According to popular belief, the Utah Stars ended up with the best of last year's high school athletes when they signed 6'11", 215-pound Moses Malone. Rising up to challenge that notion is the University of Kentucky's Jimmy Carr, a 5'4" 126-pounder. Five-foot-four? One hundred twenty-six pounds? Why, he couldn't even guard Monte Towe.
Well, Carr doesn't guard people so much as he bends them. What's more, with a swift single-arm drag, a devastating cradle and a dandy suplay, he already is showing signs of becoming the cornerstone of a new athletic dynasty.
Three years ago, a 17-year-old high school junior out of Erie, Pa., Carr became the youngest American ever to wrestle on an Olympic team and the youngest competitor in his sport at the Munich Games. He might be pint-sized and baby-faced, but Carr has manhandled opponents in just about every way imaginable, including stuffing one into a garbage can.
Wrestling fans were as shocked by Carr's enrollment at Kentucky as basketball buffs would have been had Malone gone to Bemidji State. The South is one of those areas of the country which wrestling has hardly taken by storm; in fact, Kentucky didn't even have a team until last season. There was a good reason for Carr's decision, however. The coach of that first Wildcat squad was one of Jimmy's big brothers.
February 23, 1975
There are many similarities in the careers, physiques, personalities and even in the illnesses of Jimmy and Coach Fletcher Carr Jr., although size is not one of them—Fletcher is 6'3½" and 195 pounds. Both are square of shoulder and jaw, and both have relaxed, handsome smiles, which they use as conversational exclamation marks instead of raising their voices. Neither might have wrestled had it not been for some odd designs in the tapestry of their lives, which once were distinctly separate but now are lightly interwoven.
As Fletcher practiced football one day in the seventh grade, a pebble became imbedded in his left leg. He dug it out and forgot about it until the next morning. Then, during a mile walk to school, Fletcher's leg hurt so much that he passed out. Hospitalized seven weeks, he was told by physicians that they had considered amputation because the bone marrow had become infected.
Fletcher's wrestling career got rolling soon after his recovery, on the day he went out for swimming at Erie's East High School. When he was unable to find the team meeting, he strolled down the hall, saw wrestlers working out and dealt himself in. Fletcher lit into some of the boys with such gusto that the coach invited him back the next day. The result of that offhand invitation has been a succession of wrestling Carrs, easily the best of whom—so far—is Jimmy.
When Jimmy was in fifth grade he developed a serious staph infection in his right leg. Again the doctors contemplated amputation to halt the spread of infection. "At first they couldn't operate to try to save the leg because I had such a high temperature," Jimmy says. "Mom asked me if I wanted the leg cut off. I said, 'No, try to operate.' They put me in a tub of ice and sat me in front of a fan to get my temperature down. It worked and they saved my leg. I must have been in the hospital four or live months and had to start fifth grade all over the next year."
While making that second go at fifth grade, Jimmy was "convinced" by Fletcher and another older brother, Joe, that he should start wrestling. At first, Jimmy wanted no part of it—he hid behind posts in the wrestling room—but when he was finally pulled from hiding he was surprised to discover he could toss other people around.
It was the next summer that Jimmy first encountered Tom Canavan, who was to become one of the most significant figures in his life. Canavan, a local tavern owner and longtime wrestling coach at the Erie Downtown YMCA, was preparing for a citywide tournament when he and Jimmy met. "It was two days before the tournament and Jimmy was practicing," Canavan recalls. "He had just been in some kind of trouble and had a dozen stitches in his wrist. I saw that the bandage was soaked with blood, so I told him he shouldn't be working out. 'I'll be all right,' Jimmy said. He sure was. Jimmy finished first in his weight class—about 80 pounds—and was selected as the outstanding wrestler of the tournament."
"I was a bad kid," Jimmy says. "Terrible. I beat this basketball player about four, five games of one-on-one, and when we got to this girl's house the other kids laughed at him. He got mad and pulled out a knife. I grabbed him and we fell into a hedge. The girl ran for her big brother. By the time he came, I was on top of this boy, punching him with one hand and holding his knife with the other. The brother didn't know who was who, so he grabbed the knife and accidentally gashed me." Jimmy raised his left forearm to display the scar.
"Once, when I was in seventh grade, this tough guy who was also a wrestler wanted to fight me on a Sunday after church. I didn't want to fight because it was Sunday, so I picked him up and put him in a garbage can."
Jimmy proved to be just as tough on the mat as off, displaying exceptional quickness, balance and a natural grasp of the principles of leverage. Canavan helped him refine those talents. "I like to take wrestlers to open tournaments where they can compete against everybody—high-schoolers, college boys, college grads," Canavan says. "At a lot of those events they use Olympic rules and that helps prepare our boys for international competition. I started taking Jimmy when he was in seventh grade. I immediately put him in against high school boys, and I think the competition against older boys turned out to be the biggest thing in his development. When he was in the eighth grade I started putting him in against everyone and Jimmy began winning tournaments.
In 1971 I sent him to the U.S. Wrestling Federation national junior championships, and he won. So I sent him to the AAU national juniors, and he won that. When he came home, I said, 'Jim, now you deserve a real good trip, so let's try for the national senior world championship. The trials are at the Naval Academy and if you make the team you'll go to Sofia, Bulgaria.' He had been wrestling at 125 pounds, but I felt he had to go down to 114.5 to make the team. He told me, 'I'll make you a bargain. I'll qualify at 125 and go to 114 for the final trials.'
"Jimmy qualified second at 125.5 and had a few days off before the finals. But I noticed he wasn't trying to lose weight. When I asked him about it, he said, 'I don't think I'll go to 114.' I had never blown up at Jimmy, but this time I said, 'You mean you're going to waste all this time, your time and mine, and not even try to make 114?' He hung his head. Half an hour later I found him in a boiler room all bundled up in a sweat suit and lying on top of some hot pipes."
Carr made it down to 114.5, won his last two bouts 20-0 and 4-1 and went to Sofia. There he lost twice, won once and established himself as a world-class performer. He was 16 years old.
Meanwhile, Jimmy was busy sweating up a three-year record of 53-2 at East High, losing only in the state regionals as a freshman and sophomore. He won the state championship as a junior after returning from the Olympics.
Oh, the Olympics. "I shouldn't even have been there," he says. "A few months before the Trials I pulled some ligaments in my left leg. It was in a cast for three months, and after they took the cast off I pulled the ligaments again. The doctor put on a new cast and told me it would have to be on another three months. I took it off after a few days, told Mom the doctor said my leg was all right and went to the Olympic Trials. I made the team, but in my last match my right arm was pulled out of the socket. That wasn't going to keep me from going to Munich.
"People back home had a Jimmy Carr Day and look up a collection so my parents could go, too. In Munich I was pinned by a Korean. Then I pinned a guy from Peru, but he pulled my arm out of the socket again. In my last match I was pinned by a Canadian and that put me out of the Olympics.
"Over there I roomed with Chris Taylor. He was almost a foot and a half taller than me and weighed about 325 pounds more. One night we went to the club they had for athletes in the Olympic Village. Chris looked at the dance floor and said, 'All the girls are taken.' I told him, 'Stick with me and I'll get you a girl in no time.' Pretty soon a girl asked Chris for his autograph. I told her I was his manager and she could only have Chris' autograph if she danced with him first. Chris and this girl went out to the dance floor, which was jammed, and people made lots of room for them. I must've got him 20 dances that way.
"I'd get mad at Chris because he liked to sleep with the window open. He'd get mad at me because I liked to sleep with the radio on. When I'd think he was asleep, I'd get up and close the window, and when he thought I was asleep, he'd get up and turn off the radio.
"We both loved to eat. Our room was a floor above the dining hall, so one night Chris said we ought to try to get food from there. We were up on about the 20th or 21st floor and he lowered me out our window to the ledge below. I told Chris the dining room window was open."
Jimmy then beheld one of the most bizarre sights since King Kong assaulted the Empire State Building. When he glanced up, he saw Taylor climbing out the window and lowering himself to the ledge. "We went in the dining room window, loaded up with pop, sandwiches and fruit, went out the door and walked up to our room." And set the Olympic snacking record.
In the meantime older brother Fletcher was establishing himself as a fine and versatile college athlete. After he was named to Erie's all-city team in football, lettered for four years in track and, of course, won the city wrestling championship, he attended the University of Tampa. Despite rarely weighing more than 190 pounds, Fletcher was a four-year starter at center for the Tampa football team and one of the best in the South at his position.
In 1971, when Fletcher was a sophomore, Tampa Football Coach Fran Curci resigned to become head man at the University of Miami. Two years later he moved to a similar job at Kentucky. Once there, he proposed an idea to Kentucky's athletic director, Harry Lancaster. "I told him, 'I've got the perfect guy for you, someone who could be an assistant football coach, someone who just happens to have a couple of brothers who are great wrestlers and might come here if we make him wrestling coach,' " says Curci. There was just one problem: Kentucky did not have a wrestling team.
Although he was then only 23 years old, Fletcher seemed suited for the job. At Tampa he had built a reputation for combativeness, placing second in the U.S. karate championships and winning two small-college wrestling titles. He had won 56 matches in a row during one stretch, and his postgraduation plans were to tour the country and perhaps try out for the 1976 Olympic wrestling squad. Then came Kentucky's offer to coach a team that did not exist. Fletcher accepted, even though most people at the school thought a bar arm was something you rested on the mahogany.
When Fletcher first visited Kentucky a rosy picture was painted for him, but all he could see were problems. He felt that introducing wrestling there would be futile. "Then they took me to a basketball game and that's what sold me," Fletcher says. "The enthusiasm I saw there did it. I figured the spirit of the fans would help us do well in wrestling."
At the beginning, enthusiasm was all Fletcher had going for him. "When I got to Lexington in September 1973 it was too late to do any recruiting," he says. "So I put an ad in the campus newspaper that said, 'I need wrestlers. I need men. I need bodies.' I got some boys from the intramurals. I got walk-ons. I deliberately scheduled our first match away. Morehead State annihilated us 39-6." But the first year's team finished with a commendable 7-11 record, and Fletcher stayed on.
Much of his hope for the future lay in enticing brothers Joe and Jimmy into joining him at Kentucky. Joe, a freshman at Ashland (Ohio) College, was reluctant. For that matter so was Jimmy, who knew he could take his pick of almost any of the established wrestling schools in the country.
Fletcher Sr. spoke up. He said he felt it would be mighty nice for the brothers to be reunited in Kentucky. When Fletcher Sr. speaks, people listen, especially his parishioners at the Mt. Zion Apostolic Faith Church of God and his 16 children, another of whom, 14-year-old Nate, has shown promise of becoming a wrestler in Jimmy's class. Thus, in 1973 Joe transferred from Ashland and Jimmy, still a high school student, moved to Kentucky with his wife Ann and their infant daughters Danillie and Stephanie.
With help from Tom Canavan, Jimmy found a berth in the most prestigious of all in-season tournaments, the Midlands, where competition for noncollege wrestlers is by invitation only. There was much curiosity there about Jimmy, who had trained primarily according to Olympic rules and now would be facing his sternest challenge ever under U.S. college rules. In the Olympics major emphasis is placed on tilting an opponent's shoulders toward the mat. Collegiate rules stress this, too, but they also make takedowns more valuable.
At the Midlands, Jimmy blitzed his way into the finals, where he met a former NCAA titleholder at 118 pounds, Mark Massery of Northwestern. Jimmy whipped him 11-7 and won the Outstanding Wrestler award, the only time in the tournament's 12-year history it has been given to a high-schooler.
Even before Jimmy enrolled at Kentucky there was speculation whether he could become the first wrestler ever to go through a four-year college without a loss. Olympic Gold Medalist Dan Gable of Iowa State nearly did it, suffering his only defeat in his final match. Jimmy's first college bout on Nov. 26, 1974 was against one of the best freshmen in the country, Morehead State's John Steele, a high school All-America and national junior champ. The first points of the match were scored on a second period reversal by Jimmy, who went on to win 10-2.
A month later in the Midlands, Jimmy moved up to the 134-pound class but lost the title on a referee's decision to Don Behm, a 1968 Olympic silver medalist. So Jimmy will not go undefeated, but he still has a chance to remain unbeaten against college opponents in regular-season and NCAA tournament competition. His record so far against such opposition is 26-0 and includes a 6-5 triumph over Oklahoma State's Billy Martin, who was second at the nationals last year. Being all-victorious will not be simple for Jimmy, especially since Pat Milkovich, a junior at Michigan State, is in his weight class. Milkovich is already a two-time NCAA champion and will face Jimmy in Kentucky's final dual match of the season this week at East Lansing.
Successful Jimmy is; fanatical he is not. This season he has lifted weights for the first time, but for the most part he relies on natural talent and swift combination moves. In collegiate bouts he often gives an opponent a one-point escape, which is not a gesture of kindness but a maneuver that permits him to bore in once again for another takedown worth two points.
Most of all Carr wants an Olympic gold medal in 1976. Until recent years that would have been a preposterous goal for an American wrestler. But the U.S. won six medals in Munich: three golds, one silver, two bronzes. That performance will help Carr; Americans are good enough to win. What's more, while still in high school he earned a tie and a 5-3 win over Roman Dmitriyev, the U.S.S.R.'s 1972 Olympic gold medalist at 125.5 pounds.
And Jimmy feels he has an obligation to excel at his sport. "Wrestling made me a better person," he says. "It got me off the streets, where lots of my friends got in trouble that landed them in jail. I like wrestling because it's not like team sports, where if the team loses you lose. You're out there on your own. Nobody can help you. If I make a mistake, it's my mistake, and I have to accept the penalty for it."
Meanwhile, the Kentucky dynasty is building. Knowing that Jimmy, Joe and Fletcher are in Lexington has lured other fine wrestlers there. The Wildcats are 23-4 this season and already have won 33-9 over Auburn, last year's Southeastern Conference champion.
Fletcher tends to give the credit wholly to his team, particularly to Jimmy and Joe, the latter a 167-pounder who has won two national junior titles, was second in the world juniors in 1973 and is 25-0-1 for Kentucky this season. But of course Fletcher has been instrumental in Kentucky's upsurge, both as an astute coach and a man of imposing presence. Even when shouting encouragement to his wrestlers during a match, he is dignified, ramrod-straight. His touch rubs off in other sports. Last fall, as an interior-line coach for the Wildcat football team, Fletcher helped Rick Nuzum develop into an All-America center.
All the Carr power that has things booming at Kentucky had to come from somewhere, and the sons agree the source is Fletcher Sr. "You think we're tough? You should've seen that dude when he was younger," says Fletcher Jr.
Jimmy likes to tell about the day his father playfully wrestled Fletcher Jr. to the floor with a headlock. When another brother, Willie, who is now a second-degree black belt in karate, tried to intervene, the father crunched him by wrapping his legs around him. "All the while he held them, Momma swatted Fletch and Willie on the head with a broom," Jimmy says. And while it was going on, Fletcher Sr. surely wore the marvelous Carr smile, the smile on Fletcher Jr.'s lips as he contemplates his handiwork and says, "I think we're going to do it."