Abraham Lincoln’s Wrestling Career

Drawing of young Abraham Lincoln wrestling vs Jack Armstrong

Before his rise in the American politics of his time, Abraham Lincoln was a tremendous wrestler. Standing at six feet four inches, with 185 pounds of muscle and big bones, Lincoln had broad shoulders and long arms. His physique enabled him to win 299 out of 300 matches in twelve years of wrestling. He has long been considered one of the best presidents of the United States, but in 1992, Lincoln was officially recognized by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as an “Outstanding American” in the sport.

The Legendary Fight with Jack Armstrong

His legend as a formidable wrestler started in his hometown of New Salem, Illinois. As a young man in his twenties, he already enjoyed a reputation as a grappler among his fellow townspeople. Lincoln was working in a small store owned by a shopkeeper named Denton Offut. Offut knew very well that Lincoln had an appetite for reading about law and history, but it was Lincoln’s height that he admired. Offut often bragged to his customers about his employee’s imposing physical qualities. During this time, a group of bullies called the Clary Grove Boys was terrorizing any man who came to settle in the town. They would shove the newcomer into a barrel and let it roll downhill. One of these bullies was a big man named Jack Armstrong. Soon, villagers started urging Lincoln to take on Armstrong in a wrestling match. At the same time, Armstrong had also been hearing about this other young man who was good at grappling. Eventually, Armstrong challenged Lincoln to a fight.

Denton Offutt organized the match and prepared a wide space beside his store for the combat. He acted as if he was only offering entertainment for the local people, but he was actually after gambling and earning some money. Even though Armstrong was shorter, Offutt knew that many people would place their money on him because he was as strong as a bull. He also knew that Lincoln was good at wrestling because the young man had talked to him about his past fights. Before the fight began, Lincoln clarified to Armstrong that their wrestling match should be ruled by side holds, where either of them could throw the other rather than just hold the other down. Armstrong was not scared of Lincoln and did not care what rules they would fight under, so he agreed.

After the crowd placed their bets, the fight began. The two approached each other and started grappling and sizing up each other’s strengths. They seemed evenly matched, and no one could gain an edge to throw the other one. Eventually, Lincoln showed some signs that he was the stronger man. Sensing defeat, Armstrong attempted an underhanded move to make Lincoln stumble. Lincoln kept his balance but was angered by his opponent’s move. He gripped Armstrong’s neck with his two hands and shook him like a piece of cloth. The rest of the Clary Grove Boys moved in to gang up on Lincoln, who now had his back on the store’s wall. Lincoln shouted at them that he would take on any one of them in a fair fight. Just then, Armstrong gestured to his friends that he had lost the fight and to accept Lincoln as the winner. It was said that Lincoln and Armstrong became good friends after the fight. 

In another version of the famous wrestling match, Lincoln was said to have placed a bet of ten dollars against Armstrong, saying that he could find a man who could defeat him. Armstrong agreed to this, and when he arrived with his gang, Lincoln told him that the man he had found had not shown up yet. Armstrong soon grew tired of waiting and ordered Lincoln to hand him the ten dollars. Lincoln told Armstrong that instead of losing his ten dollars, he would fight him himself. And so, the fight began. Lincoln messed with his opponent with his superior skills until Armstrong grew exhausted. Noticing that his opponent was starting to weaken, Lincoln placed his leg over Armstrong’s neck and hung his body on his opponent using his leg. This placed Lincoln’s weight over the already-tired Armstrong, who had no choice but to keep standing to stay in the fight. Finally, he signaled his surrender and let Lincoln take the ten dollars. They became friends afterward.

Lincoln later recalled his fight with Armstrong, saying that there was one man who he could not take down but could not take him down either, and he was a big man named Jack Armstrong. His fight with Armstrong established him as one of the best wrestlers in Illinois, if not the best. Probably brought on by the legend that started to form after his fight with Armstrong, Lincoln fought many more wrestlers in the following years. It is said that after one fight, he addressed the crowd and said, “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns!” Lincoln became more and more famous in the central Illinois region as a fighter who used skill and technique rather than brute strength.

In 1858, many years after the wrestling match, Jack Armstrong’s son, Duff Armstrong, was accused of murder. Before he died, Jack Armstrong instructed his wife to ask Lincoln for help. Jack Armstrong’s wife did as she was told, and Lincoln extended his help as a defense attorney. He defended Duff, and the trial resulted in a not-guilty verdict for the accused. Duff’s mother offered to pay Lincoln for his services, but he treasured his friendship with his one-time wrestling rival, Jack Armstrong, so he refused to accept the payment.

One Loss in Twelve Years

The National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Oklahoma states that Lincoln lost only one fight in twelve years. This loss came at the hands of Hank Thompson. Their match happened in 1832 during the Black Hawk Wars, when Lincoln was a commander of his men, while Thompson was from Southern Illinois. At the time, their respective units happened to meet while getting their military supplies. Later, an argument between the two units began to get heated, as both contested which one had the right to the best camping location. The opposing units soon agreed that their best men in wrestling should settle the matter.

The fight’s rules were set: Lincoln and Thompson would fight for three rounds. Whoever gets to throw his opponent twice wins the fight. Soldiers from the opposing units started placing their bets — money, knives, blankets, whiskey. Each one was confident that their man would win.

The round started, and Lincoln and Thompson circled each other. Lincoln used his long arms to tire out Thompson, but this did not work. Thompson seemed to be much more powerful, and soon, he threw Lincoln to the ground. Lincoln was shocked, as this was the first time he had been thrown down. After the round, he acknowledged this and told his soldiers that Thompson was the strongest man he had ever faced.

The second round started, and Lincoln tried to adapt to Thompson’s uncommon strength. The second round went on longer than the first, and both men were soon tiring out. Both attempted to trip the other at the same time, and both fell down. Thompson scrambled back to his feet and raised his hand, claiming victory. Lincoln’s men disputed this by pointing out that what happened was a “dog-fall,” which means the fighters hit the ground simultaneously, so the fight should re-start with both fighters in a standing position. But Lincoln knew that someone had finally defeated him, and he admitted it. It is not clear whether he recognized that it was a legitimate throw or if he was totally exhausted. It was Lincoln’s only loss in his many years as a wrestler.

The Wrestler as a Politician

When Lincoln ran for a senatorial position in Illinois in 1858, a wider public became aware of his success as a wrestler. In a debate in the same year, his opponent, the lawyer Stephen Douglas, mentioned Lincoln’s career as a wrestler. Douglas slipped in a flattering remark that Lincoln could beat anybody. After laying down his kind words, Douglas then delivered his destructive comments, labeling Lincoln an “Abolitionist Black Republican.”

Lincoln failed to win that election, but in 1860, he ran for president. During the campaign, Douglas’ remarks about Lincoln during the debates reappeared in newspapers, and they somehow created momentum for the campaign. The voting public now looked at Lincoln’s physical strengths as characteristics of a national leader. In him, the common people saw traits such as endurance and strength and felt that these represented frontier people.