So often in boxing there is a fight on the horizon but it's really about the much bigger fight that is supposed to come after that.
Never has it been any truer than in the case of junior welterweight Regis Prograis, viewed by many as the No. 1 fighter in the world at 140 pounds following Terence Crawford unifying all four major belts last August and then vacating them to move up to welterweight.
Yes, Prograis is scheduled to fight undefeated (but also unknown and unheralded) Juan Jose Velasco in the 12-round main event of the Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card on Saturday (ESPN and ESPN Deportes, 7 p.m. ET, full card streams on ESPN+ beginning at 4:30 p.m. ET)) at the Lakefront Arena on the campus of the University of New Orleans in Prograis' hometown. But virtually anyone with even a passing interest in Prograis is already talking about what's next as though a victory over Velasco is a forgone conclusion. The winner of the fight is guaranteed a slot in the eight-man World Boxing Super Series tournament. Even before he has officially earned his way into the field, Prograis is viewed by many as the favorite to win it all.
Prograis (21-0, 18 KOs), a 29-year-old southpaw, takes it all in stride. He's confident about beating Velasco (20-0, 12 KOs), 31, of Argentina, and about winning the tournament, though he does not come across as cocky or overconfident.
"I don't really know nothing about (Velasco) to be honest with you. I don't study my opponent. I never do. He's undefeated. That's all I need to know," Prograis said. "He's coming to my hometown and he's trying to beat me. I go into every training camp like it's going to be my hardest fight. I don't overlook nobody no matter who it is. I don't watch film. I leave that to my coach (Bob Benton)."
Lou DiBella, Prograis' promoter, said he doesn't think Prograis is overlooking Velasco because of the tournament.
"I think he's a very focused and mature guy," DiBella said. "There's always pressure when you fight in your hometown. I don't think Velasco is a great fighter but he's competent. He has punching power and a guy with a punch is a guy with a punch and there's no question Velasco can bang. This is that last test Regis has to pass to get to much bigger things, so there's a little bit of pressure there. But he's a guy with extraordinary physical abilities.
"He's got freaky athletic ability and tremendous punching power in either hand. I don't want to jinx anything and I'm a nervous Nelly and superstitious, but Regis is a focused guy and he's really professional in his way of doing things and preparing. He knows what's at stake. He's ready."
As for being favored by many to win the World Boxing Super, Prograis said he's not surprised.
"I think I'm the favorite no matter who I fight but I want to go in there thinking that people aren't giving me a chance," he said. "I always fight like I'm the underdog. I know nobody looks at me like an underdog but, of course, I think I can beat every one of those fighters. Of course, I don't see none of them beatin' me."
Besides Saturday's winner, the tournament, which will begin this fall, will also include world titleholder Kiryl Relikh (22-2, 19 KOs), of Belarus, and former world titlist Eduard Troyanovsky (27-1, 24 KOs), of Russia, who will meet in a mandatory bout in one of the quarterfinals; Russia's Ivan Baranchyk (18-0, 11 KOs) and Anthony Yigit (21-0-1, 7 KOs), of Sweden, who will meet for a vacant world title in another quarterfinal; Scotland's Josh Taylor (13-0, 11 KOs); and Cleveland's Ryan Martin (22-0, 12 KOs). There is still one other open slot.
"It's the best fighting the best," Prograis said.
Velasco knows most think Prograis will beat him and take his position in the tournament but he doesn't see it that way.
"The pressure is not an issue for me. The pressure is on Regis," Velasco said. "I'm not expected to do much, which is fine by me. I'll prove the experts wrong. I feel like everyone is pulling for him, that it's a gimme fight for Regis. Everyone can talk, but on Saturday, he'll have to fight."
"I'm definitely excited. As far as the pressure, I don't feel no pressure. I just want to go out there and give a good performance because not only is it in New Orleans, it's on ESPN, so it will probably be the biggest audience to watch me yet. I'm going to out there, look exciting and have fun." Regis Prograis
After Prograis won a vacant interim title by one-sided second-round knockout of former unified titleholder Julius Indongo on March 9 -- easily his biggest win -- he was supposed to face Jose Ramirez, who the following week outpointed Amir Imam to win the vacant full title.
That shaped up as a tremendous fight, but the two camps ultimately elected to go their separate ways with Ramirez and his promoter, Top Rank, electing to keep him fighting on ESPN and out of the tournament while DiBella worked out a deal to get him the ESPN main event on Saturday followed by a spot in the tournament -- with the idea that Ramirez and Prograis can raise their profiles over the next year or so and then eventually meet in a fight that will be much bigger than it would have been this summer.
As much as Prograis wanted to get the immediate title fight with Ramirez, which he had earned, in the end it was not that tough of a call go for the tournament as long as he wins Saturday.
"Basically, it was a way better deal," Prograis said. "First, I get to fight in New Orleans, my hometown, and then after that go into the tournament with potentially (two) belts I can go after. I can either go after Ramirez and one belt or I can go into the tournament and make way more money and can get two belts. From what I heard on my side we were trying to get the fight with Ramirez but they wanted to the fight in August. But if we wanted to be in the tournament we had to do the fight now. It was just a better offer to go in the tournament.
DiBella said he advised Prograis to go this route.
"This is absolutely the path I advised for him," he said. "After a number of conversations with Top Rank I believed they were going to do what was in the best interest of Ramirez and their ESPN endeavor. I don't hold it against them at all. We all made a legitimate business decision. Regis can go into the tournament and between Saturday's fight and the tournament he can get four fights in about a year."
This path also allows Prograis to fight in his beloved New Orleans, where he has never fought since turning professional in 2012. In 2005, Prograis and his family fled New Orleans like so many others in the wake of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina. They relocated to Houston, but even when his family returned to New Orleans, Prograis remained in Houston, where there was far better training and sparring.
But he still wanted to someday fight in New Orleans and the deal with Top Rank for Saturday's main event allowed him to make a dream come true.
"I'm definitely excited," he said. "As far as the pressure, I don't feel no pressure. I just want to go out there and give a good performance because not only is it in New Orleans, it's on ESPN, so it will probably be the biggest audience to watch me yet. I'm going to out there, look exciting and have fun."
In the co-feature, red-hot Las Vegas-based lightweight prospect Teofimo Lopez (9-0, 7 KOs), 20, a 2016 Olympian for Honduras (his parents' home country) will fight in his first scheduled 10-round bout when he takes on William Silva (25-1, 14 KOs), 31, of Brazil.