It would be very pretentious of us to think that fighting is a modern development. Throwing fisticuffs dates back to earliest man, and even the oldest known civilizations, like ancient Babylon, knew the meaning of a good schoolyard scrap. As soon as we learned how awesome women are, we started brawling. But putting all that angst into a systematic style of engaging and defeating an enemy didn’t happen until the eighth century BC, when the Greeks developed pankration. Yet despite its accomplishments, almost no mixed martial arts fighter claims pankration as his style today. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, muay thai and wrestling are the predominant disciplines du jour. Yet everyone in today’s MMA really owes a debt of gratitude to this ancient combat sport, which, in some ways, was surprisingly similar to today’s martial arts.
A Tale of Two Eras
Pankration comes from the words “pan” and “katos”, meaning “all powers.” It was a fighting style that, according to myth, was invented by legendary Greek heroes Hercules and Theseus, who developed it from boxing and wrestling and used it to defeat the Nemean Lion and the Minotaur. Modern MMA can only claim Fedor Emelianenko and Anderson Silva as its monsters waiting to be slain.
There is no documented history tracing pankration’s true lineage. In all likelihood, it was born from angry and bored youths who vied for the attention of a local hottie named Helen. What we do know is that it existed in the seventh century BC to slake the Greeks’ thirst for a total combat sport, a thirst that boxing and wrestling could not satisfy. These sports were widespread, but even back then there were fans who felt that a boxing match wasn’t a true fight.
As in our time, pankration enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity when it was first introduced at the 33rd Olympiad in 648 BC. At that time, local tournaments fl ourished throughout Greece, and pankration was part of the Nemean and Panhellenic games. But not until it became an Olympic sport did it take hold of Greek society and become the focus of everyone’s attention. Boxing and wrestling remained popular, but pankration was all the rage for centuries.
Early pankration had no time limits or weight classes. A fight lasted until sundown or until someone quit, which rarely happened because tapping out back then was considered the lowest form of disgrace. With no liberal media to deplore youth combat sports, the only divisions were between men and boys, which is where that old line “time to separate the men from the boys” comes from. Referees were armed with rods and switches to enforce the only two rules that existed: no biting and no eye gouging. The militant Spartans, however, didn’t roll that way and completely discarded rules in their local contests.
As in modern MMA, most pankration bouts were won on the ground because the athletes were skilled grapplers who knew the ways of takedowns, chokes and joint locks. And, really, who wouldn’t become skilled at ground fighting when rolling around naked with another dude in hot sand? That’s right, naked. The ancient Greeks wanted to ensure that no one had an unfair advantage in a fight, so they competed in the buff. It suddenly doesn’t seem so appealing anymore, does it?
Like MMA, pankration had its share of legends, such as Dioxippus and Polydamos. But it was a man named Arrichion who captured hearts and inspired legends. He could be called the Scott Smith of ancient times. During a pankration bout, Arrichion was caught in a rear naked choke and, like Smith, who was wounded by a brutal Pete Sell body shot, Arrichion knew that he had only one chance left to win. He refused to submit. Instead, he leaned forward, grabbed his opponent’s ankle and somehow broke it. His opponent was forced to hold up his index fi nger—the ancient form of tapping out. And when the bout was over, Arrichion was declared the winner. But there was a problem … he was dead. The rear naked choke had worked its magic and terminated Arrichion, but the respect he earned made him an instant James Dean. His body was carted off to be burned in a lavish funeral pyre reserved for only the greatest of heroes.
In the days of the Greek city-state, pankration was more than just a sport. Like sambo and muay thai, pankration had combat applications, though it was derided by many Greek fi eld commanders as ineffective. Called pammachon when it was applied to the battlefi eld, it was an integral part of several ancient wars and was practiced by the Greek “hoplites” (foot soldiers) so they could defend themselves when they lost their swords. The immortal stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae degenerated into hand-to-hand combat, and the Battle of Marathon also descended into pugilism. During his march into India, around 325 BC, Alexander the Great reportedly hired a brigade of pammachon mercenaries. Alexander’s conquests even have fueled an ongoing debate about whether or not his exploits across the Middle East and lower Asia actually planted the seeds for all martial arts, from kung fu in China to jiu-jitsu in Japan.
While that theory likely will be fought over by diehard martial arts fans for decades, the migration of pankration across the Adriatic Sea from Greece to Rome is certain. The debauchery-ridden Romans saw a potential for pankration as a blood sport and offered money to pankratiasts to cross the sea and fight. Their lust for gore was insatiable, and coliseums across the ancient empire stripped pankration of all skill by arming their fighters with spiked gloves called caestuses.
The death knell of ancient pankration was sounded by the Christian Byzantine Emperor, Theodosius I, in 393 AD, when he abolished all pagan festivals, including the Olympics. That’s when pankration did what all oppressed arts have done throughout the ages: it went underground. But try as its devotees might have to preserve their sport, after 404 AD there’s no verified documentation of pankration being practiced.
Rising from the Ashes
It wasn’t the first time a martial art was banned by an oppressive regime or conquering foe. Muay thai, capoeira and some forms of kung fu have all had dark periods when they had to be handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, or hidden in indigenous dances, in order to survive. For nearly 1,500 years, pankration was largely forgotten. That’s not to say the Greeks abandoned fighting during that time, but as a comprehensive system of self-defense or hand-to-hand combat, it was basically finished. One could hypothesize that fights over land or familial disputes actually preserved the art and may have even evolved it, but we will never know for sure.
Finally, in 1894, a man had a plan. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French teacher, petitioned the world to reinstate the Olympic Games and succeeded with the fi rst modern Olympiad in Athens in 1896. Pankration was originally slated to be included, but the Cardinal of Lyon, a stoic man of considerable infl uence, protested and had it removed. For 75 years, pankration continued to languish.
The first documented resurrection of pankration occurred in 1971, when Jim Arvanitis opened his Spartan Academy in Boston, which used the ancient Greek art as a blueprint for his core curriculum. Although Arvanitis is Greek, his effort to reinstate pankration was only partly due to his heritage. It owed more to his sincere desire to forge a new path in the martial arts by bringing together things that worked and cutting away things that didn’t.
“No one was cross-training,” says Arvanitis. “I was only interested in functionality. And for me, karate, kung fu and tae kwon do were not it. So I took elements from what I trained in—boxing, wrestling, muay thai and combat judo— and combined them all into a cohesive fighting art.” To be accurate, Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do—a mix of kung fu, boxing and fencing—was already well known at this time. Arvanitis’ endeavors were unique, nevertheless, because he included many aspects that neither Lee nor anyone else did. His style was a grab bag of strikes, joint locks, takedowns and anything else that he deemed worthy. It didn’t introduce anything new, but it did sew together a quilt of realistic and effective moves—like the flying knee from muay thai and the kimura armlock from ne waza judo—to form a combat system similar to modern MMA.
By 1973, Arvanitis’ style had become more than a curiosity, and he was featured on the cover of prestigious Black Belt magazine (with his trademark ‘70s Afro) as the Father of Modern Pankration. In 1984, Vasilios Katsaitis established the World Panhellenic United Martial Arts Foundation, but it wasn’t until after the debut of the UFC that pankration organizations started popping up like weeds. Both the Hellenic Pankration Federation and the American Pankration Federation were established in 1996. Two years later, the USA Federation of Pankration Athlima was established, as was the Amateur Pankration League. It seemed that pankration was catching on … but something was different.
Arvanitis’ original pankration was a combat fighting system that focused on defeating an opponent, and it looked a lot like modern MMA, whereas the new organizations’ version most resembled a hybrid of karate and jiu-jitsu. Their tournaments, which Arvanitis wanted no part of, were focused on scoring points instead of submitting or knocking out the opposing fighter. Light head slaps replaced full contact face punches. Knees and elbows were not permitted. Hard takedowns were also outlawed (called the “Catcher’s Mask” rule), and anything that made your opponent bleed caused an instant disqualification. It wasn’t much like the legendary Greek sport.
“The Catcher’s Mask thing is a USA Federation rule regarding facial contact,” says Arvanitis. “The goal was to make the competition more balanced, favoring neither the striker nor the grappler. The participants wear this protective gear, but contact to it is not permitted from any strike or kick. [It] is supposed to discourage head attacks and place more emphasis on body shots. The ‘No Bleed’ rule applies to what is considered by the judges to be an uncontrolled technique.”
Right now, you’re saying, “No wonder no one claims pankration as his style. It’s not realistic with current MMA.” You would be correct, but these softer rules also made pankration more appealing to the men who held sway over the biggest sporting event in the world: the Olympic Games.
Pandering to the Masses
Ancient pankration was bloody and brutal. Modern pankration is not. The lack of head strikes and a confined cage may turn away action-seeking MMA fans, but the softer rules also make the sport more attractive to the family-oriented atmosphere of the Olympic Games. If MMA never makes it into the Olympics, pankration might. While MMA fans dream of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, BJ Penn, and Yushin Okami representing their countries at the Games, pankration organizations are actually trying to make it happen for their own stars.
In 2004, they mounted an all-out blitzkrieg to get pankration included in the Athens Olympics. As the host country, Greece was allowed to choose a sport for demonstration only, which is normally a step toward “recognized sport” status with the International Olympic Committee, and eventually “permanent sport” status. But the IOC wasn’t buying their snake oil.
According to Arvanitis, the effort to get pankration into the Olympics was really a façade. “For them, it was a means of getting karate into the Olympics under a name that had a connection from antiquity. Since they were karate stylists, they knew little of ground fighting,” he says. The result? Not so good. Pankration did not make it into the Games. Moreover, no international pankration organization is recognized by the IOC today. Even with its soft stance on striking, pankration is still a long way from being an Olympic sport, meaning that MMA’s chances of being included in the Games is even more remote. The M-1 Challenge may be the closest thing we’ll ever see to an international MMA competition.
Old Name, New Look
Pankration was originally Greek, and it’s in Greece that it has achieved a modicum of popularity, but it has lagged behind other combat sports since the rise of MMA. Modern bouts are contested in an arena called a palaestra, with each fi ghter wearing a uniform resembling a gi but called an “endyma”. It’s a pointoriented competition that’s sanctioned by the sport’s main organization, the International Federation of Pankration Athlima (IFPA). Like competitions here in the U.S., Greek pankration tournaments don’t allow many of the things MMA is known for—punches to the head, big takedowns, and … realistic combat. It’s this complete departure from the original version that’s limited its spread, especially in the era of mixed martial arts, when practitioners demand realism. It seems that, in the 21st century, results in the Octagon have become the measure of success worldwide.
Naturally, there has been a backlash in Hellas against the current state of the sport. Groups within the country practice modern MMA, with full-contact sparring, ground-and-pound and even knife work. But the Greek government does not allow them to use the term “pankration,” which is reserved specifically for the sport variant run by the IFPA and its contemporaries. So these groups have instead settled for the moniker “submission fighting.” Their fights are held in venues similar to the dark, low-budget dives of the early ‘90s in the U.S. when only a handful of early UFC fans practiced MMA.
Pankration has now come full circle. Its uninhibitedness as a combat sport made it wildly popular in the time before Jesus walked the earth, and has undoubtedly influenced modern MMA philosophically and symbolically. But its moment in the sun has passed, like that of its ancient benefactor, the Greek city-state. In an ironic turn of events, it’s MMA that is now influencing pankration. The immense popularity of MMA has pressured all martial arts to put up or shut up, and pankration is no different. Pankration tournaments have begun using the five-ounce MMA gloves in competition, though strikes to the face are still not permitted. With the exception of Jim Arvanitis, pankration is quite simply a completely different art from what was envisioned and practiced so long ago. Mixed martial arts is actually a closer cousin to the ancient version. In fact, it looks more like ancient pankration than any other combat discipline. It’s pretentious to think of our generation as masters of fighting, but only once before were we ever so close.