Answering the Top Five Questions on Theodore Roosevelt's Judo

Richmond-Times Dispatch, 14 Nov 1917


One of the most popular set of myths found in a variety of media involves the association of President Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (1858-1919, 26th US president) with martial arts, especially judo or jiu-jitsu. 

According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center:

"Teedie [Theodore Jr.'s childhood nickname] battled frequent asthma attacks. In time, Theodore Sr. challenged his namesake 'to make his body' and overcome his infirmities. Eager to please the father he adored, Teedie committed himself to a regimen of vigorous physical activity, a routine that remained with him well into adulthood. After a confrontation with bullies who pummeled Teedie, Thee [Theodore Sr.] encouraged his son to take up boxing."

That sounds a bit like other martial arts practitioners and founders profiled earlier on this blog!

So what are the myths and what are the facts? In the following, TR is an abbreviation referring to Theodore Jr., the president.

The Myths and the Facts

1. Did TR study some form of judo or jiu-jitsu?

Yes, Roosevelt trained some form of judo or jiu-jitsu during two periods in his life, but not for the years indicated in various unsourced stories in the media.

The first period of training took place from March to June 1902, with Professor John J. O’Brien of Boston, as reported in Roberto Pedreira's book Craze: The Life and Times of Jiu-Jitsu, 1854-1904 (Volume 1).  

Roosevelt also trained from March 9, 1904, to no later than April 23, 1904, when he wrote a letter of thanks to his teacher, judo's first-ever 10th dan, Yamashita Yoshitsugu, "closing my wrestling lessons with you." 

Below are images of the draft and signed letters to Prof Yamashita.

Draft Letter to Prof Yamashita, Theodore Roosevelt Center, 

Signed Letter to Prof Yamashita, 23 April 1904, Theodore Roosevelt Center, 

As cited by Pedreira, a contemporary source said TR took approximately 20 lessons during those second two months.

2. Did TR achieve any rank in judo or jiu-jitsu while he was alive?

There is no evidence that TR earned rank of any kind while he was alive, despite reporting much later that he was the first American to reach brown belt, or first dan black belt, or even third dan black belt.

Where does this idea that TR earned rank originate?

It's probably the result of this 14 March 1904 Indianapolis Journal article

14 March 1904 Indianapolis Journal, 

In the article, the author writes: 

"The President is now spending an exceedingly strenuous hour with them on two afternoons a week... There are seven degrees in jiu-jitsu. The President's instructions [sic, instructors] are proficient in five degrees and Mr. Roosevelt intends to have all five of them."

As noted in this Stack Exchange post, the "brown belt" myth may originate with a 1966 Penthouse article, not the most reliable of sources.

3. Did TR train with his daughter or any other member of his family?

Some online stories say that not only did TR have a black belt, but that his daughter did too. There is no evidence that he trained with family members. 

There is evidence that he trained with his personal secretary, William Loeb Jr. In this 17 April 1904 story from the New York Sun, we have a few details.

Jiu Jitsu, The Newest Fad, New York Sun, 17 Apr 1904,  

The article says:

"Secretary Loeb has also been taking lessons, and frequently indulges in this exercise with the President, who finds it a very acceptable form of exercise on days when the weather is too stormy for outdoor recreation, or when he is too busy to take more than a few minutes for physical culture."

This does not imply that TR spent that much time training.

Update 16 June 2020: Thanks to Jeff Shaw from Bellingham BJJ, I became aware of a story that Roosevelt's daughter Alice planned to train jiu-jitsu in 1905. I found the source: 

The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), January 23, 1905, Page 6, Image 6, col. 3.

The article appears below.

"President's Daughter Will Join Jiu-Jitsu Class At Capital," The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), January 23, 1905, Page 6, Image 6, col. 3.
"President's Daughter Will Join Jiu-Jitsu Class At Capital," The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), January 23, 1905, Page 6, Image 6, col. 3.

This article claims that "Miss Alice Roosevelt has promised to join the class" offered by Professor Yamashita, along with Tsunejiro Tomit and Mitsuyo Maeda." However, this is the only source I've seen for this idea that Alice trained jiu-jitsu or judo. Given that Roosevelt did not train again after 1904, I doubt that Alice Roosevelt trained. I'm open to other sources though!

4. Did TR take up judo or jiu-jitsu after hurting his retina?

This is more complicated, as the original source for this myth is the president himself! The stories circulating online mention 1908. There is no support for that date, and as we saw earlier, TR started and finishing training between 1902 and 1904.

In his 1913 autobiography, TR wrote the following:

"While President I used to box with some of the aides, as well as play single-stick with General Wood. After a few years I had to abandon boxing as well as wrestling, for in one bout a young captain of artillery cross-countered me on the eye, and the blow smashed the little blood-vessels. Fortunately it was my left eye, but the sight has been dim ever since, and if it had been the right eye I should have been entirely unable to shoot. Accordingly I thought it better to acknowledge that I had become an elderly man and would have to stop boxing. I then took up jiu-jitsu for a year or two."

However, this does not match up with the facts. We already know TR did not train anywhere close to "a year or two."

How Colonel Roosevelt Lost His Eye, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 4 Nov 1917,  

The article gives 1905 as the year Roosevelt hurt his eye:

"It was back in 1905 when Colonel Roosevelt was President [September 14, 1901 – March 4, 1909] that he lost his eye. He had been in the habit of boxing for exercise for many years. Then an accident happened, which is this described in the Colonel's own words:

'The last boxing I did was in Washington. I boxed with my aids [sic] most of the time, but one day a young captain of the artillery came along and broke some blood vessels in my left eye. I have never been able to see out of it since, although I don't believe many people knew it.'

To this day, only Colonel Roosevelt, former Secretary Loeb and the officer himself know who gave the punch."

If we believe that somehow TR injured himself boxing and then studied jiu-jitsu, then he would have suffered his injury very early in his presidency, between 14 September 1901 and March 1902. That seems unlikely, but not impossible. It's more likely that TR did not remember how these events played out, or that he felt it important to show that he was still pursuing exercise despite not being able to box.

5. Did TR achieve any rank in judo or jiu-jitsu after he was alive?

Yes, he did! On 16 Nov, 2007, as reported by the 23 Nov 2007 edition of the Oyster Bay Guardian, the United States Judo Association posthumously awarded TR his 8th dan in judo. Why 8th dan? Gary Goltz, USJA Chief Operating Officer, said:

"We now have a President who is one rank higher than Russian President Vladimir Putin who’s a 7th Degree Black Belt!”

United States Judo Association Award, 17 Nov 2007,

Unfortunately for patriots like Mr. Goltz, in 2012 the International Judo Federation awarded Mr Putin his 8th dan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, 8th Dan, Throwing a Partner in 2009, Moscow Times, 10 Oct 2012, 

Mr. Putin has also been the IJF Honorary President since 2008.


It took me a while to write this post, as a lot of the core details I originally cared about appeared in the Stack Exchange post cited earlier. However, I wanted to add material and frame it in a way that might help debunk the popular myths circulating in various media.

If you'd like to learn more about TR's second teacher Prof Yamashita, see this 2000 article Professor Yamashita Goes to Washington by Joseph R. Svinth.

If you'd like to learn a bit more about how TR's first teacher, Prof O'Brien, leveraged his contact with TR, see my post American College of Physical Culture and Jiu-Jitsu.

I think it's important to note that TR was one of the most outsized, boastful presidents in history. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does indicate to me that he loved being photographed doing "manly" pursuits. If he had accomplished more in his judo or jiu-jitsu training, I expect he would have posed for at least one photograph with his teacher or training partner. As there is no evidence of that, I expect his experience was mainly introductory and modest, and there is nothing wrong with that, either!

Appendix: Roosevelt Judo or Jiu-Jitsu Interest Timeline

In the interest of ensuring this excellent research by Stack Exchange user brazofuerte is not lost, I have reproduced his timeline of Roosevelt's judo or jiu-jitsu interest below.

Tsuki Komi, Throw Demonstrated by Prof Yamashita and His Wife Fude, circa 1904,


1902: Training under O'Brien

  • Jan 3, 1902: Roosevelt's interest first sparked by a letter from William Sturgis Bigelow, in which he described jiu-jitsu and provided him with the contact details of John J. O'Brien.
  • Feb, 1902: O'brien suggests a course of 8 weeks.
  • Mar, 1902: Roosevelt writes to O'Brien inviting him to instruct him.
  • Mar 1902: Roosevelt begins lessons with O'Brien.0
  • c. May, 1902: Roosevelt ceases lessons with O'Brien.1 2
It appears O'Brien taught Roosevelt in hour long lessons 1 or more times a week:
The second Sunday that I was in Washington when I was giving the President his lesson between 9 + 10 a.m...

1904: Training under Yamashita

  • Dec 3, 1903: Roosevelt is introduced to Yamashita and Kawaguchi.9
  • c. 1904: Roosevelt begins lessons with Yamashita:3 4 5
  • Feb 2, 1904: Bigelow sends Roosevelt a book on jiu jitsu from Tokyo.5
  • April 26, 1904: Roosevelt discusses his lessons with Yamashita to Secretary of State, John Hay.10
  • c. May, 1904: Roosevelt ceases lessons with Yamashita5 6

1905 - 1906: Roosevelt's opinions on Judo

  • c. 1905: Roosevelt instigates judo training at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, taught by Yamashita.
  • Feb 24, 1905: Yamashita is invited to the White House for an exhibition match, Roosevelt makes some remarks on the difference between Judo and American style Wrestling, and the role of strength in combat:
    Yesterday afternoon we had Professor Yamashita up here to wrestle with Grant. It was very interesting, but of course jiu jitsu end our 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 jiujitsu is really meant for practice in killing or disabling your 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 throw 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.
  • Feb 17, 1906:
    I am not satisfied about the giving up of the judo or jujitsu at the Naval Academy. It is not physical exercise so much as it is an extraordinarily successful means of self-defense and training in dexterity and decision. Naturally, elderly men of a routine habit of mind who have known nothing whatever of it are against it; but I know enough of boxing, wrestling, rough-and-tumble fighting, and of the very art in question to be absolutely certain that it is of real and on occasions may be of great use to any man whose duties are such as a naval officer's may at any time become. I should like to have it continued next year at the Naval Academy.
    Letter to Bonaparte, February 17, 1906
  • Mar 3, 1906: Bonaparte, in a memorandum of March 3, 1906, to the Bureau of Navigation, ordered judo to be continued at Annapolis.
  • May 4, 1906: Yamashita rehired, judo taught for 6 months at the Naval Academy.
  • Aug 15, 1906: Bigelow sends Roosevelt 6 uwagi (上着) (judo jackets), suggesting family disputes may be resolved by a bit of weekly judo.7
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