When most people think about Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, many things come to mind.
His signature stovepipe hat, his great height, the Emancipation Proclamation, and his assassination are just a few of the memorable things about this frontiersman president.
However, as it turns out, he was also an accomplished wrestler and is even honored in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
In an article by National Wrestling Hall of Fame director Bob Dellinger, Lincoln is reported to have been a fierce competitor in an anything-goes frontier style of wrestling called catch-as-catch-can, where brute strength was a great help in throwing competitors off their feet.
It is sometimes likened more to hand-to-hand combat than to grappling.
Lincoln was the wrestling champion of his county in 1830, at the age of 21. A well built young man of 6’ 4”, his height and strength were an advantage but also made him a target for any challenger wanting to show off or make a name for himself.
However, Sports Illustrated reports that Lincoln was also kind to his opponents after their defeats, offering them water or helping them to their feet when the match was over.
In fact, Lincoln was such a talented wrestler, there is only one recorded instance of him losing in 12 years, according to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame (NWHOF). It was to Hank Thompson in the final match to qualify for their regimental championship.
Both men were serving with the Illinois Volunteers during the Black Hawk Indian uprising of 1832, 28 years before Lincoln would become president.
Lincoln’s supporters were ready to fight over the loss, which seems to have been a common thing to do at the time when the wrestler you were backing didn’t win the bout.
However Lincoln, demonstrating the leadership skills that would later serve him well in office, accepted the defeat humbly and avoided an all-out brawl.
Lincoln was considered a great wrestler and was well known in the areas where he wrestled, but he never achieved national fame. According to the NWHOF, this was typical of the sport at the time as it was unusual to have organized competitions in the way we think of them today.
Although perhaps the greatest, Lincoln is not the only president who was an accomplished wrestler. Nine presidents in total are known to have been good at the sport. Four of them — Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Taft — are honored in the Hall of Outstanding Americans in the NWHOF.
George Washington set the tone early, becoming a school champion at the Reverend James Maury’s Academy in Virginia when he was 18, using the collar and elbow style. This style was named for the starting position, where each competitor would start the match with one hand behind the other person’s neck and the other behind his elbow. It was also known as the “common British” style.
Washington’s championship made him the county champion at least, but the NWHOF speculates that he may have also been the champion for the entire colony.
Not much more is known about his wrestling career, but he must have continued to practice throughout his life because he was able to defeat seven consecutive challengers from the Massachusetts Volunteers at the age of 47 — ten years before he would become president.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president, was so fond of wrestling that he continued to do regular wrestling workouts while he was the Governor of New York.
Finally, his successor, William Taft, who was a hefty 225 pounds even in college and known as “Big Bill” according to the NWHOF, was an undergraduate champion twice during his time at Yale, over 30 years before his presidency. He also used the collar and elbow style and was of the 4th generation of wrestlers in his family.
So Lincoln, although the most accomplished presidential wrestler, was certainly not the first or the last. The presidency and the sport have a long history together, and should perhaps be considered together more often.