Oba Carr: Made in the Motor City
There are many fairy tales in the land of boxing but not many of them come with a happy ending, like those told in the world depicted by Disney. Far away from those family-friendly rides, a father and son went on a roller coaster ride of their own, one truly only understood to those who have been fortunate/unfortunate to have gotten a ticket to witness the inner world of boxing.
From all indications, Oba Carr – whose name means “King” in Swahili – appeared destined to wear a crown in boxing. For those around in the late-1980s, Carr was one of the hottest prospects to ever turn pro in the entire history of Detroit boxing. Yes, I know that is a lofty statement but along with an amateur record of 168-8; he had charisma, the classic Detroit style with the left hand low and using the right as a catcher’s mitt, placed by his chin, incredible balance, quick feet and – oh, how he just loved to throw the left hook like his boxing idol, Sugar Ray Robinson.
From a young age, Oba was groomed by his father Eddie, a former boxer in the Marine Corps himself, and when the senior Carr brought his Detroit PAL team (which included Tarick Salmaci, Damian Fuller and some other hot prospects) to merge with Emanuel Steward’s Kronk team, Oba immediately set his sights on the pro ranks rather than the 1988 Olympics. Steward and his handlers felt Carr’s style was more suited for the pros and, with the newly-created “Fight Night at the Palace” series, promoting a monthly series of fights, many of which were being aired by (now Executive Event Producer for Top Rank Promotions) Brad Jacobs and the “USA Tuesday Night Fights” crew, it was the perfect stage for Carr to start his path toward what seemed like a guaranteed title fight.
As a teenager, Carr became such a popular fighter on USA TNF, they set up a 900-number for viewers to called to pick Carr’s opponent for his 21st fight. Former champion Livingston Bramble was the choice! On Oct. 8, 1991 in front of just under 18,000 fans, Carr was dropped by Bramble twice in the first round. Upon Oba’s return to the corner, Eddie Carr jumped in the center to take over the lead trainer position and, as Emanuel Steward began to give advice from outside the ropes, the elder Carr told Steward there was only room for one trainer to be talking in the corner and he made it clear the primary voice was going to be his. Oba came back to win a close split decision but it was clear, the first cracks were starting to form in the framework of the Motor City Carrs.
It was not long afterward when Carr packed his bags and headed out west to Las Vegas and signed with manager Sterling McPherson and promoter Don King. Steward and Eddie Carr were replaced by trainers Panama Lewis, Stacey McKinley and Steve “Crocodile” Fitch. His first title shot came on a cold December night in 1994 in Mexico, on a Julio Cesar Chavez undercard, versus a young Felix Trinidad. Carr managed to score a flash knockdown in the second round and credit must be given to him as he fought bravely but the young power-punching Tito Trinidad was just too much for Carr. Trinidad ultimately broke him down and stopped him in the eighth round.
Thanks to the promotional power of King, Carr stayed busy and bounced back with seven more wins, one of which was against Darrell Coley for the NABF welterweight title. Carr made a couple of adjustments outside the ring once again, signing with Mike Tyson’s manager Rory Holloway, becoming a fixture in the Tyson camp, and often training at the old Golden Gloves Gym in Vegas by Tyson trainer (and former Kronk trainer) McKinley and Crocodile. When Tarick Salmaci and I came to Vegas for the Tyson vs. Peter McNeeley bout, we visited Carr in his suite at the Tropicana and it was clear: Carr was enjoying Las Vegas far more than Detroit, as he had his belt accompanied by a mixed drink and a tall stack of colored gambling chips next to the big screen TV.
Carr got into position for a second title shot versus WBA champion Ike “Bazooka” Quartey in October of 1996. Carr fought with amazing heart and gave 110% in the ring that night against the hard-punching Bazooka. Carr shoulder-rolled, counter-punched, boxed, punched and fought his way to losing a close – even questionable – split decision.
Shortly after that fight; Carr, Salmaci and I were picking up some clothing at the old Mastroianni Fashions (a favorite spot for fighters once located by the old Top Rank offices) to wear to the Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield fight and, out of nowhere, Oba, with checkbook in hand, had a question to ask me about handling finances that focused on a very specific dollar amount. As a twenty-something kid, I had earned a reputation of kind of a “go-to guy” for many fighters, so I answered him and I just left it alone. Within a couple of weeks, Carr phoned me from his accountant’s office, as he was settling up the Quartey fight details, but, this time, he asked me specifically about money HBO had been reporting to pay for his services to fight Quartey, compared to what he was paid by King and Holloway. After we spoke, I had little to no doubt his relationship with Holloway and King was soon to come to an end.
The bright lights and late nights in Las Vegas has given birth to many great fighters and also helped play a part in the death of many great careers. In what could have been a career – and life – saver, Carr packed his bags and returned to Detroit to reunite with Eddie. Carr then signed with manager Tom Loeffler (then of Mouthpiece Sports, now Managing Director of K2 Promotions), who did an amazing job bringing Carr back. I had known Tom for a couple years, at this point, and developed a good relationship with him. He was – and remains – one of the most loyal and trustworthy guys I’ve ever dealt with in the world of boxing. As an independent manager, with no major promoter backing him, and having lost to two out of the three champions in his division at the time, Loeffler got Carr back on track. After racking up nine wins and one draw, Loeffler secured a fight for Carr with Oscar De La Hoya for the WBC welterweight title in May 1999.
Carr had the tenacity, the will and skills and, at the stage in which most fighters were sent off to pasture, Carr pulled together one last brave effort against the “Golden Boy” but came up short in his third and final attempt at a world title. I kept in close touch with Carr, during his time managed by Loeffler, and often accompanied him to the Powerhouse Gym, where he ran for hours at a time on the treadmill. I also had many conversations with his Loeffler, who still refused to give up on Oba and did his best to perhaps guide him to another title shot. The gas tank was running low, by this point, and I even had talks with Tom about Carr moving up to 154 pounds, as an option.
While there was an occasional flash of that vintage Carr lightning-fast left hook, it was clear there would be no final title shot. Oba’s last meaningful win was over Yori Boy Campas, en route to picking up a total of six wins and losing three over the final years of his amazing, near-13 year career. As an amateur, he won the National Junior Olympics, the Silver Gloves Championship and, three times, won a boxing title in the National Police Athletic League and then, at 17 years of age, made the move to the pro ranks.
These days, Carr lives a low-key life, visited by his father and close friends like Salmaci and Ka-Dy King, whom, I’m told, often sneak him over his favorite snack foods, as he no longer has to make the 147-pound weight limit. While Carr never won a world title, he arguably may be the best welterweight to get three shots and come up short. One thing’s for sure: Oba Carr is one of the greatest 147-pounders to ever come out of the Motor City.