Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States. Without him, the country would likely have split in two during the American Civil War. Also, he was a heck of a wrestler.
Lincoln is, actually and factually, a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, albeit inducted very posthumously in 1992. Now, it’s worth noting that there are very few records of Lincoln’s wrestling “career” and that the catch fighting that the 16th President engaged in doesn’t bear much resemblance to the modern sport. But at 6’4″ in an era when the average American height was 5’7″ and strengthened by a great deal of physical labor in his youth, he had a notable advantage over almost any opponent he faced.
So let’s take a look at the career of Abe Lincoln, frontier wrestler.
Lincoln the Catch Wrestler
Lincoln’s form of wrestling didn’t resemble any sort of formalized form of the sport that we have today. Instead, he participated in “catch as catch can” or catch wrestling. Basically, people would stop at traveling carnivals and other informal spots and take someone on with one simple goal: pin the opponent by any means necessary.
Naturally, the big, long-limbed Lincoln had a notable advantage against his opponents; it’s hard to pin a person whose tree-like arms are around you before you can even get close to him. But all the glitz and glamour of the squared circle that we think of now thanks to professional wrestling didn’t exist back then. This was a straight up knockdown and grapple match where the opponents tried to win by any means necessary.
Well, except when somebody lost and called it cheating…
Armstrong versus Lincoln
A good example of how poor the records for catch wrestling is Lincoln’s match against Jack Armstrong. Lincoln himself called the match a draw, but others claim that Lincoln won, that Armstrong won, or that the entire fight devolved into a brawl in which Lincoln was ultimately pinned but only after others joined the fight on Armstrong’s side.
Effectively, catch wrestling in the 19th century was like a schoolyard brawl but with adults doing the fighting. There were a bare minimum of rules, no records kept, and little more than bragging rights at stake. The wrestlers would create their own narratives after the match, and over time the stories they told would replace the long-forgotten facts.
It’s not unlike the way the Internet takes facts and distorts them over time. Speaking of which…
The Man, the Myth, the Legend
The Internet specializes in warping truth and reality. This becomes especially true when a fun story doesn’t need to be fabricated whole cloth but can instead be based on a grain of truth. So when people found out that Lincoln did indeed wrestle and was indeed in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, we got memes like this:
While that’s fun, it’s completely exaggerated. There was no tallying the matches Lincoln won, nor did he have anything approaching a formal win/loss record. And the odds of him having engaged in 300 catch wrestling matches before he moved into the world of law at the age of 23 years old are slim to none.
Lincoln isn’t even included in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for his wrestling achievements; he is recognized there in the category of “Outstanding Americans,” which includes basically any major historical figure who pursued wrestling as a hobby. Numerous other presidents share that status, including George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and even William Howard Taft.
In other words, Lincoln was a big, powerful guy who had a notable physical advantage over others of his era. His style of wrestling was a rough and tumble kind that had very few formal rules. An impressive wrestler he was, but a 300-win juggernaut he wasn’t.