What quality are common among the toughest men in American history? Even though the answer to this question might vary depending on the location, era, and society’s perceptions at the time, most of us will agree that traditional qualities of being brave and strong help separate real men from the rest (though bravery and strength do not equate with “good”, bad men can be brave and strong as well). Throughout the centuries, an alpha male’s ability and passion to take care of those who depend on him has been central to his masculinity. Men will work, fight, and do anything necessary to create a safe and happy environment for himself and those they love (usually their family). This has been the most acceptable role for a man for thousands of years and American society is no different. Of course, this is not saying that women are not as brave, strong, and courageous as any man. Not at all! However, on this list, we are going to focus on the toughest men in American history. Those men who have managed to stand above the rest via their actions and their sacrifice (whether good or bad). To avoid confusion, we’re not equating toughness with morality. Some of the toughest men in American history have been arguably quite immoral.
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We all know that Lincoln carried on a no-holds-barred war against the South that eventually crushed its spirit. Of course, that’s enough for any man to gain badass status. But when it comes to Lincoln not many know that he was an incredibly tough wrestler. In fact, it’s rumored that he never lost a match. It’s a sage bet that if the Olympics or the WWE existed during his lifetime, he could have made a comfortable living using his wrestling skills, even if he never got elected.
General Douglas MacArthur
Douglas MacArthur was an American general best known for his command of Allied forces in the Pacific Theater in World War II during which he liberated the Philippines in 1944 after it had fallen to the Japanese. He also fought in World War I and went on to lead UN forces at the start of the Korean War, but later clashed with President Harry Truman over war policy and was removed from command. MacArthur remains a controversial and enigmatic figure for his character and war tactics but no one has ever challenged or doubted his manliness and tough image.
Way before “Iron” Mike Tyson and World Kickboxing champ “Iron” Mike Zambidis there was the original, authentic “Iron” Mike Malloy. A former firefighter, Malloy ended up being a homeless drunk on the streets of New York. He is most famous for surviving a number of vicious attempts on his life by five acquaintances who were attempting to commit life insurance fraud. His legacy can be traced in an instrumental piece by The Spent Poets titled “You Can’t Kill Michael Malloy.”
During the mid-’80s Mike Tyson was considered the “baddest man on the planet.” He was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world and like no boxer before him, destroyed every challenger in the ring in minutes (even seconds in some cases). His name is synonymous with destruction, though nowadays Iron Mike is one of the calmest and most friendly celebrities you could meet.
You probably don’t recognize his name but if you’ve seen 127 Hours starring James Franco, then you probably know who we’re talking about. Aron survived a canyoneering accident in southeastern Utah in 2003, during which he amputated his own right forearm with a dull pocketknife in order to extricate himself from a dislodged boulder (which had him trapped for five days and seven hours). Then he had to make his way through the remainder of the canyon and rappel down a sixty-five-foot cliff face in order to reach safety.
Chris Kyle was a badass Navy SEAL and the most lethal sniper in US military history, with over 160 kills officially confirmed by the Department of Defense. He served four tours in Iraq and was awarded several commendations for acts of heroism and meritorious service in combat. His life became the blockbuster film American Sniper in 2014.
Despite not being a role model or an icon for any sane man, Capone was at one time the most wanted and toughest man in the United States. A child from an Italian immigrant family, Al Capone, also known as “Scarface” (the original one before Pacino), rose to infamy as the leader of the Chicago mafia during Prohibition. His name became synonymous with fear and intimidation while his enemies and authorities feared hearing him more than anything. Arguably the most famous gangster of the twentieth century, Capone amassed a personal fortune estimated at $100 million and was responsible for countless murders.
Ernest Hemingway is widely known for being one of the most important American writers, but for those who know him a little better he was more than that. A big, tough, hard-driving, hard-drinking manly man who loved to fight (he was an ace boxer and wrestler), Hemingway was the epitome of masculinity. At age nineteen he went to serve in the US Army in Italy during WWI where he was seriously wounded by mortar fire. He also survived anthrax, malaria, pneumonia, dysentery, skin cancer, hepatitis, anemia, diabetes, high blood pressure, two plane crashes, a ruptured kidney, a ruptured spleen, a ruptured liver, a crushed vertebra, and a fractured skull. Sadly, his demise was his own doing.
Arguably the most famous boxer who ever lived, Ali’s fame expanded beyond the boxing ring and his name became bigger than the sport itself. He’s considered one of the most important African Americans ever and the man who gave voice to many black people around the world to stand up and fight for their rights. He was outspoken and never afraid to speak his mind even though he grew up in a tough and racist era.
As we all know (or should know) George Washington was the first president of the United States, the commander in chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and one of the Founding Fathers of the country. He presided over the convention that drafted the Constitution and during his lifetime was called the “father of his country.”
Cochise was a Native American warrior and principal chief of the Chokonen band of the Chiricahua Apache. He led an uprising against the American government that began in 1861 and terrorized settlers who abandoned their homes. The Apache raids took hundreds of lives and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage. By 1872, the United States was anxious for peace, and the government offered Cochise and his people a huge reservation in the southeastern corner of Arizona Territory if they would cease hostilities. Cochise eventually agreed, saying, “The white man and the Indian are to drink of the same water, eat of the same bread, and be at peace.” The astronauts of Apollo 17 named a small lunar crater after Cochise, located near the landing site in the Taurus-Littrow Valley, while Cochise County in Arizona is also named after him.
Pat Tillman is a rare kind of man that you meet once in a generation. Why? Well, the man left a successful football career with the Arizona Cardinals (and a contract for millions of dollars) to enlist in the army in June 2002 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. He was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. The official story was that he was shot by enemy forces during an ambush, but it was later revealed that he may have been killed by friendly fire.
Despite being one of the smallest—in terms of size, since Rocky was a little over 5’10˝ and 187 lbs—Marciano went on to become one of the greatest heavyweight boxing champions in history and the only one to retire undefeated with a perfect record: forty-nine wins and no losses. His iron chin and extreme hand power made him one of the most impressive boxers ever, with the highest KO ratio ever for a heavyweight (88 percent), and he’s responsible for the most popular KO in history (against Jersey Joe Walcott), known as the “Suzie Q.” They didn’t call him “The Rock” from Brockton for nothing.
At nineteen Doris “Dorie” Miller joined the American Navy as a mess attendant, third class, but was soon promoted to second class, then first, and finally to ship’s cook, third class. He became the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross, for his bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his captain on the bridge, Miller, despite enemy strafing and bombing and in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge. In Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, Miller is portrayed by Academy Award–winning actor Cuba Gooding, Jr.
John L. Sullivan
Way before the UFC, there was the most testosterone-laden combat sport ever available to American men: bareknuckle boxing. John L. Sullivan, arguably the manliest and most hard-core sportsman in American history, was the last (and greatest) of the legendary bareknuckle boxers, the first gloved boxing world champion (holding the title from February 7, 1882, to 1892), and a man so badass that after forty victories he would only lose his last fight to James J. Corbett, who danced his way to victory instead of fighting toe to toe with “Boston Strong Boy,” as Sullivan was known.
Probably the most decorated American combat soldier of World War II, Murphy received every military combat award for valor available from the US Army, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism. At nineteen Murphy received the Medal of Honor after single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour at the Colmar Pocket in France in January 1945, then leading a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition.
Zamperini was an excellent high school runner who managed to qualify for the United States in the 5000m race for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He didn’t win a medal, however, and three years later he enlisted in the air force as a lieutenant. He served as a B-24 Liberator bombardier in the Pacific during the war. On a search and rescue mission, mechanical difficulties forced his plane to crash in the ocean. After drifting at sea for forty-seven days, he landed on the Japanese-occupied Marshal Islands and was captured. He was taken to a prison camp in Japan where he was tortured mercilessly. Following the war he initially struggled to overcome his ordeal but he later became a Christian Evangelist with a strong belief in forgiveness. His story recently became the subject of two biopics, the 2014 Unbroken and the 2015 Captured by Grace.
Crazy Horse was an Oglala Sioux Indian chief who fought against removal to an Indian reservation during the nineteenth century. As conflicts escalated between his people and the US military, Crazy Horse was at the center of many key battles. In one of the most important and famous victories for his people, Crazy Horse led an attack on Captain William J. Fetterman and his brigade of eighty men. The Fetterman Massacre, as it came to be known, proved to be a huge embarrassment for the military. Shortly after, Crazy Horse teamed up with Sitting Bull to decimate Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his esteemed Seventh Cavalry in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, perhaps the greatest victory ever by Native Americans over US troops, which gave Crazy Horse (and Sitting Bull) the legendary status as a warrior he has to this day.
Some consider Alvin York the baddest and toughest American soldier in history. Sergeant York fought for the US Army in World War I and received the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine-gun nest, taking thirty-two machine guns, killing twenty German soldiers, and capturing 132 others.
A former US Air Force flight surgeon, Stapp became known as the fastest man on earth following a series of adventures in a rocket-propelled sled designed to assess the greatest deceleration that a human could survive. During his test career, Stapp suffered broken bones, a detached retina, and various other injuries.
Lawrence Patrick is considered one of the fathers of the crash test dummy and he’s probably the toughest scientist you’ve ever heard about. Between 1960 and 1975, while a biomechanics professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University, Patrick described his work by saying that he ”was a human crash-test dummy,” and trust us when we say he literally meant what he said. Patrick allowed himself to be subject to rocket sled rides, crushing blows to the head and body, and other forms of physical abuse in an effort to develop a body of data on how the human body responded in a vehicular accident.
Roy P. Benavidez
His Medal of Honor citation mentions among other things that “Sergeant Benavidez’s gallant choice to join voluntarily his comrades who were in critical straits, to expose himself constantly to withering enemy fire, and his refusal to be stopped despite numerous severe wounds, saved the lives of at least eight men. His fearless personal leadership, tenacious devotion to duty, and extremely valorous actions in the face of overwhelming odds were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.”
General John Pershing
John “Black Jack” Pershing was the US army general who led the American Expeditionary Forces to victory over Germany in World War I, in 1917–18. He rejected British and French demands that American forces be integrated with their armies, and insisted that the AEF operate as a single unit under his command. Pershing shifted 600,000 American soldiers to the heavily defended forests of the Argonne, keeping his divisions engaged in hard fighting for forty-seven days, alongside the French. That victory was one of several factors that caused the Germans to call for an armistice, although Pershing himself wanted to continue fighting, occupy all of Germany, and permanently destroy German militarism.
Leonardo DiCaprio brings a legendary American figure to life in the most anticipated film of 2016, The Revenant, in which he portrays one of the toughest American men in history, Hugh Glass. His story is one for the ages. In 1823, when Glass was scouting for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, he was attacked by a grizzly bear. His throat was torn, his scalp hanging by a thread, and his back shredded. He was most certainly going to die, and the crew of scouts put him in a mini-grave. Well, it turned out that Glass wasn’t going to die after all. He regained consciousness to find that he had been left for dead with no food, weapons, or equipment. After he reset his broken leg, climbed out of his shallow grave, and cleaned his infected wounds, he headed for the nearest trace of civilization. If the 12 Oscar nominations are any indicator, the Revenant is a must see movie.
Theodore Roosevelt was a walking repository of overflowing testosterone. During his life he was a rancher, deputy sheriff, explorer, police commissioner, assistant secretary of the navy, New York governor, war hero, vice president, and of course, president of the United States. Because of a sickly, asthma-ridden childhood, Roosevelt built himself up into the picture of the manly man. Teddy could box, was an ace at jujitsu, and walked around the White House with a gun like a boss. The outdoors was his love and he hiked, rode horseback, hunted, and roughed it whenever he could. Not to mention his numerous political and war achievements.