at one of my fights in New Orleans but they said ‘no’ to everything and the Louisiana commission shut it down. But we need an event like we are having with Triller.”
How does he feel being on the undercard to Jake Paul? “It’s a whole new audience, man. That’s why I had to jump at this opportunity. It’s going to be great for me and my career.”
Prograis points out that Redkach, his opponent, has a credible 23-5-1 record. He lost to Danny Garcia last year but, in the fight before that, he beat Devon Alexander. “He’s definitely a real opponent and I’ve been training my ass off to have a spectacular performance. He does have sneaky power but I’ve been working on being more of a boxer. I should beat him really easy.”
Of course this contest does not carry the status or significance of Taylor v Ramirez next month. Who does Prograis expect to win? “Taylor’s a real good boxer and that’s how he beats Ramirez. Just don’t get in a war with José because he is strong and he’s going to keep coming. If Josh keeps that right hand in his face all night it could be easy. It don’t matter to me but I just think Josh Taylor will win. It could be close but I favour Josh. I’ll be at the fight and then hopefully I get the winner. We’ll see what happens from there. But there’s no telling in boxing. You don’t know how things will play out. I just keep my fingers crossed.”
Prograis has been through great adversity. He and his family lost everything when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. He was 16-years-old and his parents had separated two years earlier. “It wasn’t a happy time,” he says of the break-up. “My wife said to me yesterday: ‘Your family needs counselling.’ She is right. I think we need that as family. For me it worked out real good thanks to boxing. My sister, India, is also doing real well. So us kids are in a good place but I think my mom and my dad really need counselling. We all need counselling together. My mom blames my daddy for a lot of things and he has got some kind of hold on my mom. They’ve got to let all that stuff go.
“For me, as a teenager, when I moved to Houston with my [Native American] grandparents I found boxing. I love boxing and it was a way to get my frustration out. I used to beat the hell out of the bags every day. I poured all that frustration and hurt out of me and then, when I became an adult, I found perspective.”
Prograis is also a great reader and books helped him change his life. “You know how much I read,” he says because I have sent a few books to him over the years. “I have read such a lot since I was 19. It’s crazy because I never did it when I was in school. I hated school but I absolutely loved to learn. So I was always reading books. They helped me understand that happiness is a choice. You can wake up every day and you can be mad about something or you can wake up every day and be happy about something.
“People ask how it feels to be my position right now, having all these material things, and I always say my attitude never ever changed. I believe in stuff way deeper than wealth or material stuff. I’m just happy to be here. I’m not a religious person but I wake up and thank God every day for what I have in life. I have my family and my health and boxing. I love what I do every single day. Most people cannot say that. They’ve got to work somewhere they don’t want to be or come home to someone they don’t like. But I just love everything about my life.”
Prograis, a visionary and a fighter, a boxer like few others in this hard and brutal business, looks up and smiles. “Yeah, man,” he says softly, “happiness is a choice.”