In the White House of 1907 I was waiting for my friend Teddy Roosevelt when rotund Secretary of War William H. Taft huffed by.
“Rather out of shape, aren’t you, old fellow,” I said.
“I’m relatively trim at two-eighty-three, a good fifty less than you, I dare say.”
“All right, when President Roosevelt arrives, I’ll tell him to get his boxing gloves so you can brag you got knocked out by John L. Sullivan.”
“Why should I box a boxer? We’ll wrestle.”
“I don’t wrestle. I knock men’s heads off.”
“Not when you’re squirming on your back.”
“Who’ll put me there?”
“I will, and rather easily, since I was the intramural heavyweight wrestling champion at Yale.”
I got up and walked straight to Taft, almost standing on his toes, shoved a big index finger in his face, and said, “I wouldn’t walk my dog at Yale.”
Blessedly for Taft, President Roosevelt had entered, and he said, “Easy John L., that’s my Secretary of War, our foremost man of arms. I’ll box him.”
The president, a dedicated pugilist and grappler, turned to Taft and said, “I wish we’d done this earlier but have always assumed you’re retired from athletic endeavor.”
“Don’t presume,” he said. “Let’s adjourn to the gym.”
We walked to President Roosevelt’s special room converted into a gym with heavy and speed bags and a mat that served as a ring and, on less auspicious occasions, a place where grown men grasped each other and rolled around.
“I’ll lace you two up,” I said, starting with the former Harvard intramural light heavyweight boxer, but not champion, who was still pretty firm. “You guys are both about fifty, my age, right?”
“That’s correct,” said Taft.
After gloving them, I said, “As the Secretary of War appears unprepared for sustained battle, I decree that rounds be limited to one minute, which I shall estimate,” and swung my right arm down in the manner of an artillery officer.
Taft cocked his hands about a foot outside each cheek and attacked Roosevelt, grunting like a hippo and firing right hooks left hooks more hooks nothing but hooks the president blocked, ducked, or danced away from until a right by Taft nailed Roosevelt’s left ear, staggering him, and I called, “Time.”
Taft was huffing as if he’d gone twenty rounds against me in my prime. Breathing smoothly, the president grinned at me.
“Time,” I said.
Moving in again, Taft heaved and hooked, trying to knock out an unperturbed president who moved adroitly on defense, avoiding all blows, and after about forty seconds countered with two left jabs to the nose and a right uppercut to Taft’s enormous gut, and the big fellow dropped to a knee.
“Had enough?” said the president, smiling.
Taft didn’t answer. He breathed like a buffalo and blew his bloody nose onto the mat, and as Roosevelt extended the right hand of friendship, Taft lunged, burying his face in the presidential groin, and bulled him to the mat and rolled on top. The president pushed and yanked Taft’s arms and back, and stomped the mat, but couldn’t budge the big fellow who himself seemed unable to move. Damn near rupturing my back, I eventually rolled Taft off, helped the men stand, and said, “Roosevelt wins the boxing match by second round knockout and, I guess, Taft wins the wrestling match by a pin.”
I was proud of both men and saddened the following year when, during another visit, the president told me – I was one of perhaps five in the world he trusted with this information – that while sparring several months earlier a young military officer had slipped his left hook and counterpunched him with a right to the left eye, causing Roosevelt to hemorrhage and detaching his retina.
“I’m losing my sight but, thank God, it’s my left eye,” he told me. “If it had been my right eye, I wouldn’t be able to shoot.”
“Sir, for exercise, I recommend a brisk walk every morning.”
“Walking I enjoy, John L., but for exercise I’ve taken up jiujitsu.”