Regis Prograis: the pugilist with passion for books hoping Dubai paves way to world title

American, who has one defeat in 27 pro bouts, takes on Ireland's Tyrone McKenna in WBC title eliminator at Probellum Evolution on Saturday

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Regis Prograis is not your typical boxer.

For a start, he is a former world champion, previously bearer of the WBA super-lightweight belt, and sits currently as Ring Magazine’s No 1-ranked contender at 140lbs.

Of his 27 professional fights to date, Prograis has lost only one, a debatable decision defeat to reigning undisputed champion Josh Taylor two-and-a-half years ago. Twenty-two of Prograis’ 26 victories have come by knockout.

Dubai hosts a world title eliminator as Regis Prograis looks for a knock out night

Dubai hosts a world title eliminator as Regis Prograis looks for a knock out night

From New Orleans, the American and his family survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the disaster prompting a move to Houston, Texas, and the burgeoning of his stellar boxing career.

Not long afterwards, Prograis’ other passion took hold. He is a fervent reader, which sustains to this day, even if his young family – he is father to three children – and his professional ambitions take priority.

"I just like to learn," Prograis says enthusiastically.

At present, he is 400-odd pages through The Dead Are Rising: The Life of Malcolm X, using the hefty tome last week to help pass the 16-hour flight from Los Angeles to Dubai, where on Saturday he continues his quest to become a two-time world champion.

Prograis, 33, faces Ireland’s Tyrone McKenna in the co-main event on the second of two Probellum shows this weekend at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium.

Understandably, there has been little time of late to crack open his book. Prograis doesn’t usually when in “fight mode” anyway, although as he prepared for the clash with Taylor in October 2019 that pitted two unbeaten prizefighters against one another, to stave off boredom in London, he blitzed through three books in two weeks.

Back home, he says his shelves creak under the weight of his ever-expanding collection. His appetite for reading has become so well-known, in fact, that Prograis hardly needs to buy books any more. People send them for free.

So, as he wraps his latest early afternoon sparring session in a gym in Al Quoz, the conversation turns from McKenna and Dubai and chasing titles to his other preoccupation.

“Not going to lie, I hated school,” Prograis tells The National. “I started reading when I was about 19 or 20 years old. And it just took off. I used to read six, seven hours a day; now it’s less because I’ve kids and stuff.

“What happened was, I read a magazine [article] about an Olympic skier who said they replaced TV with a book. Just calculate about how many hours you watch TV – now it’s the phone – but he was watching TV five, six hours a day. That’s lot of time wasted over a week.

"He replaced that with books and he dramatically improved. So I did the same thing: I turned off the TV and just read. I have hundreds of books on our bookshelves, read all of them.”

Prograis began reading up on personal training, since at the time he was employed in that field, then graduated to boxing and also to finance, now that he has a keen interest in investment. He reckons he’s read “almost every fighter that has an autobiography” – books on Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali rank among his favourites – gleaning whatever he could to make him a more complete boxer.

If running while wearing old-school boots was good enough for Joe Louis, or jogging with weights in hand for Joe Frazier, then it’s good for Prograis, too.

There’s the mental side of it, as well, taking inspiration from how others came up in the game, how they escaped destitution or death, or whichever struggle they circumvented to succeed. It can all benefit.

“I read another thing,” Prograis says. “A book, they say, is about six years’ work for that author. So if you can get six years’ of knowledge of your life, six years of research, and do it in however long it takes to read a book – two or three weeks – why wouldn’t you do it? It doesn’t make sense. That’s why I do it.”

Prograis is firmly in fight mode now, though, as Saturday’s encounter with McKenna marks another climb back towards the top. Prograis rebounded impressively from the Taylor anguish – he lost an epic contest to the Scot 117-12, 115-13, 114-114 – with successive, punishing knockouts against his past two opponents.

“I’m not going to lie, I never even thought … when I said I couldn’t get beat, I felt I couldn’t even come close to getting beat,” Prograis says. “So I took a loss. I still think I won the fight, but at the same time, he won the fight. That was Josh Taylor’s night.”

Perhaps more than most, Prograis can relate to Jack Catterall, the previously undefeated Englishman who last month lost a hugely contentious decision to Taylor in Glasgow. The fallout has been frenzied and forensic, with some controversially suggesting it was not simply bad judging.

Prograis stops short of that, but says: “It’s definitely a shame, because right now Catterall should be the undisputed champion at 140. He might never get the opportunity again, for all four belts in one fight.

“I thought I won our fight, but that? Mine was close in London, it could have gone either way, but Catterall? It was a clear victory. It's just sad that somebody like Catterall has worked his whole life to become, not just a champion, but he could’ve been undisputed champion at 140. And it’s just taken away just like that [clicks fingers].”

Prograis isn’t sure what can be done to ensure similar controversies are avoided, but in terms of him overcoming his own defeat to Taylor, he did what only he could: he resolved to become a better proponent of the sweet science.

“I want to be more of a thinking boxer, more of a boxer instead of a brawler,” he says. “I came up as a brawler; I want to fight, that’s what I want to do. And [Taylor] kind of got into my head, ‘Let’s fight’. And we just fought for 12 rounds.

“After that, I learnt a lesson: it’s called hit and not be hit. So that’s what I’m working on. Longevity-wise, it’s just being smart and I’m better as a boxer. Of course, I can bring the dog out anytime I need. But it’s called boxing, not fighting.”

Prograis says the dog could still emerge on Saturday should McKenna want it. The Irishman, the WBO intercontinental super-lightweight champion, has been characteristically vocal in the build-up, both on social media and during a recent virtual video interview in which the two rivals appeared simultaneously.

McKenna, who has two defeats and one draw in 25 pro bouts, has challenged Prograis to a "war” inside the ring in Dubai.

“Bring it on,” Prograis says. “If he’s sure he wants to bring war with me, we’ll see if he really wants that. I’m going to see what McKenna has. I’m more of a face-to-face guy. Social media’s cool, but I’m excited to see him in person this week, and then we’ll see what he really says to us.”

With the fight taking place during St Patrick’s Day week, McKenna is sure to enjoy the majority support right next to the Irish Village. Not that that concerns Prograis.

“His crowd, but after the fight we can probably go out eat, drink and have fun with all the Irish,” he says, before adding with a smile. “My nutritionist is Irish; he might be actually rooting for him.”

More seriously, the World Boxing Council (WBC) has confirmed this weekend’s clash is a title eliminator, adding yet more fuel to the fire. Not that that was needed.

“This is crazy, man,” Prograis says. “I’m a kid from New Orleans, Louisiana, and I’m fighting in Dubai. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself. All my idols fought around the world. If you want to be a true world champion, you have to fight around the world.”

Most of the family have joined Prograis in the emirate in what they hope will be the penultimate obstacle in capturing another world crown. Prograis calls this a new chapter in his career – last October, he signed with promotion Probellum – and he considers it will be “the best chapter in boxing and in my life”.

“After this, my goal is to become the world champion again,” Prograis says. “That’s my main focus right now. It’s nothing personal against McKenna; he’s just in my way to getting another belt. That’s all. Whoever’s in my way I’m going to run them over.”

Saturday, then, can’t come too soon.

“With me, you’re always going to get fireworks,” Prograis says. "That’s one thing, I’m going to be an exciting fighter. McKenna says he wants to go to war with me; if he wants to bang it out, then hey, somebody’s going to go asleep. And it won’t be me.”

Updated: March 16, 2022, 6:14 AM