Abraham Lincoln: president ... and wrestler?
Can you imagine Abraham Lincoln in WWE? Picture it: Honest Abe, stovepipe hat and all, storming the ring with a World Championship over his shoulder, pyrotechnics blazing, ready to lay the smackdown on any WWE Superstar. OK, it might not have happened quite like that, but it has long been rumored that America’s very own 16th president was one of the finest professional wrestlers of his day. Noted wrestling historian Mike Chapman once told WWE of Lincoln’s wrestling exploits. ( WATCH)
But was it myth? Folklore? Or did the man who united the nation also unite his fists with opponents’ jaws?
“It’s not mythology,” Lincoln expert Ronald C. White Jr. told WWE.com. “Lincoln definitely wrestled.”
White is the author of The New York Times Best Seller, “A. Lincoln: A Biography” and spoke with WWE.com about Honest Abe’s grappling history. “Lincoln had wrestling in his background,” White said. “His Uncle Mord reputably had real talent for it. Lincoln did quite a bit of wrestling during the years he lived in Indiana from ages 9 to 21.”
But Lincoln’s most well-known match occurred after the future president arrived in New Salem, Ill., in 1831. Working as a clerk in Denton Offutt’s general store, Lincoln’s considerable size and strength caught some attention around town. “We know he was 6-foot, 4-inches,” White explained. “And if you know how small people were in the 19th century, today it would be like somebody 6-foot-10 walking into the room.” That’s right: More than 150 years before The Undertaker debuted in WWE, New Salem had its very own "Phenom."
Something of a Captain Lou Albano of his day, Offutt was so proud of his impressive employee that he began to claim Lincoln could easily manhandle anyone in the area. “Jack Armstrong was the leader of a local gang called The Clary’s Grove Boys,” White said. “They took their name from a small village about three miles from New Salem.” Armstrong got wind of Offutt’s claims and challenged Lincoln to a match.
The exact logistics are foggy. “It’s a little unclear as to how this match actually came about, but these boys were ready to challenge any newcomer,” White explained. “And Lincoln was a newcomer.” But Armstrong and his gang weren’t ready for the Hulkamania that Lincoln was prepared to unleash at just 22-years-old.
Hype began to build around the upcoming confrontation between two competitors in their prime, a predecessor to Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant. “It may not have been publicized with posters,” White theorized. “But it was publicized by word of mouth 24 to 48 hours in advance of when the match actually took place. Word spread quickly and a lot of people came to watch this match between the champion [Armstrong], who was a few years older than Lincoln, and this new young fellow.”
But this match wasn’t in front of more than 90,000 fans in the Pontiac Silverdome. The bout likely took place near Offutt’s store. “It was in an opening in a grove of trees,” White said. “There would often be wrestling matches or political speeches in a clearing or grove of trees.”
Lincoln had the clear physical advantage in the match. “Armstrong was eight or 10 inches shorter, but had the reputation that he could lick anybody,” White said. When the match began, the gang leader struggled to keep up with the much larger Lincoln due to his much shorter reach. “They started out in various prescribed holds. They locked up and began to wrestle with a sequence of maneuvers.”
Various accounts have Armstrong sensing defeat and fouling Lincoln by tripping him — the equivalent to a low blow by today’s standards. Honest Abe, never one to break the rules, became incensed and used his long, powerful arms to grab his opponent by the neck and shake him vigorously like a rag doll. With The Clary’s Grove Boys backing up Armstrong, they began to corner Lincoln. Some say that Lincoln offered to take on each member of the gang, but their leader called off the bout instead. The competitors agreed on a draw and Armstrong proclaimed Lincoln to be, “the best fella that ever broke into this settlement.”
“It may have been under the rules that Lincoln would have won the match,” White explained. “But what really endeared Lincoln to this group of young men was that Lincoln didn’t want to win the match when he was obviously the stronger and better wrestler.” Instead, the two men agreed to simply shake hands out of respect. “It spoke volumes about the kind of person Lincoln became,” White said.
Lincoln had so much respect for his opponent that he and Armstrong became great friends. More than 25 years later, Armstrong’s son was on trial for murder. Like The Rock sprinting to the ring to assist an ally in need, Lincoln acted as the attorney and the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
Lincoln’s reputation as a strong and talented wrestler contributed to his early success as a politician. “He actually ran for Illinois state legislature the very next year in 1832,” White said. “He didn’t win, but in the immediate vicinity of New Salem, he won almost all the votes.” As Lincoln’s reputation grew, so did his success. “Two years later he ran again. There were 14 men on the ballot for four seats. Lincoln finished in second place among the 14.”
White concluded, “His reputation rose rapidly, and wrestling was part of that.”
Lincoln went on to become arguably the greatest United States president of all time. But if WWE had been around, Lincoln very well could have become the greatest Superstar of all time instead.