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Boxing Historian

Theodore Roosevelt: Pugilist & future U.S. President at age 19

The Boxer President:
Theodore Roosevelt



     The reputation of Theodore Roosevelt was that of a poor or mediocre pugilist. This is mostly due to the words of the modest boxer himself.  Roosevelt should be viewed in kinder terms with regard to his fisticuffs.  The language of the man was that a person should always be striving for improvement.  Roosevelt was a sickly child with reoccurring bouts with asthma.  Most of his youth was spent in books daydreaming.


  His namesake father was one of the most progressive and aggressive politicians with a desire for an honest Republican party.  Roosevelt began boxing at aged 14 after a couple bullies taunted and manhandled him.  Roosevelt was likely fighting bare-fisted under Marquis de Queensbury rules.  His improvement was slow but steady after several years under the training of John Long.  A further reason to suspect Roosevelt was a better boxer than his self-deprecation was the number of men who claimed to be his teacher at one time.  Others include Mike Donovan, William M. Mooney, Otto Raphael and Casper Van De Watering.


     Under Long’s tutelage Roosevelt won a lightweight boxing tournament for a trophy prize of a pewter mug. Roosevelt defeated at least two other boxers to claim this championship.  Roosevelt set his sight on the Harvard gym championship.  It is unclear the training Roosevelt received through Long.  Professional heavyweight boxing championships were fought under bare-knuckle rules and tended to be long and slightly dull attrition battles with wrestling throws. 



Roosevelt grapples with the Railways Commission


     The future of 1879 boxing was the uncrowned John L. Sullivan.  The “Bostonian Strong Man” would introduce gloves and early round knockouts to boxing.  Sullivan had affected a strategy of allowing taller or stronger fighters to batter him offensively while he backed and blocked blows.  He would control through left jabs and defense until his opponent quickly tired as he set up to throw a devastating ambush right punch.  Sullivan’s fame began in 1879 when he fought a local Bostonian with regional fame who would challenge anyone for a performance.  Sullivan backed with his left arm extended, and before the 1st round was over, knocked Jack Scannell with a right punch through the ropes and crashing onto a piano.  By 1884, thanks to John L. Sullivan, the Art of Self-defense was a male obsession in America. 


     The fact that Theodore Roosevelt had trained for years as a boxer before the craze, or that his family could afford or was willing to allow him paid boxing lessons must have made him better than most opponents. Roosevelt was competitive and fiercely determined to improve so that when he won, it did not make him proud of his growth, but disdainful of the ‘weaker’ opponent.  The most famous boxing bout of Roosevelt’s career, as a Junior, was the semifinals or finals for the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard gym Championship on March 22, 1879. 


     His opponent was a senior, Charles Steadman Hanks.  Roosevelt must have defeated at least one opponent to reach this moment in the tournament.  Along with his pewter mug tournament win it suggests a bit of a winning streak and success. The bout against Hanks was bitterly disappointing for Roosevelt.  Hanks appears to have won fairly and convincingly. 


      A legend has arisen that Hanks accidentally hit Roosevelt while the future U.S. President was on the ground.  The students booed until Roosevelt scolded them it was a fair fight and the better man won.  While that story is possible and within the character of Roosevelt it is not proven.  The story told within Roosevelt’s lifetime seems more plausible.  Roosevelt wore glasses while he boxed and it was an unwritten Harvard rule not to strike the eyes.  Hanks legally hit Roosevelt to the eyes and knocked the glasses away.  Roosevelt could not see while Hanks popped him to the face with several jabs. 


Teddy Roosevelt, Harvard student


        Hanks knocked Roosevelt to the ground with a punch to the jaw.  The match was declared over with Hanks the victor.  The appropriateness of not allowing Roosevelt to replace his glasses might have elicited boos.  Classmates would later claim to be at the bout and offered a ‘hit-on-ground’ narrative, but this was after Roosevelt was dead and must be received with a grain-of-salt as truth or untruth.  Roosevelt renewed his friendship with Hanks when he became President:  “By Godfrey!  That’s the only man who ever knocked me down.” 


     Hanks had become a wealthy Boston lawyer by the early 1900s.  He loved and wrote a book about golf.  Roosevelt informed his former boxing opponent that he was disappointed that Hanks lived a ‘frivolous’ life and convinced him that he was needed for public service.  Roosevelt placed Hanks in charge of investigating railroads through the Interstate Commerce Commission.  Hanks should have remained a successful, golfing lawyer, because the railroads would publicly smear his name and accuse him of financial fraud.


     Roosevelt’s training and dedication to boxing declined as he pursued academics and politics. He wrote an esteemed 1882 book on the American naval effort against England during the War of 1812.  He became a part of the New York State legislature the same year.  Roosevelt continued to train with gloves against a professional burglar who was the son of boxing mentor.  It appears that Roosevelt did not feel the need for boxing through the late 1880’s as he kept busy with outdoor activities along the countryside.  Boxing would return to his life in the early 1890’s when he returned to New York.  Boxing and wrestling training continued to assist with his asthma.


     It is sadly ironic that the man who loved boxing while never hesitating to exclaim its virtues would be the one to eventually abolish it in New York.  A journalist followed Police Commissioner Roosevelt as he made street rounds.  The accompanying drawing to this story looks like, “Walk softly and carry a big stick.”  Roosevelt proudly recounted as commissioner his insistence that poor neighborhoods needed boxing clubs so that young men could learn discipline, self-esteem and remain out of trouble.  Following stints in the Department of the Navy and joining a volunteer Army cavalry to fight Spaniards in Cuba (insisting boxing should be taught for both the Navy/Army), Colonel Roosevelt settled in as governor of New York.


     A city auditor deemed Governor Roosevelt an odd, eccentric man.  A recreation billiards table would be deemed acceptable, but Roosevelt insisted that he wanted a wrestling mat instead.  He had found wrestling to be good for his mental and personal health.  The city auditor told the wrestling governor, “No!”  Roosevelt soon had a mat in the gubernatorial office anyway, and 3-4 days a week, wrestled the middleweight champion.  When Governor Roosevelt wrestled a less experienced man two ribs were damaged with his left shoulder pulled from its socket. The other wrestler received worse damage with a rib that had “caved in”.  Roosevelt abandoned wrestling and returned to boxing as a safer form of exercise.


Theodore Roosevelt vs. William H. Taft


     As governor, Roosevelt reluctantly concluded that prize-fighting must be abolished in New York.  There were other crusaders for this particular cause until Roosevelt eventually agreed, not because of brutality, but the corruption of the system. Roosevelt was forced to reluctantly conclude that even the prize-fighters themselves were often dishonest.  The three most famous 1890’s pugilists in the Science of Self-help or cheating:  1) James Corbett – 2) Kid McCoy – 3) Tom Sharkey.  The New York Times had called Tom Sharkey the most dishonest fighter in boxing history. He had gained infamy as participant of a fraud against heavyweight champion, Bob Fitzsimmons, in 1896.  That was in San Francisco but Sharkey carried all of that reputation as the unrecognized, self-proclaimed “Heavyweight Champion” to The Big Apple.


      Gentleman Jim Corbett/Sailor Tom Sharkey, 11/22/1898.  During their San Francisco, 1896, 4-round Draw, Corbett had begun cheating until Sharkey quickly joined.  They were undefeated at that time but both now had an official loss.  Talk of a referee ‘fix’ on the side of Corbett caused bets to heavily be placed on him during the final hour.  Sharkey, either a victim or receiving deserved retribution, knew that the fix was against him. 


         Clinching had been banned to assist Corbett and limit Sharkey’s cheating.  To the surprise of many in attendance Sharkey dominated.  Corbett clinched throughout with no penalty while a Sharkey body blow pained him.  Sharkey scored a 2nd round knockdown.  In the 9th round, Corbett’s manager crawled into the ring on is knees shouting:  “Foul!”  The police commissioner had sat with Corbett’s people to discourage the rumors he had been hearing.  When the manager refused to leave the ring Corbett was disqualified. 


        The referee, ‘Honest’ Jim Kelly, a friend of Corbett, then tussled with the ring announcer when he insisted that no bets would be paid off. Pandemonium and several skirmishes ensued.  Champion Bob Fitzsimmons (11/23/1898):  “What did I tell you?  Didn’t I say it would be a fake?  And it was a big fake….  This kind of fighting makes me tired, anyhow.  It ain’t on the square.”  James Jeffries would dethrone Fitzsimmons in a legitimate 1899 New York fight.

    Governor Roosevelt signed a bill that outlawed boxing while passionately defending the sport. (1/3/1900): 


     “Rough, vigorous pastimes are excellent things for the nation, for they promote manliness, being good in their effects not merely upon the body, but upon the character, which is far more important than the body….  Every exercise that tends to develop bodily vigor, daring, endurance, resolution and self command, should be encouraged.  Boxing is a fine sport, but this affords no justification for prize fighting.” 


            Section 458 of the penal code:  “A person who, within this State, engages in, instigates, aids, encourages, or does any act to further a contention, or fight without weapons, between two or more persons or a fight, commonly called a ring or prize fight is guilty of a misdemeanor.”  Prize-fighting would be officially illegal in New York on August 31st, 1900.


       Jewish Joe Choynski/Irish Kid McCoy, 1/12/1900.  Choynski dominated and appeared to win with an easy 2nd round knockout.  Controversy derived from the referee as to when a bout concludes.  Does a bout end when the referee shouts, “10” or when he waves his hands?  Choynski’s corner men celebrated after hearing “10”.  The referee insisted a bout does not conclude until his hands wave.  The referee ruled that Choynski’s corner men prematurely celebrated.  The bout continued with the round concluded and a one-minute rest.  Choynski dominated the 3rd round, scoring another knockdown. 


         After the round concluded, McCoy hit an unsuspecting Choynski to the jaw with a right punch.  Choynski dropped to the ground and could not continue.  The referee said the punch was after the bell, but ruled it legal.  McCoy was ruled with a 4th round knockout victory.  Boos and pandemonium ensued while those who bet on Choynski must pay off losses.  John L. Sullivan (1/13/1900):  “Beyond all question the fight should have been awarded to Choynski.  He was cheated out of the decision.  I say this in spite of the fact that I like McCoy and also and bet a little money on him.”


        Bob Fitzsimmons (1/13/1900):  “If such crooked business is to be allowed, boxing in New York is bound to grow in disfavor.  I thought before the fight that McCoy would win, and hoped he would win, but he was knocked out cleanly in the 2nd round.  If I were in Choynski’s place, I would sue the Broadway Athletic Club for the purse.”


Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States


      Gentleman Jim Corbett/Irish Kid McCoy, 8/30/1900.  The final fight before the ban would be a ‘staged’ or ‘fixed’ bout.  The gamblers, spectators and law enforcement were unaware.  There were ten-thousand in attendance, with most of the celebrity boxers sitting together while moody Champion James Jeffries sat alone. The fight would be filmed and telegraphed live for spectators outside.  Rumors abound that McCoy had bet against himself.  Money was gambled heavily on Corbett within the final hour.  The Corbett/McCoy film, which has disappeared, was a top money maker for years.  (Corbett was the first paid movie actor. 


        Corbett was the first actor to receive movie residuals.  This was through a 6-round ‘staged’ 1894 fight, against a New Jersey boxer, directed by Thomas Edison.)  In the 5th round of the supposed 25 scheduled rounds, McCoy received a body shot and fell to the ground. If there had been a ‘movie problem’ of an unplanned boxing fight it was the length. 


      The Corbett/Fitzsimmons championship fight film, 1897, had been popular, but no one had thought of editing a 14th round knockout.  For an experienced and savvy veteran, under the tutelage of Thomas Edison (“nothing convinces critics like money”), 1900, a 5th round knockout win (approximately 20 minutes) for Corbett would be perfect for the movie audience.  It is the only recorded victory for Corbett, post 1894, of his career.  This was the disgusting and not surprising corrupt conclusion before the New York prize-fighting ban became official.

Author's note
Teddy Roosevelt by Boxing Amusement Park

   My Turkish friend, Ceren Sultan Altay, is a medical worker at the Teddy Bear Hospital in Yeditepe.  The hospital for kids dispenses teddy bears to sick or afflicted children so they are not frightened.  I mentioned to Ceren that I am writing about the man named for this Turkey hospital.  Ceren:  “He was a boxer?”  Yesss!  He was also the American who expanded diplomacy through alliances with other nations.  For this he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace nearing the end of 30+ years of boxing.  Theodore Roosevelt would be proud of the Teddy Bear Hospital and the continuation of his legacy as a fighter for international peace and a better world for children.

--Christopher James Shelton



 Theodore Roosevelt continued boxing as Vice-President of the United States.  Following the assassination of William McKinley, September, 1901, Roosevelt became the youngest Chief Executive in American history.  For several years he continued to box as President.  He would box against aides, the security men assigned to protect him and professional athletes.  Roosevelt was boxing through 1905 when he mediated the conclusion of the Russian-Japanese conflict.  The Nobel Prize Committee named Roosevelt their winner for 1906: 


        “The United States of America was among the first to infuse the idea of peace into practical politics.  Peace and arbitration treaties have now been concluded between the United States and the governments of several countries….  On behalf of the Norwegian Parliament, I now present to you, Mr. Ambassador, the Peace Prize, along with its insignia, and I add the request that you convey to the President the greetings of the Norwegian people and their gratitude for all he has done for the cause of peace.”


        President Roosevelt boxed in his upstairs private office of the White House.  The chairs and desk were pushed against a wall.  A giant wrestling mat was unrolled for the floor.  It is likely, since eyewitnesses recant Roosevelt’s claim, that he periodically continued to wrestle. William Muldoon, the wrestler and trainer for John L. Sullivan, was a frequent guest.  It is likely Roosevelt promised his wife to discontinue wrestling after he injured himself and another as governor.  This would be a reason for him to lie in his autobiography.  He blamed that prior injury on the lack of technical skill of the other wrestler.  His wife allowed the boxing because he swore it was a safe form of exercise.  Roosevelt and his opponents wore gloves.  There were no ropes but the boxers had to remain on the mat. 


       Roosevelt appreciated defense but discouraged backing away.  President Roosevelt fought at 190 pounds.  It is likely the boxing came to an end in early 1907.  He had been blinded to the left eye from a punch or punches by 180 pound artillery officer, Dan Moore.  At first his vision was “dim” (according to Roosevelt) during the winter of 1906.  He likely attempted a few more bouts but stopped when he became permanently blind.



Dan Moore (who was blood related to the First Lady): “I am sorry I struck the blow.  I’m sorry the colonel told about it….  There isn’t anybody on earth whose eye I wouldn’t want to put out than Roosevelt’s….  He used to box General Leonard Wood and Phil Sheridan….  The boxers at that time in the White House gym were the President, Kermit Roosevelt (the son), and myself….  I boxed with the President, on an average, three times a week through two winters, 1904-05 and 1905-06….  In that period of duty I suppose I must have had the gloves on with the President a hundred times….  Roosevelt knew more about the science of boxing in a minute than I had learned in a lifetime.  Still we were pretty even.  We would go at each other for about an hour and a half or two hours – then rest and discuss the moves….  I do not remember that either of us knocked the other down.  We always stripped to the waist and wore big, safe gloves….  He could give and take a lot of punishment, and grin through it all the time.  No doubt, he grinned when I landed on his eye and put it out without realizing how badly I had hurt him….  When you put on gloves against President Roosevelt, it was a case of fight all the way, and no man in the ring with him had a chance to keep track of particular blows.  The colonel 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 who was willing to fight all the way had a chance with him.  That’s my only excuse for the fact that I seriously injured him.” 


       If President Roosevelt could not box with his fists then he could still fight.  Roosevelt (along with media giant William Randolph Hearst) probably saved the 21st century American middle-class from the fate of wealthy nations such as Russia or Mexico by aggressively battling powerful, wealthy monopolists.  President Roosevelt:  “When the conditions have favored the growth of so much that was good, they have also favored somewhat the growth of what was evil.  It is eminently necessary that we should endeavor to cut out this evil….  The evils are real and some of them are menacing, but they are an outgrowth, not of misery or decadence, but of prosperity. 



The Ringside Boxing Show

Pewter boxing mug trophy


        Corporations, and especially combinations of corporations, should be managed under public regulation.  We can do nothing of good in the way of regulating and supervising these corporations until we fix clearly in our minds that we are not attacking the corporations, but endeavoring to do away with any evil in them.  We are not hostile to them.  We are merely determined that they shall be handled to subserve the public good.  I believe that monopolies, unjust discriminations, which prevent or cripple competition, fraudulent over capitalization and other evils in trust organizations and practices which injuriously affect interstate trade can be prevented under the power of the Congress to ‘regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several States’.”


            President Roosevelt swam and rode horses as part of his routine exercise.  Roosevelt preferred to swim the Great Falls of the Potomac.  The secret service assigned to protect him was against these swimming conditions but the President dismissed them.  Roosevelt swam nude with his clothes carried on head.  He could not swim in the winter due to the extreme cold.  The riding was a shared activity with his wife.  A stroll was 15 minutes.  During a scheduled 25 mile ride, both he and his wife completed the exercise, but a colonel of Cavalry became exhausted and had to quit.  President Roosevelt was so disgusted by the lack of physical conditioning that he ordered 30 mile daily rides for all Army officers.  The officers were angered and unhappy by this order, but their physical conditioning improved and it eventually proved popular.


          A pen holder hand-crafted by former champion Bob Fitzsimmons from a horseshoe was prominent on President Roosevelt’s desk.  John L. Sullivan was viewed as a personal friend by Roosevelt and a White House visitor.  President Roosevelt assisted Sullivan in 1907 with the family shame of a nephew that deserted the Army.  It would be fun to imagine the two men boxing, but by 1907, the President would have been in much better physical condition.  Sullivan outweighed the 285-pound Vice President William Taft by more than 50 pounds.  Sullivan remarked to a journalist:  “That man Taft is what I call a man, too.  The President is a great man.  It takes big fellows a long time to get started, but when they are going they go some.”



     Roosevelt decided not to continue as President beyond 1909 though he clearly would have been re-elected.  Eventually, his disappointment in Taft as Chief Executive caused him to lead the most successful 3rd political party in American history.  During a campaign in Wisconsin, October, 1912, Roosevelt was shot in the chest.  A bleeding Roosevelt insisted he would not go to the hospital until after he had concluded his scheduled speech.   Roosevelt (10/14/1912):  “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible.  I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose….  The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”   Roosevelt finished 2nd in the 1912 election with Taft a distant 3rd place. 


    Germany protested against boxing for the 1916 Olympics.  The (London) Times reported from a Switzerland conference in May, 1913, that ex-President Roosevelt sent a message.  The Times:  “(Roosevelt) laid particular emphasis on the benefit he has derived from boxing.  He asserted that if it were not allowed to become brutal and if the betting element were excluded boxing was one of the finest sports.”

     Roosevelt worked out with amateur heavyweight Champion, William Warren Barbour throughout 1917.  Jess Willard held the professional world title.  Roosevelt had ballooned to 216 pounds.  Training with Barbour included a two hour walk at noon.  Roosevelt was soon down to 202 pounds.    In September, 1917, Roosevelt refereed two boxing bouts at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.


       Following surgery in March, 1918, Roosevelt was deaf in his left ear.  His physical ailments increased. An ill-advised Safari trip after his Presidency left him with various problems including a recurring swollen leg.  His physical health had been a roller coaster of good and bad weeks for years, but now had a permanent turn toward the worse.  Roosevelt died of a heart attack while asleep on January 6th, 1919.  Nations throughout the world expressed genuine sadness at the passing of their American friend.  Ex-President Taft wept at the gravesite and sent the following message to Mrs. Roosevelt:  “We have lost a great patriotic American, a great world figure, the most commanding personality in our public life since Lincoln.”


Other columns by Christopher Shelton

Down goes Frazier! 'The Sunshine Showdown'
Death of an Irish pugilist
Sharkey-Corbett: A battle of unbeatens
200 years ago ... without gloves
The final interview of legend Al Fenn, manager of Zora Foley

Johnson vs. Jeffries, the 100th anniversary
Sonny Banks, who died fighting, would have been 70

The First Lady of Mixed Martial Arts: Elizabeth Stokes

The emergence of John L. Sullivan


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 Christopher James Shelton is a product of the American West Coast. He has lived in Los Angeles and San Ysidro, California, Tijuana , Mexico, and currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona.


Shelton was the editor of CHEEERS Soundboard, the first solely written/produced mental health recovery center newsletter in America.  He has several credits as researcher/writer/interviewer for CyberBoxingZone including: “Scandal In San Francisco (1896).” “The Last Bareknuckle Championship Bout (1889)” and “The Art and Science of Daniel Mendoza.”


His research discovery credits include 19th century pugilists George Godfrey, Professor Hadley, Tom Hyer, John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain.  Family interviews, mixed with historical research, include lightweights Jack Britton and Billy Hawkins. 


Shelton conducted the final interview with legendary Phoenix manager Al Fenn, and asked candid questions about George Foreman and H.I.V. with former heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison.  HIs favorite historical article, “124-year-old woman challenges John L. Sullivan for the title," recounts the life story of a feisty 19th-century female slave named Sylvie Dubois.


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Christopher Shelton's own amazing story

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