Punching with presidents

How to choose the best time-traveling brawling buddy

Recently, I stumbled on an interesting tweet posing an interesting question: Which president do you want fighting by your side, and why?

The context is stepping outside for a brawl. No weapons, just an unfair fight against bad bare-knuckled odds. Presumably, the fight happening is a foregone conclusion, and the ramifications of yanking a president out of the timeline are something we can deal with in the next episode of the science fiction show we’re living in.

Jesse Kelly ruled out Teddy Roosevelt because he’s an obvious good pick. But who else is a good pick? I say Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, George Washington, or William Howard Taft. I can already hear the likely reactions:

Wait, Taft? The famously fat “bathtub” president? What?

As a numbers guy, I like to be systematic. We’ll get to what’s special about Taft in a minute. First, note that presidents are typically distinguished elder statesmen. While many served in the military, most of them were past their physical prime.

What makes someone good in a brawl?

To score all the presidents systematically, I came up with two basic indices: Body and violence. Then I combined them to produce a composite score.

Body, given by height (in inches) minus age at inauguration (in years) plus the square root of how many years they had left in their natural lifespan at that point. This last factor may seem odd, but it’s a crude proxy for health relative to age. Size is usually an advantage in a fight, while age and health are the biggest likely limiting factors for an elder statesman engaged in fisticuffs.

For presidents who were assassinated or are still living today, I simply took the average natural remaining lifespan, based on a life table. Finally, I assigned a twenty point penalty to FDR’s body score on the basis of his partial paralysis.

Artist’s depiction of future president Teddy Roosevelt and company charging up the hill on the battlefield.

Violence, given as 10 points for each of the following: Military service of any kind at any point in their life, seeing ground combat action, having killed someone outside of ground combat, surviving being shot, and participating in a duel. A number of presidents had a documented interest in wrestling or other martial arts; for this, I added 10 or 20 points, on the following rubric:

  • 10 points: Documented as competitive or at least serious hobbyists.
  • 20 points: Capable enough to win championships or obsessively trained as a mixed martial artist while in office. (The latter being Teddy Roosevelt.)
Distribution of brawling scores. Lincoln and Roosevelt are clear outliers here.

After building these two indices, I had a minor issue to address: The range and variance of the violence scores (0–50) was significantly larger than the variance of the body scores (6.4–34.7). To equalize the impact of the two factors, I multiplied the body score by a factor of 1.6 before adding the two together. Composite scores then ranged from ten to one hundred.

The full ranking of presidents

In first place, Teddy Roosevelt was the youngest president ever inaugurated; the Bull Moose also has the second-highest violence score, thanks to his skills, bravery, and sheer toughness.

TTND stands for “time to natural death.”

Next up is the tallest president, Abraham Lincoln. The Rail-splitter was legendary in has own time for his strength and his skill as a brawler. He is only one of two presidents known to show up for a duel, and scared off his opponent by lopping a tree branch off with his sword.

Large gaps separate first, second, and third place. Third through ninth place are fairly close together, with gaps of 1–3 points, less than the coarse 10 point resolution of the violence subscore.

Third is Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory assumed office a couple weeks short of his 62nd birthday, so we’re talking about an old man in declining health. He still nearly beat a would-be assassin to death with his cane at age 70, though, and he was a deadly duelist when younger.

Fourth, we have George Washington, a mighty collar-and-elbow champion with a love for combat and a celebrated military history. President Washington was not a very healthy man in his later years, and died shortly after leaving office; even fresh from his inauguration, the first president might no longer have been able to perform half a dozen of his favorite “flying mare” throws in a row.

Fifth, we have William Howard Taft, who was neither a combat veteran nor a frontier legend. The Big Chief is best known to high school history students as the heaviest president — but bigger is a good thing here, at least up to a point, so we shouldn’t hold that against him.

Taft and Roosevelt wrestling. Modified from this political cartoon by the author.

Taft wasn’t just big. He had strength well above average for his large size, and was a heavyweight wrestling champion in college. Trained in the collar-and-elbow school from a young age, he supposedly favored the same “flying mare” move as George Washington.

Taft is also closely linked to top-ranked Teddy Roosevelt. He was Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of War and designated successor … and his regular jiu jitsu sparring partner. If you can’t get the Bull Moose, why not get the man who went to the mat with him regularly? He seems a pretty solid choice.

Dr. Tomas McIntee is a mathematician and occasional social scientist with stray degrees in physics and philosophy.

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