‘Your night, champ’: inside Prograis’ locker room for his world title fight

<span>Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA</span>
Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

The late autumn sun, which had lit up Los Angeles on a beautiful afternoon, slipped away when Regis Prograis arrived at the Dignity Health Sports Park. It was 5.45pm on Saturday and LA Galaxy’s home had turned into the War Ground – as their boxing arena is known. Prograis was three hours from stepping into the ring to fight Jose Zepeda for the WBC’s world super-lightweight title on an unforgettable night.

Drifting past the David Beckham statue, and down into the basement, Prograis and his team wore gleaming white tracksuits with an image of the Rougorou emblazoned on the front and back. The rougarou, a wolf-like monster in Cajun folklore as well as being the boxer’s nickname, is a mark of his Louisiana roots. Prograis grew up in New Orleans and only left for Houston after he and his family lost everything in 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, when he was 16.

In his dressing room Prograis spoke to me in a typically relaxed way while, in contrast, his oldest friend shuddered with trepidation. Ross Williams, a writer who has been close to Prograis since they were six-year-old boys in New Orleans, gripped my arm when I asked how he was feeling. “It’s like I’ve got a midnight storm moving through my body,” Williams said. “And I’m not even fighting!”

Prograis and his trainer Bobby Benton were the epitome of calm. After 28 contests as a pro, Prograis had been victorious in all but one bout. His solitary defeat had occurred in October 2019 when, in one of the great fights that year, he was unlucky as the WBA champion to lose a majority decision to Josh Taylor in London. It had been a world title unification contest and so, for the past three years, Prograis was shut out of his division’s elite contests. Considered too risky an opponent, he suffered at the hands of promoters and rivals who preferred to avoid offering him another title shot.

When Taylor relinquished the WBC belt four months ago, rather than face a mandatory defence against the hard-hitting Zepeda, Prograis was finally granted another chance. But, all week in LA, Zepeda stressed his determination to become a world champion in his own backyard. The Mexican-American from Long Beach was also on a winning streak with an impressive 35-2 record. Zepeda combined raw power with the accuracy of a sharp-shooter. His threat hung over the War Ground.

The first hour dragged as we watched the undercard on a television in a corner of the locker room. The sound was turned off but the noise of the crowd outside occasionally erupted when a fighter in the ring was hurt or knocked down. Another reminder of the looming battle arrived in the company of the referee Ray Corona.

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“You could end up in deep water but I will not let you drown,” Corona told Prograis when he gave his pre-fight instructions at 6.40pm. “This is a very dangerous sport. If you’re hurt I got to see you fighting back, otherwise I’m stopping it.”

Nonito Donaire, the great Filipino-American boxer who had won world titles at four different weights from flyweight to featherweight, slipped unobtrusively into the room. He and Prograis had been friends for years and the warmth of his good wishes softened the ominous edge. But Donaire did not stay long. Our attention shifted back to the muted television screen where Charles Conwell was caught up in a fierce struggle against Juan Carlos Abreu.

On the morning of Prograis’ loss to Taylor, on 26 October 2019, they had buried Patrick Day, a fighter who had been beaten into a coma by Conwell’s fists two weeks earlier. I couldn’t stop thinking about Day as we watched Conwell on Saturday’s undercard. Prograis had also read some of my books which include the tragic deaths of numerous boxers. He always stressed that he had no illusions about the gravity of his profession.

At 7.15pm, as Conwell and Abreu began the last round, Prograis shadow-boxed in his dressing room. Evins Tobler, his strength-and-conditioning coach, whooped: “Total domination, baby, total domination.”

Fifteen minutes later, boxing’s most famous current cutman walked into the room. Jacob ‘Stitch’ Duran, the 70-year-old Mexican-American in Zepeda’s corner, needed to ensure that Prograis’s hands were wrapped correctly. Prograis, a boxing historian as well as an outstanding contemporary fighter, smiled and listened as his own cutman, Aaron Navarro, and Duran swapped stories of stemming the flow of blood in the heat of battle. Some of their anecdotes stretched back decades and, after the ritual hand-wrapping had been completed, Duran wished Prograis good luck. “See you out there, man,” Navarro said.

Navarro’s shirt bore the print of his daughter’s face and said: ‘In Loving Memory of Birdie Navarro.’ The cutman, his face creasing with pain, told me how she had been murdered in Houston 18 months before. Birdie was just 22. “She was a beautiful girl,” he said.

At 7.46pm there was just one bout left before the main event. Prograis removed the diamond stud from his earlobe and, looking up at the television, watched the hushed images of Zepeda being interviewed next door.

In the corridor an almighty racket broke out as a group of thickly-set men moved at a fast lick, chanting “Yoka! Yoka!” Their battle cry was in honour of Yokasta Valle, the young Costa Rican woman walking to the ring. Valle, a world champion, was moving up in weight to try and win the two light-flyweight belts held by Evelin Nazarena Bemurdez from Argentina. Ten two-minute rounds between Bemurdez and Valle were all that separated Prograis from his own ring-walk.

His white gloves were pulled on and Tobler shouted: “It’s ass-kicking time, champ…”

Regis Prograis lands a blow on Jose Zepeda on his way to victory
Regis Prograis lands a blow on Jose Zepeda on his way to victory. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

Prograis hit the pads held by Benton. He made a soft hissing cry as each punch landed while Tobler yelled: “Make that motherfucker pay!”

Jermall Charlo, the WBC world middleweight champion who had been gym-mates with Prograis when they were teenagers in Houston, strode in with pizazz. He hugged Prograis: “You know who you are, man. Take his heart … you’re looking good, baby.”

At 8.27pm Navarro reached into the small tub of Vaseline strapped to his wrist and rubbed the filmy jelly around Prograis’ eyes and over his cheekbones.

Five minutes later the desperately close women’s fight was over. Valle’s hand was raised in victory and the first call came for Prograis and Zepeda: “Ten minutes to ring-walk.”

Benton was miked up so that his instructions in the corner, between rounds, would be heard on TV. He then helped Prograis into his white gown with gold trim.

It became a little quieter and then the applause in the locker room started. Williams was the first to bring his hands together and then the whole Prograis team joined him. The clapping rolled through the room, steady and insistent, becoming more and more moving the longer the men kept applauding the impassive fighter.

Boxing is a lonely business and they were trying to help Prograis as the enormity of his task took hold. “Your night, champ,” Tobler hollered, “your night!”

A television runner opened the door. “Three-and-a-half minutes,” he said.

The cornermen did one last check to make sure they had all their gear, from steel buckets to medical equipment. Prograis banged his gloves together and, with a minute left, the applause for him resumed.

At 8.42pm the TV man was back in the room, gesturing us to follow him. “I’m walking them,” he barked to his producer. “We’re on our way.”

Williams and I were at the back of the pack as Prograis marched down the echoing tunnel. It did not take long for us to reach a black curtain which was swept open so we moved inside the War Ground without pause. Boos cascaded down from the high banks of seating as the locals made their antipathy obvious. I stepped away to my seat on the safe side of the ropes.

I have sat close to many fights over the years but it still remains difficult not to be affected by the raw sounds and harsh sights of professional boxing. It is very different to watching a bout on television where the screen sanitises and even deadens the brutality. But it is also a privilege to see the astonishing skill and courage that define men such as Zepeda and Prograis.

The opening few minutes, after the anthems for Mexico and the United States had resounded, were understandably cagey as the two southpaws went to work. But it did not take long for the first punches to land and, with 40 seconds left in round one, they both opened up.

Chants of “Ze-pa-da, Ze-pa-da!” and “Me-he-co, Me-he-co!” reverberated, encouraging the hometown hero. In the corner after the second round, Navarro pressed a little Enswell iron against the left side of Prograis’ face to try and control the swelling. Prograis still looked calm and in charge of his emotions and the fight.

From the start of the third round, he found his range. Prograis nailed Zepeda with his clubbing jab and jolting combinations. The pattern was set with Prograis’ aggression and intent often making Zepeda seem passive in comparison. But the LA fighter, bolstered by the crowd, inevitably came back with real grit. Zepeda was cut in round four and Stitch Duran had to work his usual magic to staunch the blood. It still seeped down onto Prograis’ pristine white trunks, turning them a dirty shade of pink.

Regis Prograis said of his victory: ‘Three years I’ve been working for this moment’
Regis Prograis said of his victory: ‘Three years I’ve been working for this moment’. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

Puffs of steam rose from the fighters’ mouths in the cool night air and Prograis made sweat fly from Zepeda’s head whenever he caught him with a stinging blow. He also went to Zepeda’s body and absorbed some hard punches himself as they dug in for a long night. Yet Prograis always seemed most at home in the ring. The tougher and harder the bout became in the middle rounds, the more clearly he seemed in his element. Prograis loves a fight; but Zepeda dredged up fresh resolve as they entered the decisive stretch.

Prograis hurt Zepeda early in round 10 but that just ratcheted up the ferocity of their exchanges. Even if Prograis remained in the ascendancy, Zepeda kept firing. The round ended with the crowd on their feet, roaring on Zepeda as he matched Prograis blow for blow.

The great champions, however, always know when to close the show. Early in the 11th round, Prograis backed up Zepeda and then stunned him with a scything left hand. Zepeda was stopped in his tracks and Prograis came at him like a runaway train. He unleashed one punch after another as Zepeda tottered towards the ropes. Another chopping left dropped Zepeda heavily. Prograis wheeled away in celebration as the referee waved the fight to a merciful end.

Zepeda was helped onto a small stool while the doctors examined him. There was relief that he could eventually leave the ring without assistance; and Prograis was genrous in his praise.

“I wanna congratulate Jose Zepeda,” he said. “That dude is tough, tough, tough. He gave me one of my hardest fights.”

Turning to Zepeda, who smiled sadly, Prograis said: “Bro, I got so much respect for you. I congratulate you. Don’t stop. I feel like you still gonna be a world champion. You’re real good.”

Yet Prograis fought on another level. His three-year exile from being a world champion ended with this compelling performance.

Charlo, his fellow WBC champion, was waiting for Prograis in his dressing room. “Texas is takin’ over!” Charlo yelled as he embraced a beaming Prograis. “I’m so proud of you, dawg!”

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I liked the way in which Prograis, who is more reflective than Charlo, spoke of the days when the two of them used to drive to their Houston gym in a battered old Chrysler. “Look at us now, dawg!” Charlo shouted.

There was bedlam in the dressing room but I followed Prograis and the doctor to a private area near the toilets. As the doc stitched shut a cut on the right side of Prograis’ face, the 33-year-old stretched out his hand to me. “I worked so hard,” Prograis said simply. “Three years I’ve been working for this moment.”

His white trunks, damp with sweat and streaked with blood, were draped over a metal chair as the stitching continued in the War Ground. The needle going in and out of his skin didn’t seem to hurt Prograis as he considered how boxing had opened up again to him. Lucrative and fascinating fights against José Ramírez and Teófimo López await as Prograis looks set to establish himself as one of the leading pound-for-pound boxers in the world.

I left the boxer and the doctor in peace and went back inside the dressing room. Ross Williams, Prograis’s great friend from school, laughed when I mentioned the midnight storm that had moved inside him a few hours earlier.

“The storm is gone,” Williams said in quiet delight. “It’s all sunshine now ...”