Was Abraham Lincoln a professional wrestler?

Abraham Lincoln remains one of the most recognizable politicians globally, and his name immediately evokes his presidency, assassination, or the Emancipation Proclamation.

Before his political career, however, Lincoln was preoccupied with something else — wrestling. He was so good at the sport that he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Born in Kentucky on February 12, 1809, to a poor family, Lincoln’s education was limited, but his love for learning led him to devour books. His interests also included wrestling, which he started at just 9 years old.


Lincoln vs. the Gang Leader

In 1831, Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois, working as a rail-splitter and a store clerk. At 22, standing 6’4” and weighing 185 pounds, his tall and lanky physique wasn’t typical for a wrestler, but his laborer’s strength was impressive. His employer, Denton Offutt, boasted that Lincoln could beat anyone in town, including Jack Armstrong, leader of the rough Clary’s Grove Boys. This boisterous gang loved to visit New Salem to drink and gamble.

Offutt bet $10 that Lincoln could defeat Armstrong. Despite their contrasting physiques — Armstrong being short and brawny — a catch-as-catch-can match (freestyle wrestling) was set. The goal: knock the opponent down on his back without causing injury. A crowd gathered for the much-anticipated match.

The grappling began, with Lincoln using his long arms to frustrate Armstrong. According to some accounts, Armstrong resorted to illegal tactics, angering Lincoln. Eventually, Lincoln managed to get the upper hand, holding Armstrong by the neck and shaking him. Though it seemed a fight would break out with Armstrong’s gang, Armstrong conceded, preventing further conflict. Some versions of the story suggest a draw, while others claim Lincoln knocked Armstrong out. Regardless, Lincoln earned the gang leader’s respect, who called him “the best fella that ever broke into this settlement.”

This wrestling match sparked a lasting friendship. Over two decades later, Lincoln served as Armstrong’s son’s defense attorney in a murder trial, securing a not-guilty verdict without accepting payment.

Almost Unbeatable

Reports suggest Lincoln won 299 out of 300 matches over 12 years, losing only to Hank Thompson. In 1832, Lincoln, serving in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War, encountered Thompson, a fellow commander. A dispute over the best camping spot led to a wrestling match to settle the issue.

In a two-out-of-three-falls match, Lincoln aimed to tire his opponent before attacking. Thompson, however, threw Lincoln in the first round. The second round saw both men falling simultaneously, prompting Lincoln to concede. “Boys, give up your bets. If this man hasn’t thrown me fairly, he could,” he reportedly said.


Was He a Professional Wrestler?

Lincoln was indeed a superior wrestler, but in his time, there were no official championships. He was considered a “champion” through informal matches in Illinois. His wrestling style differed from today’s, yet his skill earned recognition in 1992 when he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame with the Outstanding American accolade.

So, the next time you think about Abraham Lincoln, remember not just the president and emancipator, but also the towering, lanky wrestler who could take down gang leaders and forge lifelong friendships in the ring.