Theodore Roosevelt: The Rough-and-Tumble, Wrestling, Grappling President

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterOctober 27, 2015

1912:  America's youngest president, Theodore Roosevelt (1858 - 1919), who succeeded William McKinley after his assassination. Roosevelt was a popular leader and the first American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded for his mediation in the Russo-Japanese war.  (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Theodore Roosevelt, the United States' 26th president, found solace on the sweat-soaked wrestling mat, joy in the art of the armbar.

The fiery, mustached statesman was a fan and student of wrestling. As a young man in search of increased bulk, as Governor of New York and eventually as president, he took time to dive into grappling, jiu-jitsu, boxing or any form of mixing it up with a worthy adversary.  

The image many have of Roosevelt is that of a ruggedly masculine man with a Rough Rider hat atop his head and a metaphorical "big stick" in one hand.

His passion for hunting is well-known. His love of the written word is evident by his prolific authorship.

A multifaceted man, Roosevelt had a great appreciation for wrestling. As David Shoemaker noted in The Squared Circle, Roosevelt was quoted as saying, "If I wasn't president of the United States, I would like to be George Hackenschmidt."

Hackenschmidt was a broad-chested strongman from the Russian Empire who defeated Tom Jenkins in 1905 and became pro wrestling's first recognized world heavyweight champion.

Roosevelt had already taken office at that point. He achieved much more than what his parents expected of him. Sickness threatened to take Teddy's life early.

In Need of Transformation

Theodore Sr. and Martha Roosevelt's second child spent much of his early life gasping for air. Asthma hampered his breathing. Sometimes attacks would rip him from sleep, leaving him to feel as if he was being smothered.

Teddy's father would carry him close to his chest at night to tryto soothe the sickly child. Other times, more drastic measures were needed.

Mikel B. Classen wrote in Teddy Roosevelt and the Marquette Libel Trial, "His frantic parents would bundle him into their carriage and whip the horses through the streets of New York at a breakneck speed in a desperate attempt to force air into the child's lungs."

Frail, burdened by illness and not growing well, young Roosevelt's future looked dim. In fact, as noted on the Smithsonian Channel's The Teddy Roosevelt You May Not Know, he wasn't expected to live past his fourth birthday:

In one of his first acts of defiance, he proved the doctors wrong. 

Asthma or not, he was fascinated with wildlife and the outdoors. He pined to observe and interact with nature, not stay indoors, as he did so often.

Theodore Sr. was determined to help his son leave his weakness behind. He built his son a gym. There, young Teddy morphed from a thin, sickly kid into an athlete.

In Lion in the White House, Aida D. Donald wrote, "Theodore developed his chest and arm muscles by lifting dumbbells, by using the horizontal bars, and by bashing a punching bag."

Athletic endeavors not only helped him shake his sickness but gave him courage. He grew more confident as his muscles grew.

Roosevelt began to take boxing lessons from John Long, an ex-prize fighter. Looking back at those early lessons, Roosevelt recalled, "I was a painfully slow and awkward pupil."

His interest in sporting combat continued in less formal fashion. In the spring of 1874, he moved to the country where (with his cousin Elliott) he made some of his earliest entries into the world of wrestling occurred. 

In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris wrote of these sparring sessions, "Teedie and Elliott took delight in blackening each other's eyes in boxing matches, and collapsing, at unpredictable moments, into wrestling matches."

By the next year, he began to truly move past his health issues. He still had occasional attacks that, as Morris wrote, "still came and went," but suffered nothing debilitating. 

That freed Roosevelt to eventually embark on a successful career in both the military and in politics. It also made it easier for him to engage in his love of scuffling on a wrestling mat.

Not a Proper Gubernatorial Amusement

As both governor and president, Roosevelt disliked being cooped up in the office. That lifestyle offered little chance to go outdoors. With nature a world away, boxing and wrestling were his refuges.

Those sports in his words, enabled him "to get a good deal of exercise in condensed and attractive form."

He had both boxed and wrestled during his days at Harvard but never excelled at either. In his autobiography he remembered making it to either the finals or the semifinals of a tournament. For the most part, though, he resided at the bottom of the food chain.

Roosevelt called himself a "trial horse" for legitimate contenders.

Still, he desired to continue learning and continue battling. Mike J. Dwyer, a middleweight wrestling champion, traveled to Albany during Roosevelt's tenure as governor. Teddy invited him to the office. Roosevelt was thrilled to grapple with the champ and did so three or four times a week in the afternoons.

Political cartoons sometimes worked in Roosevelt's wrestling skills.
Political cartoons sometimes worked in Roosevelt's wrestling skills.Associated Press

As the New York Times (h/t Martial Arts New York) put it in 1899, "The Governor entered into the sport with zest."

With a wrestling mat set up in the billiard room of the Executive Mansion, Roosevelt took on Dwyer bare-chested, wearing only regulation wrestling tights and trunks. The governor surprised the expert in Cornish wrestling by attempting a cross-buttock, a move where the attacker upends his foe, using the hips as a lever of sorts.

Dwyer reportedly didn't hold back with Roosevelt. An article from the Morning Oregonian in 1908 recalled that the champ "promptly pinned Mr. Roosevelt's shoulders to the mat" before throwing him a total of three times in 20 minutes.

Losing these sparring sessions didn't seem to bother the governor. He noted in his autobiography that Dwyer was more skilled than him with no resentment in his tone. And this wasn't about winning and losing; this was meant to be diversion and exercise.

An oarsman eventually took Dwyer's place, but he was less adept at the mat game.

Things turned more dangerous in these matches. Roosevelt and his opponent both ended up grimacing in pain with fresh wounds to lick by the end of them.

Roosevelt wrote, "By the end of our second afternoon one of his long ribs had been caved in and two of my short ribs badly damaged, and my left shoulder-blade so nearly shoved out of place that it creaked."

Had he walked upon a scene like that, one can't blame the comptroller for having issues with Roosevelt wrestling. He refused to audit a bill for a wrestling mat which the governor requested.

The comptroller explained that was while billiards was a suitable gubernatorial amusement, "a wrestling-mat symbolized something unusual and unheard of and could not be permitted." 

Associated Press

Proper or not, Roosevelt continued to dabble in wrestling. Boxing, though, was preferable to him. As president, Roosevelt boxed with some of his aides, continuing that sport after he put wrestling aside.

But although Roosevelt called wrestling a "much more violent amusement than boxing," he continued his lessons, this time with teachers from the Far East.

The Japanese Master

Practicing Cornish and catch-as-catch-can wrestling styles did not satiate Roosevelt. He wanted to adopt new techniques, see new holds on display. He wanted to learn of the grappling arts that were generating buzz in the Far East.

In the earliest years of the 20th century, judo and jiu-jitsu were far from household names in the U.S. But Americans, Roosevelt included, had begun to hear about the sports.

And the president wanted to experience them firsthand.

Like he had done with Dwyer, Long and others, Roosevelt looked to study under Yoshiaki Yamashita. The judoka from Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan, as Jonathan Snowden put it in Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling, was "one of judo's most successful ambassadors in this period."

That included teaching stints at the United States Naval Academy and with Roosevelt himself in the Oval Office.

Roosevelt grappled with Yamashita and his partner three times a week, slowly adding judo moves to his arsenal. Like with other combat sports, Roosevelt was more earnest than excellent. Yamashita said that his pupil was "very heavy and very impetuous," as seen in an article in the Journal of Combative Sports by Joseph R. Svinth. 

Pushing well over 200 pounds at this point, Roosevelt sought to engage in these foreign combat sports to lose weight.

There were far easier ways to burn calories, but Roosevelt didn't often seek the easy route. He seemed to love the education Yamashita was giving him.

Even though he left the sessions "mottled with bruises," as he described in Theodore Roosevelt's Letters to his Children, he sounded thrilled. He wrote to his son Ted,  "I have made good progress, and since you left they have taught me new throws that are perfect corkers."

Roosevelt also told his son Kermit of a moment in a match where he thought victory was his. He wrote, "I also got hold of his windpipe and thought I could choke him off before he could choke me. However, he got ahead."

The president practiced the newly learned art with just about anyone who was willing. Svinth listed Roosevelt's private secretary, William Taft and the Secretary of the Interior as some of the president's jiu-jitsu foes. 

Who knows what those matches did to those untrained folks roped into wrestling with Roosevelt. When the president was done with Yamashita and his partner, he was in need of a nurse's touch.

Roosevelt wrote to Ted of his sessions with the Japanese master, "I find the wrestling a trifle too vehement for mere rest. My right ankle and left wrist and one thumb and both great toes are swollen sufficiently to more or less impair their usefulness."

Forced to Stay off The Mat

Eventually, Roosevelt would have to shelve jiu-jitsu, wrestling and boxing.

An injury forced him to find new forms of exercise. During a sparring session, an artillery captain socked him in the eye, and the blow damaged the blood vessels. Mike Conklin wrote for the Chicago Tribune that the punch caused "severe hemorrhaging" and "eventually a detached retina." 

By 1908, it robbed Roosevelt of vision in the eye.

He stayed positive, however. Roosevelt wrote of the situation, "Fortunately it was my left eye, but the sight has been dim ever since, and if it had been the right eye I should have been entirely unable to shoot."

Associated Press

That's the kind of response one would expect from Roosevelt. One can't help but think of toughness when his name comes to mind.

Thank the glare he often pointed through his bifocals, or the fact that a man once shot him in the chest from close range, yet he went on to finish his speech as planned "with the bullet still in his body," according to History.com.

To learn of his exploits on the wrestling mat, either utilizing European styles or what his Japanese teacher taught him, is not surprising in the least. Roosevelt was a man who loved to push himself and disliked a life of ease, so he made sure that he was well-versed in the fighting arts. It was just one of his many passions.

As William H. Crawford put it in the Miami News in 1926, "He could talk prize fights with John L. [Sullivan]; baseball with Ty Cobb; wrestling with Jack Curley."

Had Roosevelt not found a home in politics, Curley, a promoter who booked bouts with all-time greats like Frank Gotch and Stanislaus Zbyszko, likely would have loved to have the New York native on his roster. He never showed a great aptitude for wrestling, but certainly a passion for it.

And the mythological aura that Roosevelt exuded would have been perfect for the squared circle. 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography.

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