Pankration: Mixed Martial Arts In Ancient Greece

Mixed martial arts has seen phenomenal growth in recent years. However, its origins are older and can be traced to a 2500-year-old precursor-Pankration.

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Modern mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Boxing takes the belt for the world’s most popular combat sport, but its popularity is stagnant, and if trends continue, it stands to be dethroned by MMA.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) leads the charge as the promotion with the largest market share. The UFC debuted in 1993, but the precursor to modern MMA is over 2,500 years old.

Enter Pankration.

Two athletes competing in the pankration. Panathenaic amphora, made in Athens in 332-331 BC, during the archonship of Niketes. From Capua. (Photo: Wikimedia/British Museum)
Two athletes compete in the Pankration. Panathenaic amphora, made in Athens in 332-331 BC, during the archonship of Niketes. From Capua. (Photo: Wikimedia/British Museum)

What is Pankration?

The word ”Pankration” comes from the Greek pan meaning ”all”, and kratos meaning ”strength” or ”might”, translated literally as ”all strengths”.

This ancient Greek contest combined boxing and wrestling techniques into a form of total physical fight, including kicks, chokes, joint locks, and submission holds much like Japanese jiu-jitsu, modern submission wrestling, and MMA.

Read more: How Long is the Marathon? The Story of a Peculiar Distance

The event would take place in a sand-filled wrestling pit in the style of an elimination tournament, with fighters drawing lots to determine their opponents.

Is it the same as MMA?

Although the ancient Greeks knew many of the techniques used in modern MMA, they are not the same.

The rules differ significantly, and MMA has more of them, not to mention weight classes and a distinct lack of nudity. Unlike the ancient Greek Pankration, which honored Zeus, modern MMA does not have religious significance.

Chris Weidman knocks out Anderson Silva at UFC 162. (Photo: Wikimedia/Kevlar)
Chris Weidman knocks out Anderson Silva at UFC 162. (Photo: Wikimedia/Kevlar)

What were the rules?

Pankration had no weight classes and no time limits. Bouts were supervised by a referee who enforced the rules, and most fights ended with one fighter submitting willingly.

Pankration had only two rules like the early UFC events: no eye-gouging and no biting, except in Sparta, where nothing was off-limits.

The bouts had two main phases: Ano Pankration and Kato Pankration, meaning ”Upper Pankration” and ”Lower Pankration” respectively. All fights started on the feet, and this phase of the fight was known as Ano Pankration. Here the focus was on knocking the opponent down using striking or Greek wrestling. When the fight went to the ground following a knockdown, the second stage Kato Pankration began. Striking was still used, but the focus was on grappling, securing chokes, and submission holds like arm locks to force a submission.

Pankration scene: the pankriatiast on the right tries to gouge his opponent's eye; the umpire is about to strike him for this foul. (Photo: Wikimedia/British Museum)
Pankration scene: the pankriatiast on the right tries to gouge his opponent’s eye; the umpire is about to strike him for this foul. (Photo: Wikimedia/British Museum)

Pankration as an Olympic event

Pankration was introduced into the Greek Olympic games in 648 BC, although its exact origins are unknown.

The Greeks of antiquity practiced boxing and wrestling long before inclusion in the ancient Olympic Games, so it’s likely Pankration was a well-established martial art before its introduction as well.

Much of the history of the Classical and Hellenistic periods is debatable; it’s challenging to differentiate the truth from the mythology that was so culturally significant to the ancient Greeks.

Like modern MMA, Pankration fights were beloved by the spectators, even more so than the boxing and wrestling tournaments. As such, a Pankration tournament was the premier Olympic combat event.

In some cases, there were boxers and wrestlers skilled enough to compete in their own events and the Pankration event in the same tournament, although it seems those who specialized in wrestling were at an advantage due to their skillset. Not to mention the Pankration competition took place right after the boxing events, often on the same day, a further disadvantage to boxing specialists.

Types of tournament

Major tournaments were those of the Panhellenic Games, with the Olympic Games regarded as the most esteemed. A regional qualifying tournament would be held in each region to gather the best fighters in all of the Hellenic World.

Plato mentions thousands of fighters competing in the Panhellenic Games, probably in more minor competitions before a major tournament such as those at the Olympic games.

An Olympic tournament would typically have been a contest between 16 fighters over four rounds, the best of the best competing for the honor of having their names recorded in the Olympic victor lists.

Was the pankration a fight to the death?

The fights could be brutal affairs, and although they sometimes ended in knockouts, submission was a more common ending to a bout. Deaths were not uncommon, usually resulting from chokes as pankratiasts were very proud warriors, and refusal to submit was a point of honor for many, especially among the elite of this ancient martial art.

Ancient Greek Pankratiasts (Photo: Wikimedia/MatthiasKabel)
Ancient Greek Pankratiasts (Photo: Wikimedia/MatthiasKabel)

According to one account, the champion pancratiast Arrhichion of Phigalia was caught in a chokehold and broke his opponent’s ankle in an attempt to escape his desperate position. His adversary raised a finger to signal his submission, and when Arrhichion’s hand was raised in victory by the referee, he was dead.

His body was presented with the famous olive wreath of the victor and sent home to Phigalia. A statue was made in his honor and is thought to survive in the museum at Olympia.

Pankration in mythology

Greek mythology stipulates Pankration was founded by the legendary figures Heracles (known as Hercules in Roman culture) and Theseus, the heroic founder-king of Athens. Both heroes used boxing and wrestling skills in their exploits; Heracles was a son of Zeus and Theseus of Poseidon.

Heracles

In the legendary 12 labors of Heracles, the first was the slaying of the Nemean lion, a beast that was preying on the people of Nemea and impervious to mortal weapons. According to legend, Heracles stunned the lion with a club then used his wrestling skills to strangle it to death, taking the impenetrable pelt as his armor.

Theseus

Not to be outdone, the exploits of Theseus include slaying the infamous Minotaur, with many ancient artworks depicting the pair wrestling before Theseus kills it.

Pankration in warfare

The ancient Greeks mainly fought as heavy infantry known as hoplites, so named for the large, round shields they carried called a hoplon. They also wore greaves, helmets, and breastplates of bronze. Warriors were armed with a spear and short sword and fought in a rectangular mass known as a phalanx. Greek hoplites were well known in the ancient world for their quality as heavy infantry, the Spartans especially so. Ancient literary sources stated Pankration aided Greek soldiers in battle and became central to training and an integral part of a Greek hoplite’s repertoire. Indeed it’s possible Pankration developed primarily in a military context before widespread adoption in athletic contests.

Hoplite fight from Athens Archaeological Museum (Photo: Wikimedia/Grant Mitchell)
Hoplite fight from Athens Archaeological Museum (Photo: Wikimedia/Grant Mitchell)

Spartans at Thermopylae were said to have fought the Persians with their bare hands when their weapons were lost, broken, and blunted. They used their Pankration skills in perhaps the most crucial battle of the Greek world and one of the most famous last stands in history.

Sources suggest Alexander the Great favored pankratiasts in his Macedonian phalanx. Historical accounts indicate both Alexander and his father, King Philip II, practiced Pankration themselves. Alexander’s conquest led into Asia, where he founded new cities (over 70 named Alexandria), and his men were encouraged to settle there. Thus many Eastern martial arts like Kung Fu and Japanese jiu-jitsu were likely influenced by Pankration.

Read more: The Unbelievable Ridiculousness of the 1904 Olympic Marathon

Another famous tale focuses on Dioxippus, an Athenian and pankration champion of the 336 BC Olympic Games. He was one of the most celebrated pankratiasts and served in Alexander’s army, becoming a member of his inner circle. He is most famous for using his Pankration skills to defeat Coragus, a distinguished Macedonian soldier who challenged him. Dioxippus appeared for the duel naked and armed with only a club, beating the fully armed and armored Coragus.

Polydamas

The Persians continue being on the wrong side of Pankration practitioners in the tale of the Olympic victor Polydamas. Little is known of him, and although his statue doesn’t survive, Pausanius (perhaps the original travel blogger) mentions the champion as a huge man.

Renowned for his feats of strength, including killing a lion with his bare hands, King Darius of Persia allegedly invited him to a contest against three of his so-called ”Immortals”, the most elite Persian warriors.

Polydamas won the contest, but as with other Olympic winners, the overestimation of his abilities led to his demise. He is said to have been buried alive in a cave when the roof began to collapse; he stayed as his friends escaped, believing he could use his strength to prevent the collapse.

Is Pankration still taught?

Yes, it is.

After the Roman conquest of Greece, a variant of the sport was popularized at the gladiatorial games. Following the rise of Christianity, the Roman Emperor Theodosius outlawed all pagan festivals, including Pankration, in 393 AD.

It’s still practiced today as a form of modern mixed martial art, though not as a recognized Olympic sport, and MMA remains the closest living descendant to the original form of Pankration.

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