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Abraham Lincoln: How Would America's Toughest Wrestling President Fare in Mixed Martial Arts?

Eric Kowal
09 May 2012
Abe Lincoln - US Combat Sports

It is a little known fact, but long before Hollywood turned him into a vampire hunter, the nation's 16th President Abraham Lincoln actually dabbled in the sport of competitive wrestling. And not only did Lincoln compete, but one match actually became a beloved part of Lincoln's lore.

While living in New Salem, Illinois, Lincoln worked at a general store. He was in his early 20's and maintained a physically fit frame. Denton Offutt, his boss and storekeeper, boasted to the town's people about Lincoln's physical strength.

A group of local misfits known as the Clary's Grove Boys caught wind of the chatter and thought something must be done. The leader of the group, Jack Armstrong, issued up a challenge to Lincoln. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Armstrong entered the store and began to bully Abe before his peers. Lincoln initially did not want any part of a fight but as the situation escalated, gladly participated.

The entire town showed up for the fight because in 1831, entertainment was not as prevalent as it is today. Though the fight took place almost 200 years ago, the parallels between then and now are extremely prevalent.

One of the locals, Offutt, placed a $10 wager upon one of the combatants. Others soon caught on to the trend and the wagers began to stack up.

The fight resembled any grappler vs. grappler match you might see inside the UFC's octagon. The two simply felt each other out while neither fighter was willing to make the first move. The tension of the fight continued to build, waiting for one of the fighters to make any advancement.

The breaking point eventually took place when Armstrong stomped the feet of Lincoln one too many times. Lincoln finally reached out and grabbed Armstrong by the neck, lifting him off the ground and shaking him around like a rag doll. In the end, Honest Abe sent him to the ground where he would finally lay unconscious.

This caused the other boys in the gang to approach Lincoln collectively to seek revenge upon the man who just took down their leader.

Lincoln took precaution, backed himself up against a wall and issued a fight to each of them. His stipulation was that the fights remain a fair one on one battle instead of a group onslaught. Before the fight could progress any farther, Armstrong regained consciousness and extended a gesture towards Lincoln that one would not expect from someone who was just choked out.

Armstrong extended his hand towards Lincoln in hopes for a hand shake. He then issued a statement to his men. "Boys, Abe Lincoln is the best fellow that ever broke into this settlement. He shall be one of us."

From that point on Armstrong and Lincoln were inseparable. Instead of working against one and other, the two joined forces and became friends for many years to come.

A year later, while serving as a captain in the Illinois Volunteers, Lincoln suffered his only recorded wrestling loss. Lincoln would lose by pin fall to another Soldier named Lorenzo Dow (Hank) Thompson.

Lincoln was one win away from becoming the regimental champion before losing at the hands of Thompson.

Honest Abe was not lying when he said Thompson "was the most powerful man I ever had hold of."

Lincoln stood 6'4 and weighed 185 pounds. Today, if he were to fight professionally, he would be in a weight division headed by the number one pound-for-pound greatest fighter on the planet, Anderson "the Spider" Silva.

According to Bob Dellinger, director emeritus of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, nine U.S. Presidents had shown some wrestling prowess at one point in their lives.

The nation's first President, George Washington was the school champion at the Reverend James Maury's Academy in Frederick, Virginia. Washington became a master of the British wrestling style known as "collar and elbow" because of the wrestlers' hand placements in the face-to-face starting position.

Some of the other Presidents that shared the liking of the sport were Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulyssses S. Grant, Chester A. Arthur, William Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.

Obviously none of these leaders put full effort into training as today's accomplished athletes do because the pay just was not there and they were busy helping shape the country that we live in today. To compare Lincoln to a wrestler today such as Cain Velasquez, Jonny Hendricks or Josh Koscheck would be like comparing apples to oranges.

With that being said however, one can't help but wonder about how Honest Abe would have fared in competitive mixed martial arts had it existed back in his time.

That day, Lincoln showed off a wrestling talent against Armstrong that many did not know he had in him. It was not brought up again until the 1860 Presidential election.  Lincoln's opponent Stephen Douglas brought up this tale in the New York Times in the midst of the electoral vote. Douglas referred to Lincoln's reputation as a wrestler an "amusing passage."

Newspapers reprinted Douglas' comments and the story grew like wildfire. After Lincoln's untimely death, more and more details about the former president's hobby began to accumulate over time, thus leading us to claim Honest Abe to be the most notable wrestler of all 44 U.S. Presidents.

Photo is of a painting of a drawing done by Harold von Schmidt. Lincoln vs. Armstrong.

Last Modified:
12 May 2012

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