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The Martial Chronicles: Fighting Presidents

Cageside Guest Columnist John S. Nash brings us another feature edition of his fascinating series chronicling the origins of MMA. This time, we look at some of the toughest men in our great nation's history, our Fighting Presidents.

This is a revision of an article which was originally cross-posted at our fellow SBNation Blog, Bloody Elbow by on Feb 22, 2012 [†]

As our nation prepares to elect a President, one thing is certain: no matter whom the voters choose, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, neither would measure up in hand-to-hand fighting skills, such as demonstrated by our previous leaders.

The ability to fight with one's bare hands, while no longer a prerequisite for our recent Presidents, was something that was not uncommon amongst the earlier heads of state, many of whom were actually quite adept in the art of unarmed combat.

For example, our 38th president, Gerald R. Ford, was not only a tremendous athlete who excelled in football at the University of Michigan, but also in boxing, coaching it first at Yale and then in the Navy during his service in the second World War.

Dwight Eisenhower too was a standout in football, during a time when many wanted to ban the sport for its brutality, he also boxed and wrestled, with his instructor at West Point being none other than former American Heavyweight Champion and master catch-as-catch-can wrestler, Tom Jenkins.

Amongst our Commander-in-Chiefs, wrestling has easily been the most popular martial art. James Garfield, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Chester Arthur were all ardent wrestlers.

Sometimes so much so, it would interfere with their political lives: Pierce wrestled in the New Hampshire House of Representatives building while he was the house speaker, while Grant famously apologized to a surrendering General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, for the mess at his campsite, a result of Grant and "some of the boys" having had a wrestling match the previous night.

Some of our former Presidents did not merely practice the craft, but actually excelled in it. Zachary Taylor was well known for his "scuffling" abilities amongst the Illinois Volunteers during the Black Hawk uprising, while William Taft was a fourth generation wrestler under the collar and elbow style, and was famed for his mastery of the "flying mare". "Big Bill", as the 225 lb William was known during his youth, would twice win the intramural heavyweight championships at Yale.

Not all were of Taylor's or Taft's level though: Calvin Coolidge was described by his father as being only "tolerable good" until age 14 when he quit, focusing instead on "duding around and daydreaming about being a big-city lawyer".

Amongst all these fighting Presidents, three clearly stand above their peers and are truly worthy of consideration as being the toughest men to hold the office of Commander-in-Chief.

3. George Washington:


All through his life, Washington was renowned for his toughness and bravery, almost to the point of foolhardiness.

"I heard the bullets whistle and, believe me, there is something charming to the sound of bullets."

This was how he described his feelings on the battlefield in a letter to his brother.

He was a man that led from the front, giving himself no advantage or luxury afforded by his position or rank as Commander of the Continental Army, suffering the same hardships as the men that served beneath him. He was also one hell of a wrestler.

As a youth, Washington attended Rev. Maury's Academy at Fredericksburg, Virginia, a finishing school, which had a well deserved reputation as a fine place to learn how to grapple. Having no experience with the sport when he first arrived at age 15, young Washington found himself bullied by the sons of the widow whom he boarded with.

Quickly, he set himself to learning all he could of "collar-and-elbow", and soon had the "satisfaction of throwing the widow's sons with ease, grace, and celerity." [EN1]

By age 18, Washington became renowned as the best "tosser" in Northern Virginia, but would find himself challenged by the wrestling champion of Virginia. On a Saturday, the two faced off in a "collar-and-elbow" contest.

Washington would prove victorious, gaining the title of champion of the Colony, with his defeated opponent describing the match thus:

"After a short, fierce struggle, I felt myself grasped and hurled upon the ground with a jar that shook the marrow in my bones." [EN2]

Washington's skills remained with him as he grew older, as evidenced by the stories told. "On one occasion, when he was Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary forces at Boston" he broke up a fight between two soldiers of the colonies by "seizing them one after another by the collar, tossed them into separate, writhing heaps, hurling them in all directions as if they had been ten-pins."

In late 1776, at the age of 46, (and in the midst of waging war against the English crown), he demonstrated his old champion caliber abilities when he accepted a challenge from seven members of the Massachusetts Volunteer Guard, agreeing to face each of them in succession.

"The Commander of the Continental Armies summoned enough of his old form to deal flying mares to seven saucy volunteers from Massachusetts." [EN3]

2. Theodore Roosevelt


Teddy Roosevelt grew up a sickly and asthmatic child, who took up rigorous exercise to combat his numerous ailments. One of the first sports he studied, with his father's hearty encouragement, was boxing. His first boxing-master was an ex-prize-fighter named John Long.

Long grew confident enough in the young Roosevelt's progress, eventually he entered him into a lightweight tournament, with the prize being a pewter mug. To everyone's surprise, including Roosevelt's, he won the tournament and the trophy. [EN4]

Teddy would go on to box while at Yale, although he never won any championships while there, and would continue with his pugilistic practices until a sparring session detached his retina and almost left him blind while Governor of New York, forcing him to focus solely on grappling for the remainder of his years.

Roosevelt had also begun wrestling at a young age as well, and his diary is full of entries detailing his boxing and wrestling activities while at Harvard. [EN5]

  • "Saturday, February 10th, 1877. Beaten by Dick Grimble, boxing."
  • "Thursday, October 4th, 1877. Threw Davis, wrestling"
  • "Thursday, October 18th, 1877. Boxed with Arthur Hooper. Even. Beat Ellis, wrestling."

From his diary, it would seem young Roosevelt fared better at wrestling than boxing, by some accounts even reaching the finals one year at Cambridge in a championship tournament under the catch-as-catch-can rules.

Roosevelt continued wrestling late into life, describing in his autobiography how, while serving as the Governor of New York, he had a wrestling mat purchased by the state Comptroller so the Middleweight Champion of America could stop by three or four afternoons a week to grapple with him.

The final martial art he took up was Judo, which he learned from a visiting Yamashita Yoshiaki while Roosevelt was serving as President. [EN6] He described his White House practices in the exotic Japanese fighting style in letters he wrote to his son Kermit:

"I am wrestling with two Japanese wrestlers three times a week. I am not the age or the build one would think to be whirled lightly over an opponent's head and batted down on a mattress without damage. But they are so skilful that I have not been hurt at all. My throat is a little sore, because once when one of them had a strangle hold I also got hold of his windpipe and thought I could perhaps choke him off before he could choke me. However, he got ahead." [EN7]

For two years, Roosevelt studied Kodokan Judo with Yamashita, eventually attaining the rank of 3rd degree brown belt and the title of most well rounded of all the fighting presidents.

His personal toughness wasn't lacking either, as exemplified when, after being shot by a would-be assassin while running as the Progressive Party candidate, he gave an hour long scheduled speech with a bullet still lodged within him, telling the audience,

"I am all right, and you cannot escape listening to my speech either."

After our 26th President passed away at the age of 60 in 1919, Vice President Thomas Marshall remarked,

"Death had to take him sleeping, for if Roosevelt had been awake there would have been a fight."

1. Abraham Lincoln


There can be little doubt there was "no tougher President" than Abraham Lincoln. While his gaunt and lanky appearance fooled many, the 6' 4", 214-lb. man who would go down as perhaps our nation's greatest leader, was a splendid athlete, whose strength was legendary in the Kentucky and Illinois backwoods.

Often, he was described as a "Hercules" or a "Samson". Or, simply as, "the strongest man I ever knew", and the testimony of many reinforces that impression.

Numerous stories exist detailing how "He could strike with a maul a heavier blow - could sink an axe deeper into wood, than any man I ever saw", how his strength was so great "he was equal to three men, having on a certain occasion carried a load of six hundred pounds", or how on another occasion "he walked away with a pair of logs which three robust men were skeptical of their ability to carry." [EN8]

One particular incident, at the Old Mill in Salem, is worth repeating, where according to William Herndon:

"By an arrangement of ropes and straps, harnessed about his hips, he was enabled one day at the mill to astonish a crowd of village celebrities by lifting a box of stones weighing near a thousand pounds."

Before one discards this tale outright, others describe they witnessed Lincoln "lift between 1,000 and 1,300 lbs of rock waid in a Boxx ..." and still others reported they had seen him "in the old mill on the river bank to lift a box of stones weighing from one thousand to twelve hundred pounds." [EN9]

Besides his prodigious strength, Lincoln was a phenomenal wrestler in both American "collar-and-elbow" (which included ground grappling, unlike the version practiced in the old country) and the brutal backwoods catch style of "rough-and-ready", a skill he aptly demonstrated at age 19, when he defended his stepbrother John Johnston's river barge from hijackers, by throwing seven thugs overboard in a wild skirmish.

Soon after, he tangled with the king of the Creole roughnecks in New Orleans, using a hammerlock to get his opponent to apologize for insulting him. He would also break up a bare-knuckle fight between Johnston and William Grigsby, throwing Grigsby out of the center of the ring and challenging the enraged crowd that "if any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns." No one took him up on the offer. [EN10]

Back home in Coles County Illinois, in 1830, the now 21 year-old Lincoln encountered Daniel Needham, the self-proclaimed "best man in the county". In a match open to the public at Wabash Point, Abe would win in two straight falls. Needham, his pride hurt, then challenged Abe to a "rough-and-tumble" fight.

"Needham", drawled Lincoln, "are you satisfied that I can throw you? If you are not, and must be convinced through a thrashing, I will do that, too, for your sake."

Needham wisely shook hands and made his peace with Lincoln, who was now proclaimed the wrestling champion of his county and soon the whole of Southern Illinois and Northern Kentucky. [EN11]

In 1831, Lincoln would engage in his most celebrated wrestling match against the local leader of the Clary Grove boys (a group of bullies who terrorized the residents of New Salem), named Jack Armstrong, and who was described by Daniel Green Burner as being "considered the best man in all this country for a scuffle", and by Lincoln himself as being as "strong as a Russian bear".

Offended that some had boasted Lincoln had no "equal at..." wrestling, or in "rough-and-tumble combat", Armstrong challenged him to a contest. After a brief skirmish, Lincoln took "the great bully by the throat and shook him like a rag..." before slamming him to the ground and rendering him unconscious. [EN12]

While serving as a militia officer in the Sangamon County Volunteers during the Black Hawk War, Mr. Lincoln took a "prominent part" in wrestling matches. One fellow soldier recalled,

"Very few men in the army could successfully compete with Mr. Lincoln, either in wrestling or swimming; he well understood both arts."

Others testified that, "His Specialty was Side holds; he threw down all men." Moreover, that Lincoln would often be found "wrestling for the Company against every Bully Brought up". [EN13]

Lincoln quarreled not only with outside companies, but sometimes his own as well, according to his longtime friend, William G. Green. When his men threatened to kill an old Indian who stumbled into their camp, Captain Lincoln blocked the soldiers' path and stated that any who wished to kill their visitor had best "choose your weapon." Again, no one took him up on his offer. [EN14]

Lincoln found much success while wrestling during the War and, after disposing of seven opponents, he found himself one win away from the regimental championship. Lincoln's opponent for the title would be Private Nathan Dow Thompson, a fellow soldier from his home state who was well known as the champion of Northern Illinois.

The two men clashed, and after taking a respite since neither man had gained the advantage, Lincoln remarked that Thompson was "the most powerful man I ever had hold of." Upon resuming the match, Lincoln would finally taste defeat, as Thompson would throw him twice. [EN15]

It was a remarkable feat by Thompson, for while Lincoln is thought to have competed in some 300 wrestling matches during his life, according to Bob Dellinger, director emeritus of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, "we can only find one recorded defeat of Lincoln in 12 years", Lincoln would proudly declare himself the second best wrestler in Illinois, behind only Thompson, for years to come.

Lincoln's final singles combat was to be a duel on September 22, 1842, against fellow Illinois State legislator James Shield. On that day the two men rowed separately to a small Mississippi River island, each armed with a "Cavalry Broadsword of the largest size". [EN16]

Lincoln had been challenged by Shields for writing a barbed and anonymous letter to the Journal in which he ridiculed him. Outraged, he demanded that the editor reveal the writer, which he did, at Lincoln's instructions. It was also Lincoln, as the challenged party, who chose they duel in a pit with swords.

Fortunately, Shields' and Lincoln's mutual friends arrived at the island at the last minute to plead for them to let bygones-be-bygones.

The duel was cancelled, the incident ending without violence. The two men would become friends; Shields going on to be one of the first two Senators from the State of Minnesota, while Lincoln would go on to be our greatest president.

And Tyler Durden, Lincoln would kick your ass.


† -- This revised article by our guest columnist has been 'crossposted' to today (Nov. 05, 2012). In addition to delving into wrestling's past for Cageside Seats, Mr. Nash has regularly chronicled the forgotten history of mixed martial arts at our fellow SBNation Blog:, where this article was posted in it's original form back on Feb 22, 2012. Cageside Seats is proud to feature the cross-posting of his entire archive of articles in this exclusive guest column for your enjoyment. To read more fascinating articles from Mr. Nash, simply bookmark this link and remember to check back frequently for new content.


End Notes:

EN 1: "From Milos to Londos" by Nat Fleischer (Ring Magazine, 1936)

EN 2: Ibidem

EN 3: Charles Wilson detailed it in his book, The Magnificent Scuttlers (Brattleboro: Stephen Greene Press, 1959)

EN 4: Roosevelt describes with some detail his interest and experiences in combat sports in "Chapter 2: The Vigors of Life" of his autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt - An Autobiography (The MacMillan Company 1913)

EN 5: Diary of Theodore Roosevelt from January 7 to December 27, 1877

EN 6: Yamashita Yoshiaki was one of the "Four Guardians of the Kodokan", and an important figure in the development and rise of Kodokan Judo. Yamashita visited America in an attempt to spread Kano Jigoro's art around the world, and in 1904 met and began instructing the President in the "Gentle-way'. The President was so enamored with the Japanese sport, he had Yoshiaki assigned to the position of wrestling instructor at the Naval Academy. Yamashita would hold this position for almost two years before returning to his native Japan.

EN 7: "In a letter to Kermit" dated March 5, 1904 to his son, Kermit Roosevelt. In another "letter to Kermit", he describes Yamashita working off his back against his other son, Grant.

EN 8: The quotes are from Daniel Green Burner, John Gillespie, and Eliot Herndon and can be found in Herndon's Informants.

EN 9: Herndon's story of Lincoln's feats at the old mill can be found in Herndon's Informants. The other two witnesses were Ward. H. Lamon and J. Rowan Herndon.

EN 10: All of these encounters are described in greater detail in Nat Fleischer's "From Milos to Londos" (Ring Magazine, 1936)

EN 11: The Needham (or Needman) encounter at "Wabash Point" is taken from Abraham Lincoln, The Physical Man by Albert Kaplan, as well as Nate Fleischer's "From Milos to Londos" (Ring Magazine, 1936)

EN 12: There are many versions of his encounter with Jack Armstrong. The one I used is an amalgamation of the most common elements. Other descriptions of the encounter can be found both here and here.

EN 13: The various statements are from Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln.

EN 14: Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln. "Letter from Jason Duncan to William Hi. Herndon", May 28, 1865

EN 15: Thompson was the Champion of St. Clair County. A more thorough description of their encounter can be found in David Herbert Donald's We are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, as well as here.

EN 16: James E. Myers, The Astonishing Saber Duel of Abraham Lincoln

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