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Did You Know Abraham Lincoln Was A Wrestling Champion?

Did You Know Abraham Lincoln Was A Wrestling Champion?

There are a lot of moving parts behind Lincoln’s wrestling history, 

One of the most famous stories surrounding Lincoln’s wrestling days involves a match with a local tough guy named Jack Armstrong.

Although the details of this fight aren’t clear— some accounts claim that Lincoln won, others say Armstrong did, but only by cheating — this appears to be the match at the root of Lincoln’s status as a Championship wrestler.

Armstrong is referred to as the “champion” of his group of friends, the Clary’s Grove Boys, in various accounts of this fight. However, this seems to be an informal title. Armstrong was the toughest guy in town, the leader of his group, or, as John T. Stuart, Lincoln’s first law partner, described him, the “champion of his clan.”

That is, until he went up against a young Abraham Lincoln:

The Clary’s Grove Boys “thought they had found another subject by which they could display their strength and prowess,” observed John T. Stuart, who was Mr. Lincoln’s mentor and first law partner. “The champion of the clan, Jack Armstrong was selected to wrestle with Lincoln and to show him that although six feet three, he was no man at all compared with the ‘Boys.’ It did not take Jack long to discover that he had got hold of the wrong customer; and when it was evident that Lincoln was getting the better of their champion. The whole clan pitched in and gave Lincoln several blows, which had no very salutary effect on the strength of his legs. Lincoln however took all this in perfect good humor and by laughing and joking displayed such an excellent disposition, that he at once won their hearts and was invited to become one of the company. This was the turning point in Lincoln’s life.”

Recalled by John T Stuart, Lincoln’s First Law Partner

Another version of this story can be found in the biography Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President:


When Offutt (Lincoln’s boss at the time) began boasting that his new clear could whip any rough-houser in New Salem, several of them put their champion, Jack Armstrong, up to wrestle Lincoln. Just how the match was fought, or even who exactly won, is probably unsure, Armstrong later admitted “that he threw L. But did not do it fairly”); what does seem sure, is that Lincoln came away with the admiration and probably the store business, of even New Salem’s roughest lot and the lifelong loyalty of the Armstrongs. “He won us by his bearing and boldness,” Royal Clary recalled, “Jack and [Lincoln] were the warmest friends during life.”

Recalled By Lincoln’s Boss at the time, Mr. Offutt

The descriptions of Armstrong as a champion are not actually referring to some official title, but instead that he was known as the toughest man in the area. So when Lincoln defeated him — if he actually did — during their storied bout, he may have usurped the informal “champion” title in the area, but this was not done in any official capacity.

Lincoln was never an official county wrestling champion in Illinois, but for a very good reason: County wrestling championships did not exist in Illinois in the 1830s.

Born in a log cabin in Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln received little schooling as his family moved through the wilderness, but he read and reread the Bible and the few other books he could get hold of. Growing up in Illinois, he clerked in a store, studied law, served in the Black Hawk War and took part in political talk of the day.

In the rough and ready style of the frontier, “catch as catch can” wrestling was more hand-to-hand combat than sport. Lincoln, an awesome physical specimen at 6-feet-4, was widely known for his wrestling skills and had only one recorded defeat in a dozen years.

The National Wrestling Hall of Fame has also honored other “Presidential Grapplers” such as George Washington, William Howard Taft, and Teddy Roosevelt. A mural of Lincoln’s match with Armstrong adorns one of the walls in the museum’s “Lincoln Lobby“:

There is no official record for all of Lincoln’s wrestling matches, making it impossible to say how many he won, lost, or even participated in. As noted earlier, even the details about Lincoln’s most famous bouts are unclear.

This rumor, however, is rooted in some truth. We know that Lincoln frequently engaged in wrestling matches and that he was especially skilled at the sport. In fact, when Lincoln was reminiscing about his wrestling days on the campaign trail in 1860, he told Risdon Moore, a college professor whose father served with Lincoln during the Black Hawk War, that he was undefeated until he was thrown by a man named Lorenzo Dow Thompson:

Gentleman, I felt of Mr. Thompson, the St. Clair champion, and told my boys I could throw him, and they could bet what they pleased. You see, I had never been thrown, or dusted, as the phrase then was, and, I believe, Thompson said the same to the St. Clair boys, that they might bet their bottom dollar that he could down me. You may think a wrestle, or “wrastle,” as we called such contests of skill and strength, was a small matter, but I tell you the whole army was out to see it. We took our holds, his choice first, a side hold. I think realized from his grip for the first time that he was a powerful man and that i have no easy job. The struggle was a severe one, but after many passes and efforts he threw me. My boys yelled out “a dog fall,” which meant then a drawn battle, but I told my boys it was fair, and then said to Thompson, “now it’s your turn to go down,” as it was my hold then, Indian hug. We took our holds again and after the fiercest struggle of the kind that I ever had, he threw me again, almost as easily at my hold as at his own. My men raised another protest, but I again told them it was a fair down. Why, gentlemen, that man could throw a grizzly bear.

Abraham Lincoln

Did Lincoln tell a crowd: “I’m the Big Buck of this lick”?

This is my all time favorite Abraham Lincoln story. Lincoln reportedly said this phrase after a raucous battle with his stepbrother, John Johnston, which was initiated by a man named William Grigsby.

Lincoln after defeating his stepbrother in the ring, went searching for William Grigsby in the crowd, after finding him he threw the man into the middle of the ring, and then sparked an all out brawl when he issued this challenge to the crowd:

The two fighters, stripped to the waist, mauled at each other with bare knuckles. A crowd formed a ring and stood cheering, yelling, hissing, and after a while saw Johnston getting the worst of it. The ring of the crowd was broken when Abe shouldered his way through, stepped out, took hold of Grigsby and threw him out to the center of the fight ring. Then, so they said, Abe Lincoln called out, “I’m the big buck of this lick,” and his eyes sweeping the circle of the crowd, he challenged. “If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns.” Wild fist-fighting came and for months around the store in Gentryville they argued about which gang whipped the other.

From the Biography “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years”

As much as I wish it was, this is most likely not an exact quote from Lincoln. As with most of the stories about Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling matches, however, it is rooted in truth.

No matter how you look at it, or who’s version of events you believe. Lincoln was a badass and no one, since the day he was born, has been brave enough to claim otherwise.

Thoughts?