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Theodore Roosevelt trains in Catch and Cornish Wrestling as N.Y. Governor

October 14, 2014

Perhaps New York’s most famous martial artist was not a great master, but the soldier, statesman, and President Theodore Roosevelt, who cross-trained in a variety of combative arts including western boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and fencing.

Above: Theodore Roosevelt at Age 19

Above: Theodore Roosevelt at Age 19

According to various accounts, Roosevelt’s formal training as a wrestler began during his tenure as Governor of New York. According to the New York Times of December 1, 1899:


Professor Mike J. Dwyer was considered an expert in the Cornish style of wrestling, although he also contested in catch-as-catch-can, as well as (to a lesser extent) Graeco-Roman. In his autobiography, Roosevelt himself recounted:

“When I became Governor, the champion middleweight wrestler of America happened to be in Albany, and I got him to come round three or four afternoons a week. Incidentally I may mention that his presence caused me a difficulty with the Comptroller, who refused to audit a bill I put in for a wrestling-mat, explaining that I could have a billiard-table, billiards being recognized as a proper Gubernatorial amusement, but that a wrestling-mat symbolized something unusual and unheard of and could not be permitted. The middleweight champion was of course so much better than I was that he could not only take care of himself but of me too and see that I was not hurt–for wrestling is a much more violent amusement than boxing. But after a couple of months he had to go away, and he left as a substitute a good-humored, stalwart professional oarsman. The oarsman turned out to know very little about wrestling. He could not even take care of himself, not to speak of me. 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. He was nearly as pleased as I was when I told him I thought we would ‘vote the war a failure’ and abandon wrestling. After that I took up boxing again.”

Following is an image of the office at the Governor’s Mansion (obtained from the New York State Executive mansion website) in which Roosevelt wrestled…unfortunately, a version showing the wrestling mat could not be found:


An additional article, entitled “He Threw Teddy Down,” published in the Morning Oregonian, December 11, 1908, provides another fanciful account of Roosevelt’s training under Dwyer. The article presents a major error in assuming that Dwyer first trained Roosevelt while the latter was President (not Governor), and is thus of questionable accuracy. However, as this error may have been introduced by the reporter, and as the anecdote itself seems to have come from Dwyer or an associate (and thus might contain a scrap of truth), we present it here:

“Now [Roosvelt] thought he was some kind of a wrestler himself. He recalled the days at Harvard when he was the champion of the freshman class. His friends touted Dwyer so highly that Dwver was invited up to the White House gym the next day for an exhibition bout with the strenuous President. Michael J. does not handle anybody with gloves, and he promptly pinned Mr. Roosevelt’s shoulders to the mat. ‘Once Is an accident.’ thought the sponsor of Taft, ‘I’ll get him this time.’ He did not. Dwyer threw him three times in 20 minutes. Mr. Roosevelt was convinced by that time that there were things about wrestling he did not know and Professor Dwyer was retained to give the Administration wrestling lessons.”

We will continue our profile of Roosevelt’s martial training in PART II. Stay tuned for more…

UPDATE 10/29/2014:

Part II, about Roosevelt’s training in Jiu Jitsu, is now up and can be read here.


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