Regis Prograis never stood out much on the football field at McDonogh 35 High School. And he cut up in class so much, earning many C's and some D's, that administrators eventually asked him to transfer elsewhere.
But in the locker room, when he and his teammates would slip on gloves and kill some down time by play-boxing, it was obvious early on that Prograis had something special.
"He was going up against 12th-graders in the 10th grade and manhandling them," said Tony Flot, a childhood friend who's now his business manager. "It was something."
A coach noticed Prograis' ease during those informal sessions and told him that football wasn't for him. "You need to box," he said.
Now, at age 29, Prograis has an opportunity to make New Orleans sports history. The southpaw has defeated all comers in his first 20 bouts as a prizefighter. On March 9, he is poised to step into the ring at the Deadwood Mountain Grand resort in South Dakota with Julius Indongo, a two-time world champion who's been beaten only by perhaps the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, Terence Crawford.
If Prograis wins, he would have the first major world boxing title held by a male New Orleanian in more than 50 years.
If he wins, he wants to parlay the recognition into philanthropy in his hometown, with plans for a children’s literacy program. "I want to be a champion in and out of the ring," he said.
New Orleans produced its fair share of boxing champs decades ago, when the sport’s popularity was at its peak, said Derby Gisclair, a local sports historian.
However, the most recent major world championship for a local came in 1963, four years before the New Orleans Saints were born, when Willie Pastrano won the light heavyweight crown under the tutelage of Angelo Dundee, best known as Muhammad Ali's trainer.
Boxing today rarely draws the kind of attention it used to, except when fighters with exceptionally appealing styles or personalities come along.
Prograis, at 5 feet 8 inches and 140 pounds, is one of those entertaining fighters. He's won all but three of his pro bouts by knocking out his opponent. His nickname is "Rougarou," the legendary werewolf said to stalk Louisiana's bayous.
He’s had a difficult journey to the top of his sport, starting with unsuccessful efforts to make his mark at running back and cornerback for McDonogh 35.
After the advice from his coach about taking up boxing, Prograis started to pick up the basics but faced some major disruptions. McDonogh 35 asked him to leave, and he transferred to Sarah T. Reed High School for his junior year.
Then the floodwaters that followed Hurricane Katrina inundated his family’s home, prompting a move to Houston. Prograis said Katrina taught him "not to hold on to material things because they can be wiped away at any time."
So he zeroed in on something harder to wipe out: laurels in the boxing ring.
While much of his family returned to Louisiana, Prograis made the difficult decision to stay in Houston, where the sparring and training scene was more competitive.
He joined Houston's Savannah Boxing Club, beginning his workouts as early as 5 a.m. and occasionally finding himself training alongside giants such as Evander Holyfield. He got serious and embarked on an amateur career.
The results were mixed. He won 87 of 94 fights. But he fell short of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in London.
Disappointed, he left behind amateur boxing and turned pro, where the going also was tough at first.
He won eight of his first 10 fights as a pro by knockout. But despite traveling as far as Metairie, the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Dallas, he wasn't paid for more than half of those bouts, a reality in the often corrupt business of boxing that drives some prospects away.
Prograis stuck with it, determined to make a living with his talents and to make his hometown proud.
The words "Beast" and "East" — a reference to New Orleans East, where he grew up — are tattooed on his calves. He inked a fleur-de-lis and the city's area code — 504 — on his right arm. He has the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, "New Orleans" and "8-29-05" — the date of Katrina's landfall — on his chest.
Just above that tattoo, near his left shoulder, is the name "Raquel," his wife, who is helping him raise a young son and daughter.
His next 10 victories saw him knock out nine of his opponents, winning a North American title belt at Brooklyn's renowned Barclays Center. He capped the impressive run in June with a second-round knockout of Joel Diaz, who'd been unbeaten in 23 fights and was considered the toughest opponent Prograis had faced so far.
New Orleans native Regis Prograis remained undefeated, winning the biggest fight of his career on Friday night.
The stage was set for a world title shot, though not before Mother Nature threw some more trouble at him.
He'd gone to an aunt and uncle's house in Houston to see the bout between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor on TV in late August, when Hurricane Harvey struck, leaving him stranded there for five days.
By boat, car and the occasional dry patch of grass, Prograis managed to escape the house, which had taken on several feet of water, and make his way to safety.
Now, Indongo is the only thing standing between Prograis and a world title. The fight is set to happen in front of a prime-time audience on Showtime, with the junior welterweight World Boxing Council title on the line.
If he wins, he faces a mandatory fight against the winner of another bout for a WBC world belt. And, if he prevails again and wins that belt as well, he'd then do all he could to bring major boxing matches back to New Orleans in the Superdome, once the site of mythical bouts involving Ali, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard. Bona fide world champs, after all, get a say in their next venue.
Prograis hopes ultimately to memorialize his path to victory in a children’s book and to put his name behind a literacy program for kids growing up in rough neighborhoods like the one he came from.
"It'll be a huge opportunity if I'm a world champion," Prograis said. "Imagine."
It's the biggest fight of Regis Prograis' 28-year life.