To prepare for the swamp monster, the New Orleans Lakefront Arena had a little fog machine going, with a fan attached to it, like a college house party. There were concentric circles of vertical spotlights, and when they put them on through that fog machine you could, with a little imagination, think of them as big trees shooting up through the mists of the swamps. The Rougarou was coming. A-wooooooooooooo.
The World Boxing Super Series is an ongoing worldwide tournament that will, at the end, hand out to the winner a trophy named for Muhammad Ali. It all sounds very grand and the announcers refer to it reverently but it is completely new and made up and means nothing. You yourself could start the Global Boxing Mega Series and hand out the Jack Johnson Trophy, if you had enough money to set it all up. The WBSS has a lot of second-tier fighters and a few first-tier fighters. Right up at the top is Regis Prograis. “Rougarou.” The light welterweight has a mild face and the nickname of a Louisiana wolf swamp monster. On his chest is a huge tattoo of New Orleans being stalked by a gloved and muscled werewolf. He looks like the best fighter to come out of New Orleans in at least two or three generations. During the heyday of bare knuckle prizefighting, there used to be championship bouts down here. The location was selected for its access to the river and for the fact that it was far away from law enforcement. But that was the peak of prime time Big Easy boxing. Regis Prograis may singlehandedly bring it back. The motherfucker is world class.
The co-headliner Saturday night—and the man destined to meet Prograis for the championship of the tournament—was Ivan Baranchyk, a tan and crewcutted Russian who looks like a clothes hangar was surgically implanted in his shoulders. Baranchyk’s nickname is “The Beast,” and I’ll be damned if they didn’t capture him perfectly. If you were to describe his fighting style you would almost certainly say, “he’s a beast.” He is pure aggression, swinging with the sort of relentless intensity that it would require if you really and truly wanted to beat someone to death with your fists. He fights like Blanka. He is not unskilled as a boxer but that aggression is his defining characteristic by a mile. He was matched up against Anthony Yigit, who, though undefeated, had a few telltale signs of weakness: He has only seven knockouts in 21 wins; he comes from Stockholm, which is not a boxing hotspot, to be polite; and he enters the ring to the tune of a janky, old-school sounding rap song called “Can You Dig It,” in homage to his nickname, which is also “Can You Dig It.”
All of that said, he fought great. By that I mean he gave it seven hard rounds before his left eye completely closed and swelled up with a hematoma that looked like a juicy black plum. The hard part about fighting someone like Baranchyk is that the only way to put his aggression in check is to hit him when he’s coming in and hurt him. Yigit didn’t have the power to hurt him, but he did an admirable job of planting his feet and cracking Baranchyk with straight lefts. They landed because Baranchyk is incapable of throwing a straight punch. Everything is violent hooks and overhands, so Yigit could land his straight left just before he paid a heavy price in return. He would suffer the counter-assault, then dart out, plant his feet, and do it all over again, as Baranchyk hurled himself at him bodily like an actor jumping out at you in a haunted house. If Yigit possessed great power his game plan might have worked. As it was he executed the proper strategy bravely in the face of extreme danger and paid for it with an eye socket that now looks like a black hole. This speaks to the fundamental unfairness of life.
Where Baranchyk has power born of the action of dangerous amounts of adrenaline on a man with an extremely violent temperament, Prograis has real power. He has the goods. He is a natural heavy-handed knockout puncher, which is something you are born with and no amount of training can give you. He is relaxed and unhurried in the ring. You can be that way when you have the goods. No need to be jumping around and flailing at things. You know that your time will come.
Prograis was matched with Terry Flanagan, a well-schooled European champion with 33 wins who Prograis treated with the pure insouciance of a new sparring partner. Flanagan was handcuffed by Rougarou’s reputation. He was cautious, almost fearful, and mostly chose not to attack, not because of anything Prograis was doing but because he knew what Prograis could do. What Prograis was doing all night was mostly circling to his right, flicking his jab, and occasionally dipping down to his right and shooting a tricky straight left, hard to pick up on but heavy as iron. That’s the eraser. Despite fighting in front of the hometown crowd Prograis felt little urgency to press forward because he knew that if he shot that left five or six times a round, sooner or later he would land it. In the eighth round he did, high on the head, and Flanagan was on his knees immediately, for the first time in his career.
Prograis, a southpaw, keeps his front hand low. The puncher’s privilege. The man with the power can luxuriate in his relaxed stance while his opponent must stay tight and ready all night. In theory Flanagan, also a southpaw, could just fire a hard straight left and let Prograis—circling to the right with his hands down—step right into it. The risk in this is that if you miss, you know that Prograis’s own left is coming right back, and that it’s twice as deadly as your own. So it seems wise to just keep your hands up and eat jabs, which is what Flanagan did most of the night. He got up from the knockdown in the eighth but, unlike Yigit, did not decide to sacrifice himself on the altar of engagement. Prograis was content to spend most of the night flashing his upper body movement, which is quite good. Sometimes he would bow down and slip a Flanagan shot and then pop up onto his toes and stick his own jab back in. Although he is a devastating body puncher, he didn’t even fool with it this time around. He looked, not to exaggerate too much, like a ballet dancer, his focus in the movement of boxing itself rather than the outcome. The outcome was never in doubt. After the fight he told the ring announcer that he wanted to prove that he could box for 12 rounds, rather than just chop down anything in front of him. This is usually an excuse, but in this case, I take him at his word. He has reached the evolutionary stage where he begins to invent new tasks for himself in the ring because the old ones have become passé.
Whenever Regis Prograis tries to push forward, destruction follows soon after. Are the long periods of nonchalance really necessary? Perhaps they are. There must be beauty to redeem all that violence. Not every beast is wild.