Under: martial arts
30 May 2009


As I was searching for interesting martial arts stories I came apon the Journal of Manly Arts. Hmm I thought so I clicked in and found some historical stories about Western Martial Arts as well as some Eastern Martial Arts! I came across in volume 2002, 01/02, and exert from Theodore Roosevelt’s, “The Vigor of Life.”


Now I knew about our 26th President’s military experience in the Spanish – American War and his famous charge up San Jaun Hill, but I did  not know about his wrestling and boxing background. Mr. Roosevelt relates about his Harvard experience:

This was, as far as I remember, the only one of my exceedingly rare athletic triumphs which would be worth relating. I did a good deal of boxing and wrestling in Harvard, but never attained to the first rank in either, even at my own weight. Once, in the big contests in the Gym, I got either into the finals or semi-finals…

In this post I will talk a little about wrestling, boxing and transitioning to an eastern martial art. Theodore Roosevelt was a man’s man and apparently was an accomplished hunter. He had to shoot a grizzly bear in this film adaptation video I found.



Teddy Roosevelt worked in the legislature, a police commissioner, governor, and many more important positions including the U.S. 26th President. In his writings he noted that wrestling and boxing were good forms of exercise while living in cities.


As New Your police commissioner he supported boxing clubs in neighborhoods, noting that crimes of violence dropped. He also supported competition. One interesting comment he made that might be similar to what is happing to MMA in New York:

Naturally, being fond of boxing, I grew to know a good many prize-fighters, and to most of those I knew I grew genuinely attached. I have never been able to sympathize with the outcry against prize-fighters. The only objection I have to the prize ring is the crookedness that has attended its commercial development. Outside of this I regard boxing, whether professional or amateur, as a first-class sport, and I do not regard it as brutalizing. Of course matches can be conducted under conditions that make them brutalizing.


But this is true of football games and of most other rough and vigorous sports. Most certainly prize-fighting is not half as brutalizing or demoralizing as many forms of big business and of the legal work carried on in connection with big business.


I guess I think the corporate world is a bit vicious at times, I just had not thought about it in comparison to prize fighting. I found this New York Times from March 10, 1910, entitled, “Harvard Wants Boxing…” that mentions President Theodore Roosevelt here.


I think to fighters, trying new forms of fighting is the natural progression and limiting one’s fighting style because of misplaced loyalty to one art is foolish to me. I do understand sticking to one art if the goal is more artistic – I’m not dissing the one style for life practitioners but just saying a fighter then and today has to use whatever works or get defeated.


Mr Roosevelt studied Jiu Jitsu(as Judo was initially known) with Professor Yoshitsuku Yamashita and attained his brown belt. Here is an exert from a letter:


I still box with Grant, who has now become the champion middleweight wrestler of the United States. Yesterday afternoon we had Professor Yamashita up here to wrestle with Grant. It was very interesting, but of course jiu jitsu andour wrestling are so far apart that it is difficult to make any comparison between them. 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.


In consequence, Grant did not know what to do except to put Yamashita on his back, and Yamashita was perfectly content to be on his back. Inside of a minute Yamashita had choked Grant, and inside of two minutes more he got an elbow hold on him that would have enabled him to break his arm; so that there is no question but that he could have put Grant out. So far this made it evident that the jiu jitsu man could handle the ordinary wrestler. But Grant, in the actual wrestling and throwing was about as good as the Japanese, and he was so much stronger that he evidently hurt and wore out the Japanese.


With a little practice in the art I am sure that one of our big wrestlers or boxers, simply because of his greatly superior strength, would be able to kill any of those Japanese, who though very good men for their inches and pounds are altogether too small to hold their own against big, powerful, quick men who are as well trained.


Wow, a sitting President of the United States learning Jiu Jitsu/Judo? I would have liked to see Clinton or Bush do that! I wonder if Roosevelt was kind of a futurist by pointing out that American boxers and wrestlers would be albe to hold their own someday.


Please forgive me if I have some of my facts wrong but I did find references to Roosevelt and Jiu Jitsu/Judo in a couple of places. I also did note that today this would be called simply Judo but then the art of Judo was in its infancy.


I hope you too have learned a truly interesting fact about the U.S. 26th President and if it is good enough for him – you too can succeed at martial arts. It just takes picking one of interest and going for it!


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6 Responses to “Teddy Roosevelt; 26th President & Jiu Jitsu/Judo Brown Belt?”

  1. Neal Martin Says:

    I found that interesting, what Mr. Roosevelt had to say in that letter about the westerner’s overpowering the Japanese fighters. Ju Jitsu men will tell you that technique is everything, that superiour technique will defeat any man, despite their size. This isn’t always the case. Being a Ju Jitsu man myself I have to testify to the fact that I sometimes struggle to apply technique to bigger guys. Strength and power will usually win out in the end, especially if the skill levels of both fighters are the same. The stronger guy will always have the edge.

    Technique will only win over bigger opponents if the skill levels are unmatched. If the skill levels are matched, then the strongest will win.

  2. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Neal, that is the beauty of most martial arts, if one has more skill, he or she can negate a weight/power advantage of an opponent. I liked that Mr. Roosevelt had an open mind (as many fighters do) about learning new techniques.

  3. Neal Martin Says:

    I agree. The greatest attribute a martial artist can have is an open mind and a willingness to accept and learn new techniques.

  4. Robert H Layman Says:

    For every strength there is a weakness, what is important is to recognize your opponent’s weakness and then exploit it.

  5. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Robert, Truer word were never spoken. This is the basis for all fighting.

  6. TurtleShroom Says:

    This is an excellent and informative article. I like your opinions and views on martial arts.

    While I myself have never even considered taking or involving myself in martial arts, I have a close friend who is working on his third-degree black belt, and a six-year old cousin who is also partaking in karate classes (interestingly, the same martial arts studio as my friend). I’m sure that my friend would enjoy your writings even more than me.

    When people talk about the sheer epicness of Teddy Roosevelt, they often forget his political side, which was also epic. He was a no-mercy man in economics, too, smashing up monopolies like they were windows or his enemies.
    .-= TurtleShroom´s last blog ..Dystopian: The Musical! Part Deux! =-.