Abraham Lincoln Sideways

Inside Abraham Lincoln’s Surprising Career As A National Wrestling Champ

Published September 24, 2020
Updated June 4, 2024

In 12 years of wrestling, Abraham Lincoln was known to have lost only one match out of 300 on his way to being inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Abraham Lincoln Wrestling

Public DomainA late 19th-century illustration of Abraham Lincoln wrestling hometown bully Jack Armstrong.

He has been mythologized as one of the greatest Americans to ever be elected president, but Abraham Lincoln also had another side that’s been largely lost to time. Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling career — though impressive — is rarely mentioned in modern-day presidential biographies.

Indeed, Lincoln had such a talent for grappling that he was eventually inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame. Standing at 6’4″ and with the strength of a well-fed 20-something, young Lincoln was so good at wrestling that he only lost once — in a span of 12 years of fights.

In fact, his political rise in the 1850s can, in part, be attributed to the legendary tales of his youthful athletic talent.

Let’s shatter the myth of Lincoln as perpetually old, bearded, and soft-spoken once and for all. His prowess in both hand-to-hand combat, and routinely identifying his opponents’ weaknesses, might have actually helped the strategic politician in his later life as president.

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How The Future President’s Most Famous Fight Got Started

Illustration Of Lincoln Wrestling

Public DomainDepiction of a young Lincoln winning a bout.

Before his untimely assassination at age 56 and prior to his career as a lawyer Abraham Lincoln excelled at wrestling.

Born in 1809, Lincoln was living in New Salem, Illinois by 1831. Then in his early 20s — and long before his career as a politician — Abraham Lincoln was a complete unknown. He’d drifted to New Salem after his family moved to Coles County, where he found work as a clerk in a local shop.

The shop’s owner, Denton Offutt, found Lincoln’s 6’4″ height impressive, and was known to boast about it to customers. According to the Abraham Lincoln Research site, Offutt bragged that his towering and intelligent clerk was physically and mentally superior to other men in town. Offutt even claimed that Lincoln could win a fight against any man in town.

Naturally, this got the attention of the Clary Grove gang, a group of young men who lived in a settlement nearby. Not only did they believe that they could fight better than anyone else, they were also known to “initiate” newcomers to New Salem by challenging them to a fight. (What’s more, gang members were also known to have “fun” in cruel ways, like stuffing someone in a barrel and throwing it down the hill.)

Their leader was a man named Jack Armstrong.

Jack Armstrong

Public DomainThe most famous of Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling matches pitted him against Jack Armstrong, the leader of a gang in New Salem.

In one version of the story, Lincoln told Armstrong that he could find a man who could “throw him.” When this mystery man didn’t show up, Lincoln challenged Armstrong himself. In another, Armstrong challenged Lincoln to a fight when he heard of Offutt’s boasting. Offut bet $10 that Lincoln would win.

What Jack Armstrong probably didn’t know was that Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling track record was already rather formidable.

Abraham Lincoln Wrestling Jack Armstrong

Abraham Lincoln didn’t enter his wrestling match with Jack Armstrong as a novice. According to historian Ronald C. White Jr., who wrote A. Lincoln: A Biography, Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling career stretched back to his childhood. His uncle, Mordecai Lincoln, was purportedly quite a wrestler. And Abraham Lincoln wrestled frequently himself from the ages of nine until 21.

What’s more, the soft-spoken future president purportedly once taunted a crowd after a match by shouting: “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns!”

Early Photo Of Abraham Lincoln

Public DomainThe earliest known photograph of Abraham Lincoln was taken circa 1846, some 15 years after Lincoln wrestled Jack Armstrong in New Salem.

As the date of the match between Armstrong and Lincoln approached, New Salem buzzed with anticipation. White told WWE in 2012 that the match was spread by word of mouth, and people flocked to see Armstrong, the town bully, fight Lincoln, the lanky newcomer who worked at Offutt’s store.

Ahead of the fight, Lincoln set only one ground rule: that their wrestling be based on “side holds” where the goal was to throw the other man rather than to pin him. Confident in his skills, Armstrong agreed.

The townspeople gathered to watch, probably in a clearing or grove near Offutt’s store. And once a sizable crowd had gathered and bets were made, the the fight began.

“For a time, the two scufflers circled each other warily,” the Abraham Lincoln Research Site reports. “They did some grappling and twisting, but neither man could throw the other to the ground. Slowly, Armstrong began to get the worst of it.”

Indeed, Armstrong was at a disadvantage even before the fight began. Though strong, he was eight to 10 inches shorter than the lanky Lincoln. Armstrong even tried to trip Lincoln to avoid defeat — who became so enraged by the petty move that he grabbed Armstrong by the neck and “shook him like a rag.” The aggravated Clary’s Grove Boys began to move in, forcing Lincoln to back up against a wall.

Abraham Lincoln Wrestling Jack Armstrong

Historical Images Archive / Alamy Stock PhotoA 20th-century depiction of Abraham Lincoln wrestling Jack Armstrong.

Abraham Lincoln then exclaimed that he’d fight every single one of them in fair, individual fights. But Armstrong called his friends off and declared Lincoln the winner. Armstrong even stated that Lincoln was “the best ‘feller’ that ever broke into this settlement,” and shook his hand.

In another version of the story, however, the two men fought to a draw. Lincoln even purportedly later stated: “There was a big fellow named Jack Armstrong, strong as a Russian bear, that I could not put down; nor could he get me on the ground.”

Abraham Lincoln’s Wrestling Becomes A Campaign Selling Point

Whatever the truth, the fight against Jack Armstrong seems to be just one in Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling career. He purportedly went on to fight some 300 times — and only lost once, to a man named Hank Thompson during the Black Hawk War of 1832.

“We can only find one recorded defeat of Lincoln in 12 years,” Bob Dellinger, director emeritus of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, told Sports Illustrated in 1995. “He was undoubtedly the roughest and toughest of all the wrestling presidents.”

During Lincoln’s early campaigns for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois in 1858, the public learned of his talent in the ring. During the first debate for the seat in Ottawa, Illinois, on Aug. 21, 1858, his opponent Stephen Douglas referred to Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling career as an “amusing passage” in his life.

Campaign Poster For Abraham Lincoln

Public DomainAn 1860 Presidential campaign poster for Abraham Lincoln.

Though Douglas praised Lincoln’s abilities, he also insulted him as an “Abolitionist Black Republican.” Lincoln lost the election, but when he successfully ran for president two years later, newspapers reprinted Douglas’ comments. This time, they seemed to have an advantageous effect.

Suddenly, Lincoln’s reputation as a young, capable lad who mastered the art of wrestling was viewed as a sign of leadership.

In a 1900 biography by Chicago newspaperman John Locke Scripps, Scripps praised how Lincoln “excelled in all those homely feats of strength, agility, and endurance practiced by frontier people in his sphere of life.”

“He was a proud competitor but a humble sportsman,” wrote cultural historian David Fleming. “And when his wrestling skills diminished, Lincoln’s leadership qualities emerged.”

None of Lincoln’s sons — Robert, Eddie, Willie, or Tad — showed any particular wrestling skill (most of them died young) nor did descendents like Robert Lincoln Beckwith or Ralph Lincoln. However, Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the only head of state with a respectable athletic past.

Abraham Lincoln Wrestling Hall Of Fame

National Wrestling Hall of FameThe Lincoln Lobby and mural at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Lincoln joined the ranks of past presidents like George Washington, who was a skilled grappler and mastered the British collar and elbow style, and William Taft — a two-time undergraduate champ at Yale.

But Lincoln was certainly the best of them all. The National Wrestling Hall of Fame has even paid its respects to Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling career by enshrining him in its roster of Outstanding Americans.

After exploring the triumphant wrestling career of Abraham Lincoln before he became president, go inside the curious theory that Abraham Lincoln was Black. Or, see why some believe that Abraham Lincoln was gay.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
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Cite This Article
Margaritoff, Marco. "Inside Abraham Lincoln’s Surprising Career As A National Wrestling Champ." AllThatsInteresting.com, September 24, 2020, https://allthatsinteresting.com/abraham-lincoln-wrestling. Accessed June 13, 2024.