US President Theodore Roosevelt Was The First MMA Fighter
— Updated on 16 February 2024

US President Theodore Roosevelt Was The First MMA Fighter

— Updated on 16 February 2024
Garry Lu
Garry Lu

As the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt Jr’s impact upon the modern world could quite literally fill tomes — but what you might not have known about the accomplished statesman, conservationist, historian, and soldier is that he was an unwitting early adopter of mixed martial arts (MMA).

Long before Bruce Lee sought to break down the traditional barriers of defined combat styles; Muhammad Ali stepped into the ring to face Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki; and Royce Gracie changed the game by storming UFC 1 in a bloody gi, Teddy was rather keen on cross-training.

RELATED: The Secret Life Of Anthony Bourdain

“He voluntarily subjected himself to a staggering number of brutal sparring sessions with championship-calibre fighters,” writes Jon Finkel of The Post Game.

“Boxers; wrestlers; martial artists — it didn’t matter to Roosevelt. If they’d be willing to punch him in the face or pin him to the ground, he’d take them on.”

This is the forgotten chapter of Theodore Roosevelt’s storied life.

Embracing the Strenuous Life

US President Theodore Roosevelt & Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)

The highly decorated Nobel Peace Prize recipient who popularised speaking softly while carrying a big stick wasn’t always the formidable tour de force history remembers him being.

As a child, like this author’s favourite former UFC champion, he was plagued by poor health. But similar to said former UFC champ, the man didn’t have an ounce of quit in his once frail body.

Where others would’ve surrendered to the cruelty of circumstance, a severely asthmatic and entirely anaemic young Teddy Roosevelt opted to defy the doctor’s diagnosis by overcoming his debilitating shortcomings.

After a particularly nasty beating at the hands of his bullies during a trip to Moosehead Lake, the 14-year-old “sickly boy with no natural bodily prowess” who largely lived indoors asked his father for boxing lessons.

“I was at first quite unable to hold my own when thrown into contact with other boys of rougher antecedents. I was nervous and timid,” Roosevelt recalled in The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt.

“I was a painfully slow and awkward pupil, and certainly worked two or three years before I made any perceptible improvement whatever.”

But in time, he’d gain a level of proficiency — and physicality — that nobody thought possible for him.

The Man in the Arena

US President Theodore Roosevelt & Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)

Roosevelt continued in his autobiography: “My first boxing-master was John Long, an ex-prize-fighter. I can see his rooms now, with colored pictures of the fights between Tom Hyer and Yankee Sullivan, and Heenan and Sayers, and other great events in the annals of the squared circle.”

“On one occasion, to excite interest among his patrons, he held a series of ‘championship’ matches for the different weights, the prizes being, at least in my own class, pewter mugs of a value, I should suppose, approximating fifty cents.”

“Neither he nor I had any idea that I could do anything, but I was entered in the lightweight contest, in which it happened that I was pitted in succession against a couple of reedy striplings who were even worse than I was. Equally to their surprise and to my own, and to John Long’s, I won, and the pewter mug became one of my most prized possessions.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s love for the sweet science earned him local fame during his collegiate years at Harvard due to the “modestly successful” results he achieved across several tournaments, wherein he exhibited “obvious courage and determination.”

According to The Harvard Crimson reporter Phillip M. Boffey, however, the legendary politician in the making encountered greater success outside official competition.

“Sometimes Roosevelt’s fighting was impromptu,” wrote Boffey in a 1957 article.

“Frederic Almy, his class secretary, recalls that during a torchlight procession in the Hayes-Tilden presidential campaign, a bystander on the sidewalk said something derogatory. The impulsive Teddy thereupon, recording to Almy, ‘Reached out and laid the mucker flat.'”

Around this period, Roosevelt also wrestled on a regular basis, entering the odd competition at Harvard; though unlike his political predecessor in Abraham Lincoln, who reputedly recorded over 300 victories across 12 years, Teddy was nowhere near as prolific of a grappler.

Still, lacklustre competitive performance didn’t exactly deter the proto-mixed martial artist. In fact, all this would only serve as the foundation for an everlasting affair.

Wisdom from the Far East

Now here’s where things graduate from mildly interesting to genuinely fascinating.

As both Governor of New York and President of the United States, it wasn’t exactly uncommon for Theodore Roosevelt to break up the monotony of his desk gig by inviting guests to either box or wrestle him in the privacy of his office. Yes… even in the White House, where he lined the basement with training mats and badgered whoever gave him the time of day for a tussle.

But the Western past-times of boxing and wrestling (Catch-As-Catch-Can and Cornish-style) simply weren’t enough for Roosevelt — despite training alongside the likes of middleweight wrestling champion Mike J. Dwyer, whom Teddy met with three to four times a week; nor whatever professional brawler he requested to sock him squarely in the jaw.

This is why he enlisted one of Judo’s most successful ambassadors Yoshiaki Yamashita to sharpen his grappling skills (and lose 20 pounds before the upcoming election) after receiving a taste from some of his numerous training partners, namely Philadelphia police officer J.J. O’Brien.

RELATED: Why Do Men Constantly Overestimate Their Ability To Fight?

US President Theodore Roosevelt & Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)

It was with Yamashita that Teddy received a first-hand education in the very same brand of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu eventually taught to the Gracie family by Mitsuyo Maeda, thereby sparking the creation of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

“… Jiu-Jitsu and our wrestling are so far apart that is it difficult to make any comparison between them,” Roosevelt once explained in a letter to his son Kermit, dated February 24, 1905.

“Wrestling is simply a sport with rules almost as conventional as those of tennis, while Jiu-Jitsu is really meant for practice in killing or disabling our adversary.”

“The art of Jiu-Jitsu is worth more in every way than all of our athletics combined.”

US President Theodore Roosevelt

His enthusiasm was quite endearing, and not entirely unlike your average Joe Rogan fan during their first year of training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Roosevelt managed to rope in everyone from his sons, private secretary, and the Japanese naval attaché; to Secretary of War and presidential successor William Howard Taft, plus Secretary of the Interior Gifford Pinchot for the odd training session/demonstration.

“When these people were unavailable, Roosevelt tried tricks on husky young visitors,” writes Joseph R. Svinth of The Journal of Combative Sport.

During a boring state luncheon, Teddy even tossed the Swiss minister on the ground and showcased a Judo hold much to the “delight” of his guests. Which is certainly one way to liven a stiff-collared event.

Yoshiaki Yamashita noted that while Roosevelt was his best pupil, he was also “very heavy and very impetuous,” and it had cost the professor “many bruisings, much worry, and infinite pains.”

Theodore Roosevelt became America’s first brown belt in Jiu-Jitsu.

Even Rough Riders Retire

Theodore Roosevelt Jr’s career as an early MMA fighter effectively came to an end after his bout with Army artillery officer Captain Daniel T. Meade circa 1905. Though one could argue biology contributed equally.

Behind closed doors within the White House’s West Wing, the Commander-in-Chief challenged the military aide to a box; demanding the “highest possible effort” at all times and threatening consequences should he hold back.

“When you put on gloves with President Roosevelt, it was a case of fight all the way,” Captain Meade would later reveal.

“He wanted plenty of action, and he usually got it. He had no use for a quitter or one who gave ground and nobody but a man willing to fight all the time and all the way had a chance with him.”

Daniel T. Meade delivered a heavy counter that would smash the blood vessels in Roosevelt’s left eye; which doctors believe may have actually detached part of the latter’s retina. Though given how old Teddy wouldn’t fess up until 12 years after the incident, nobody — not even Meade himself — was aware he’d been robbed of his vision until it was too late.

US President Theodore Roosevelt & Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)

“The sight has been dim ever since… Accordingly, I thought it better to acknowledge that I had become an elderly man and would have to stop boxing,” admitted Theodore Roosevelt.

“Fortunately it was my left eye… if it had been the right eye I should have been entirely unable to shoot.”

Prior to that, there were other signs he needed to slow down. In another letter to his son Kermit, written from the campaign trail in 1904, Roosevelt said:

“I am very glad I have been doing this Japanese wrestling, but… My right ankle and left wrist and one thumb and both great toes are swollen sufficiently to more or less impair their usefulness, and I am well mottled with bruises elsewhere. Still, I have made good progress, and since you have left they have taught me three new throws that are perfect corkers.”

RELATED: The Case For Why Every Man Should Learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Theodore Roosevelt Jr’s legacy as both the blueprint for the noblest form of masculinity and a lifelong student of the pugilistic arts is perhaps best encapsulated by his most celebrated public addressThe Man in the Arena:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

What a man.

RELATED: UFC 300 Is Already Stacked (You’re Just Not Looking Hard Enough)

Keen for more articles like this and exclusive MMA-related content? Sign up to our bi-weekly newsletter Chin Tucker below.

Subscribe to B.H. Magazine

Garry Lu
After stretching his legs with companies such as The Motley Fool and the odd marketing agency, Garry joined Boss Hunting in 2019 as a fully-fledged Content Specialist. In 2021, he was promoted to News Editor. Garry proudly retains a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, black bruises from Muay Thai, as well as a black belt in all things pop culture. Drop him a line at [email protected]