Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the U.S., was such an accomplished wrestler that once, after disposing of an opponent with a single toss, he stepped to the center of the mob that had gathered and shouted, "Any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns!"
No one stepped forward.
Which is not surprising, because the self-taught scholar who wrote the ringing Gettysburg Address was also one of the American frontier's fiercest grapplers during the early 1830s. "He can outrun, outlift, outwrestle and throw down any man in Sangamon County," said Bill Green, a store clerk in New Salem, Ill., as he watched the 22-year-old Lincoln whip all comers one day in 1831.
Lincoln's wrestling supremacy, however, was challenged often. Gangly and awkward as a child, he grew into a tall, muscular man with broad shoulders. But at 6' 4" and 185 pounds, Lincoln was a tempting target for any newcomer to the frontier eager to make a name for himself.
"He sure was the big buck of this lick," said another New Salem resident who saw Lincoln give the notorious county wrestling champion Jack Armstrong the worst thrashing of his life one hot September day more than 163 years ago. That was the future president's most celebrated victory. Frustrated from the start by Lincoln's tremendous reach, Armstrong began stomping on his opponent's feet. Lincoln lost his temper. And a few tosses later Armstrong lost consciousness.
"We can only find one recorded defeat of Lincoln in 12 years," says Bob Dellinger, director emeritus of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla., where Lincoln is enshrined in the Hall of Outstanding Americans. "He was undoubtedly the roughest and toughest of all the wrestling presidents."
There were nine, actually, who were accomplished grapplers. At 18, George Washington was the school champion at the Reverend James Maury's Academy in Fredericksburg, Va. Washington was a master of the British style known as collar and elbow—named for wrestlers' hand placements in the face-to-face starting position. This was a disciplined sport in which success depended on tactical expertise. Later in life, as the commander of the Continental armies, Washington, then 47, used his superior wrestling skills to defeat seven consecutive challengers from the Massachusetts Volunteers.
Other commanders in chief who were successful wrestlers include Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Chester A. Arthur. At 225 pounds William Taft was twice crowned undergraduate champion at Yale after he mastered a wicked move called the Flying Marc with which he would savagely flip an opponent to the ground. And Theodore Roosevelt kept fit with regular wrestling workouts during his term as governor of New York.
On the American frontier the sportsmanlike collar and elbow gave way to a catch-as-catch-can style that required less skill and more brute strength. The matches were decided when an opponent was thrown off his feet. In the name of civic pride (and, of course, some friendly wagering) champions from each county were pitted against each other. Lincoln progressed swiftly in this rougher style of wrestling—though he often helped conquered opponents to their feet or gave them water after matches. He was a proud competitor but a humble sportsman. And when his wrestling skills diminished, Lincoln's leadership qualities emerged.
In his service with the Illinois 'Volunteers during the Black Hawk Indian uprising of 1832, Lincoln was one match away from a regimental championship. Wrestling for the Sangamon County Volunteers, he had disposed of seven opponents before facing Hank Thompson, a fellow soldier. The two men locked up and strained for advantage before Lincoln broke away and declared Thompson "the most powerful man I ever had hold of." Honest Abe wasn't lying. Upon resuming the match Thompson secured his place in history by becoming the only man ever to throw Lincoln. And he did it twice.
With their hero defeated, Sangamon's troops cried foul and prepared for the brawl that often followed wrestling matches. Lincoln, showing the poise and character that would sustain him later as president, held up his hands and halted the hostilities. "Boys, give up your bets," he commanded. "If this man hasn't thrown me fairly, he could."
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In his most celebrated victory, Lincoln sent the loutish Armstrong into oblivion—for a spell, anyway.