As we enter into the final home stand of 2012 Washington Nationals championship season – a home stand dubbed the “Teddy in 2012” series -- lost in the laughs and groans about Teddy Roosevelt always losing the President’s Race at Nationals Park is Roosevelt was one tough guy – the least of the four presidents to suffer the ignomy of being a laughing-stock loser.
He would be appalled at this Nationals Park entertainment, and would likely seek someone out to deliver a right cross or a left uppercut to stop the nonsense.
If he didn’t , Mike Donovan would.
Mike Donovan was the grandfather of Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame tackle and personality Art Donovan. He was one of the most legendary bare knuckles fighters of the late 19th century, a middleweight champion who also stepped in the ring against the great John L. Sullivan and trained Jake Kilrain in his legendary 75-round battle against Sullivan.
He also became Teddy Roosevelt’s boxing trainer and sparring partner, from the Governor’s mansion in Albany to the White House.
Donovan was the boxing instructor of the New York Athletic Club when he first met Roosevelt, who was New York police commissioner. Roosevelt was a boxing fan, and his thirst for physical tests were well documented. So when Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, he invited Donovan to the Governor’s mansion for the first of what would be many sparring sessions.
Donovan talked in his biography about the first time he and the future president sparred in Albany.
Roosevelt entered the room wearing a sleeveless flannel shirt, his khaki Rough-rider uniform pants and light canvas shoes. Donovan was impressed by the physical presence of Roosevelt . He stood about 5-foot-8 but seemed much bigger.
The men put on their boxing gloves and stepped onto the mat, where Professor Donovan was about to conduct class.
The governor was hardly a beginning student, though. He was well-known for his boxing workouts, but now was stepping in with the man who had gained a well-earned reputation as one of the smartest and toughest fighters to ever put on the gloves. Donovan started off with a soft left jab, followed by a right hand to the cheek that qualified as the proverbial love tap.
Roosevelt dropped his hands and stopped fighting. He wasn't happy.
"Look here Mike, that is not fair," Roosevelt said.
"What's the matter, Governor?" Donovan asked.
"You are not hitting me," Roosevelt said. "I'd like you to hit out."
"All right, Governor," Donovan said, thinking that Roosevelt had a pretty high opinion of himself if he thought he could take the best Mike Donovan had to offer.
This time, Donovan struck Roosevelt with a hard right to the body and then tried to land a swinging left to the jaw. Roosevelt stepped inside and delivered a right hand to the side of Donovan's head.
It stopped Donovan in his tracks.
Donovan had been invited to Washington as a guest of Roosevelt for his March 4, 1904, presidential inauguration. You might think that the night before, Roosevelt would be preparing for the big day, fine-tuning his speech, getting the proper rest, reflecting on the enormity of the day he faced.
Instead, he spared 10 hard rounds with Donovan. There would be time after the ceremony for reflection.
"After the inauguration tomorrow, I go out to the Rockies on a hunt for four or five weeks and live the simple life," Roosevelt told Donovan before they began sparring. "Mike, we must have a good, long bout this evening. It will brighten me up tomorrow, which will be a trying day.
After the workouts he had that winter with Donovan, Roosevelt had turned into a formidable opponent. On this particular night, Donovan was ready to call it by the fifth round, but Roosevelt showed no such inclination. They were trading heavy blows when Roosevelt landed a right hand to Donovan's head that sent him sprawling to the mat. Donovan got to his feet, and Roosevelt said, "Mike, that's a good make-believe knockdown," not realizing he had indeed hurt Donovan.
"Mr President," Donovan said, "I would not ever let you knock me down if I could help it."
In another trip to Washington for a sparring session, Donovan arrived at the White House and met Roosevelt in the Library.
"Hello, Mike, delighted to see you," Roosevelt said, as he rose and gave Donovan a playful shot to the shoulder. Roosevelt then had the desk and furniture moved off to the side, and the two men put on their boxing gear to have a sparring session in the Library.
While they were in the middle of their session, a delegation of officials from Texas were brought into the room. Roosevelt and Donovan, still wearing boxing gloves, shook hands with the politicians.
"Gentleman, please give us room and wait against the wall until we are done," Roosevelt told them. So they lined up against the wall of the Library and watched as Roosevelt and Donovan continued to pound away on each other.
Another group was brought into the room -- this one a group of Methodist ministers. Donovan stopped fighting, figuring surely now that their sparring session was finished.
"Show them in," Roosevelt said, and again Roosevelt and Donovan were introduced to the group, shaking hands with their boxing gloves still on.
"Now, gentlemen, if you will line up on this opposite wall, we will give you an exhibition of the manly arts," Roosevelt said. And so they picked up the fight again.
The two men went their separate ways after Roosevelt left the White House in 1909. Ten years later, Roosevelt died of a heart attack. Donovan continued as boxing instructor at the New York Athletic Club until he retired in 1914. He passed away four years later.
But if Mike Donovan were alive today, he wouldn’t tolerate Teddy Roosevelt being anyone’s punch line.
Return to: Thom Loverro Blog
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