top of page

Abraham Lincoln's Wrestling Prowess

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

Abraham Lincoln's Wrestling Prowess
Photo: Bob Zeller

Abraham Lincoln is widely held to be one of the greatest American presidents ever elected. With no short supply of achievements and stories associated with him, one that often goes unknown is his love for wrestling – Lincoln was, in fact, a fierce (nearly undefeated) wrestler in his time.

Lincoln was so good at wrestling that he was eventually inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame. Despite our 16th president of the United States being thin and lanky and weighing only 180lbs for his towering six-foot-four frame, his manual labor as both a farmer in the backwoods of Kentucky as well as a rail splitter for years helped forge a naturally strong specimen of a man who stood head and shoulders over anyone who dared to challenge him in the sport.

Before his shocking and untimely assassination at the age of 56 and before his law career, president Lincoln excelled at his chosen sport, wrestling….

Not only did honest Abe win the American Civil War, but according to several historians, he also won 299 out of 300 wrestling matches in 12 years[1]. This man did not do things halfway and looks more and more like his illustration in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Abraham Lincoln Standing up against a local gang

As a 21-year-old, Abraham Lincoln, in 1830, was the wrestling champion of his county in Illinois. And during this time, he ended up facing off against a man named Jack Armstrong… little did Honest Abe know that this confrontation would land him hometown hero status.

The president-to-be was working as a clerk at a store in New Salem when the town’s gang, known as the Clary’s Grove Boys, dropped by. The group was openly bragging about how no one, not even Lincoln, could beat their champion wrestler, Jack Armstrong. Their motives were clear, and they were desperately eager to get Lincoln to agree to a match due to his impressive reputation[1]. Lincoln agreed to the spurred-on fight, and the entire town watched the battle unfold.

These townsfolk had a clear favorite with Lincoln as they had grown tired of Jack Armstrong, who was also the leader of New Salem’s impish Clary’s Grove Boys. The gang was not exactly quaker, to say the least, and were known for their disruptive and hateful pranks, especially to newcomers. They would often force any newcomer into a wooden barrel, nail it shut, and roll it down a hill[1]. They were bullies, to say the least.

Lincoln won the fight decisively after losing his temper due to Armstrong repeatedly fouling him…. he slammed Armstrong to the ground and knocked him out cold.

Ironically, the two wrestlers became good friends afterward to the point where Lincoln defended Armstrong in a court case a few years later. Funny how things work out… bitter enemies can become friends as close as brothers, and friends can turn out to be silent enemies.

Abraham Lincoln enemies. The Nearly undefeated wrestler

“We can only find one recorded defeat of Lincoln in 12 years,” stated Bob Dellinger, director emeritus of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. “He was undoubtedly the roughest and toughest of all the wrestling presidents[1].”

Lincoln was nearly impossible to beat in his time. According to historians, Lincoln has only one confirmed loss in allegedly more than 300 fights throughout an incredible 12-year span.

That only blemish came at the hands of Pvt. Lorenzo Dow Thompson, the St. Clair wrestling champion with whom Lincoln first crossed paths when he was a Captain during the Black Hawk War. Upon hearing of Thompson’s wrestling skills and record, he wanted to test his metal against the St. Clair wrestling champion. Lincoln was sure in his wrestling capabilities, and being as confident as ever, he set up a match between himself and the private when both of their regiments had some down time from fighting…. A super fight in the middle of a war.

Unfortunately for Honest Abe, much like how Armstrong underestimated Lincoln, Lincoln truly underestimated Thompson. Lincoln was thrown out of the ring for the first time in his career and decisively lost the match.

Of course, wrestling exploits back in the 1800s were not anything like the out-of-this-world professional wrestling we think of today, or even for that matter, the organized athletics of high school or college wrestling. Regardless of that, he was a man to be feared back in his day, and if he had the modern training of today would probability hold his own again anyone.

Despite this one blemish, his wrestling accomplishments are incredible, to say the least. And to the degree where his abilities were formally recognized by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, which in 1992 inducted the president as an “Outstanding American” in the sport. A mural of Lincoln engaged in a wrestling match adorns the wall just inside the Hall of Fame Museum’s front doors in Stillwater, Oklahoma[1].

More Wrestling Presidents

Abraham Lincoln, as it seems, wasn’t the only president with a respectable wrestling past. He joined the ranks of former American presidents such as George Washington, a master at the British collar and elbow style wrestling, and William Taft – a two-time undergraduate champ at Yale[1].

In fact, Lincoln was neither the first nor last president to taste success in the wrestling arena. Other presidents that chose to pursue wrestling were Andrew Jackson, Chester A. Arthur, Ulysses S. Grant, Zachary Taylor, and Theodore Roosevelt.

bottom of page