Prograis ready for “dream come true” fight in hometown against fellow unbeaten Velasco

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NEW ORLEANS – Regis Prograis is making a name for himself in professional boxing, and he’s trying to take his hometown along for the ride.

Prograis grew up within walking distance of UNO’s Lakefront Arena, and that’s where he’ll be Saturday night as he tries to extend his unbeaten streak as a professional in a featured bout on ESPN.

He is 21-0 with 18 knockouts as he prepares to face Juan Jose Velasco (20-0, 12 KO’s) of Argentina for Prograis’ interim WBC Super Lightweight (140 pounds) championship fight.

The entire card, which begins at 3:30 p.m. before ESPN joins the first main event at 6 p.m., was built around Prograis, who spurned more lucrative offers to fight in New York or Las Vegas in order to fight in his hometown.

Prograis said at a Thursday news conference that he has fought in Gretna and Metairie, but not within the New Orleans city limits, “except for a lot of street fights.”

“This is a dream come true,” Prograis said. “I’m real excited to fight in my hometown. I want to bring big-time boxing back to New Orleans. It’s not just me.”

Prograis, who is ranked No. 1 in his weight class by The Ring Magazine and ESPN, was the center of attention Thursday, just as he will be Saturday when he enters the ring at approximately 7 p.m.

Jean Carlos Rivera, who will face Angel Luna in a 10-round featherweight battle in one of the eight bouts on the undercard, made comments about his fight in Spanish to an interpreter. Prograis politely did the translation himself, paraphrasing Luna’s comments in English.

Moments later, when it was Velasco’s turn to speak through an interpreter, Prograis said, “I can translate without him ever talking.”

Prograis and Velasco were respectful in speaking of one another, but it’s clear that Prograis is the favorite to prevail. Velasco is stepping up in class as he fights out of his native country for just the third time in his career.

The 140-pount title was vacated earlier this year when Terence Crawford, considered one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world, moved up to the welterweight class.

Lou DiBella, one of the promoters of the card, said he could sense “a buzz” about the card around New Orleans, starting with his arrival at Armstrong International Airport. He cited New Orleans’ long, though recently dormant, history as a major boxing venue.

Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran fought in the Superdome in 1980, just two years after Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks fought in the same building. DiBella mentioned the historic heavyweight championship match between John L. Sullivan and Gentleman Jim Corbett, which launched the modern era of boxing in 1892 in The Bywater.

In 1870, Jem Mace and Tom Allen competed in Kenner in the first world championship bout.

But DiBella also noted that it has been more than half a century since a New Orleanian has fought for a world championship in his hometown. That’s when Willie Pastrano won the world light-heavyweight title in a bout at the Municipal Auditorium.

“If Regis takes care of business on Saturday night,” DiBella said, “the aspiration is for us to keep coming back to New Orleans with him.”

And the man from Gentilly who’s responsible for this potential renaissance of boxing in his hometown, summed up it simply: “This is the start of something big.”

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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