The Fears and Phobias of Five Historical Tough Guys

Nothing could consistently knock out Muhammad Ali quite like airplanes
The Fears and Phobias of Five Historical Tough Guys

Toxic masculinity is a hell of a drug. We’re told that being a man means having no fear, but as one of history’s manliest men once said, “The only time a man can be brave is when he’s afraid.” Wait, hold on. Okay, we’ve been informed that Game of Thrones wasn’t real. Still, there’s not a person who ever lived who wasn’t afraid of anything, and that includes some of the toughest guys you’ve ever heard of. Yes, even the one you’re thinking of right now. Yes, even…

Teddy Roosevelt Was Afraid of Baseball

If the guy you thought of was Theodore Roosevelt, you had every reason to do so. He was definitely the badassiest man to rule the White House. He loved hunting, war and his equally badass daughter, in roughly that order. He was once shot in an attempted assassination just before he was scheduled to give a speech, and instead of going to the hospital, he went ahead and gave the speech anyway. He spent three days in the freezing cold tracking down boat thieves with little more than bacon and coffee. He’s who Chuck Norris jokes should actually be about.

There seemed to be only one thing the Bull Moose feared: baseball. Due to his poor eyesight, he said he “fears nothing like he fears a baseball coming at him in the dark.” This caused a minor scandal during his presidency because he refused to attend baseball games at a time when Major League Baseball was determined to brand itself as the patriot’s game. They went so far as to build an entire box just for him and gave him a literal golden ticket to any game in Washington, but he still snubbed them. Of course, he insisted it was because baseball was a “mollycoddle game” that wasn’t hardcore enough for him, not because a foul ball might kill him in the face. And for every reason, nobody questioned him.

Muhammad Ali Was Afraid to Fly

At one point, Muhammad Ali was officially the best at punching people, and he might still be. Until artificial intelligence has advanced to the point that we can pit some kind of Ali-bot against today’s best boxers, we have no way of knowing for sure. He also made history as a conscientious objector, refusing to fight in the Vietnam War on the basis of his religion, and nothing is tougher than standing up for what you believe.

What was a lot tougher for Ali was getting on an airplane. It’s a perfectly understandable fear that lots of people have — no matter how many statistics you memorize, it’s hard to forget that only a thin metal case and several miles of nothing stand between you and the ground — but it was even more understandable for Ali. In the late 1950s, he was on a plane that hit turbulence so bad that “some of the seats were torn from their bolts on the floor.” That would give anybody a taste for road trips.

But Ali’s career made flying a necessity, so he took some extreme measures to reassure himself. He bought a parachute that he always took with him, and before the 1960 Olympics, he called the Air Force to confirm that a plane from the U.S. to Rome had never crashed. It’s a dubious honor, then, that in 2019, the Louisville airport was renamed after him.

George Washington Was Afraid of Being Buried Alive

George Washington’s thirst for kicking British ass is the whole reason we’re not drinking tea and talking like Harry Potter now, so that’s not nothing. Sure, he was a dirty slave owner, but he felt really bad about it at a time when most men of his station bragged about it like guys today brag about their beer-can towers. Furthermore, we heard motherfucker had, like, 30 goddamn dicks. That’s why it’s pretty weird that he died of basically a cold, but technically, he probably died more of what passed for medicine in the 18th century — i.e. bloodletting and trying stuff. When he realized these “doctors” were definitely gonna kill him, he requested that his body not be buried for at least three days because he was so afraid of being buried alive.

To be fair, it was a real problem back then, when doctors were about as good at recognizing death as they were at curing colds. People even bought fancy caskets with mechanisms in place to alert anyone who happened to be passing by that someone was alive in there, presumably resulting in some hilarious April Fools’ pranks. In accordance with his wishes, Washington’s body was laid out at his estate for three days before his burial, and since doctors were probably equally good at preserving corpses, that means a lot of people’s last memories of their first president was the putrid odor of his rotting corpse.

Peter the Great Was Afraid of Cockroaches

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who lovingly builds elaborate entertainment complexes for their cockroach friends, but you’d be equally surprised that the little trashmouths sent Peter the Great fleeing from buildings like a little girl who saw, well, a cockroach. This is the man who brought Russia into the modern era, in part by capturing an absolute shitload of territory. His nickname was “The Great,” for him’s sake. But he rarely went anywhere without sending one of his servants ahead to sweep for entomological enemies.

After all, what happened when he didn’t could turn into a diplomatic nightmare. Once, at the country house of “an officer who stood pretty high in his esteem,” Peter forwent the Orkin Man routine but clearly couldn’t stop thinking about it. In the middle of dinner, he asked his host if there were any cockroaches in the house, and the officer — apparently not briefed on his important guest’s only hilarious weakness — blithely responded that there were a few but he’d pinned one of them to the wall to send an ambiguously received message. In fact, it was pinned right behind Peter’s head. We like to think he slowly turned while unseen violins screeched ominously, but then he definitely got up, punched the officer in the face, and left. 

He was certainly not afraid to be a rude dinner guest.

Genghis Khan Was Afraid of Dogs

All these guys are pretty tough, but Genghis Khan was legitimately scary. He killed so many people that it brought on a global cooling event and raped so many other people that about 8 percent of men living in the area of his former empire are related to him. If you wanted to fend off the Khan, you had to do what so many single women do even today to protect themselves: get a dog.

To be fair, the dogs in Mongolia were less like the cute little fluff loaves populating your Instagram feed and more like the junkyard dog in The Sandlot — you know, the fantasy version. They were bred to be massive attack/guard dogs, and they would tear your ass up as easily as a mountain lion. Genghis Khan had rightfully feared them since childhood and went so far as to order the deaths of all the dogs and cats in every village he raided. He wasn’t scared of cats, though; he just didn’t like them. God, what an asshole.

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