Did you know that if you go through the list of US Presidents, you would be sifting through a rich legacy of top quality wrestlers? That’s right, many of the country’s Presidents were expert grapplers.
This legacy begins with the very first President, George Washington himself. At 18, the future Commander of the Continental Armies held a collar and elbow wrestling championship that was, according to accounts, at least county-wide and possibly colony-wide. At the age of 47, ten years before he became the first President of the United States, he still had enough left to defeat seven consecutive challengers from the Massachusetts Volunteers.
The collar and elbow style devised its name from the starting position. Standing face-to-face, each wrestler placed one hand behind his opponent’s neck and the other behind his elbow. While doing away with such tactics as bull-like rushes, the position opened up many possible skill maneuvers.
Arguably the most renowned for his wrestling skills was young Abraham Lincoln, who was the wrestling champion of his county by 1830, at the age of 21. Lincoln was an impressive physical specimen, thin but wiry and muscular, strengthened by hard work in the fields and towering to a mighty 6 feet, 4 inches in height.
Lincoln’s most memorable contest came against Jack Armstrong, a member of the rough and rugged Clary’s Grove Boys. When Armstrong heard stories of Lincoln’s famous strength (from Lincoln’s boss, no less), he challenged the future president to a match. Crowds gathered. Money was wagered. And when the bout was over, Lincoln again stood tall, as he always seemed to.
Some versions of this story claim that Lincoln challenged each member of Armstrong’s gang to individual fights after they attempted to interfere in the match before a clear winner was declared. Armstrong, admitting defeat, reportedly called off his friends and became lifelong friends with Lincoln. While accounts differ on the last moments of the fight, it’s clear Lincoln had earned the respect of not only Armstrong, but the neighborhood as a whole.
To this day, Lincoln holds a record of just 1 loss among his approximately 300 contests. Often forsaking the ”common British” style of collar and elbow for the free-for-all style of the frontier, Lincoln undoubtedly was the roughest and toughest of the wrestling Presidents. Also known as catch-as-catch-can, this style was more hand-to-hand combat than sport.
Lincoln certainly did not achieve any national fame as a wrestler, but his career was typical of the way the sport was conducted in the first half of the 19th Century. It was also typical of the wrestling careers of the 7th President, Andrew Jackson; the 12th, Zachary Taylor; the 18th, Ulysses S. Grant; and the 21st, Chester A. Arthur. Taylor never wrestled against Lincoln, but he was a skilled competitor in collar and elbow during his service with the Illinois Volunteers for the Black Hawk uprising. He always favored wrestling as an army sport.
William Howard Taft, the heaviest wrestling President at his ”best weight” of 225, was a lifelong follower of collar and elbow. Big Bill was intramural heavyweight champion at Yale, and was a fourth generation wrestler in the Taft family. He was the 27th President.
One of the most enthusiastic of the wrestling Presidents was the 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, who continued regular wrestling workouts throughout his term as Governor of New York. Roosevelt, of course, had an affinity for most kinds of strong physical exertion.
The 30th President, Calvin Coolidge, was rated ”tolerable good” as a wrestler by his father, old Colonel John, until at around 14, Cal took to ”duding around and daydreaming about being a big-city lawyer.”
Unfortunately, things seem to have gone rather downhill in terms of the wrestling pedigrees of modern POTUSs. Maybe it’s time we put Donald Trump into a wrestling ring.