Much of what we know of Ancient Pankration has come from the study of ancient literature and the study of archaeological sources via artwork, sculptures and pottery. Ancient Greek sources have provided us with vivid descriptions and visual demonstrations of how Pankration techniques were used to savage effect. We have learned much about the fighters, their conditions and their backgrounds. Some of the strategies the fighters would employ to gain an advantage over competitors are also documented in ancient literature.
No Holds Barred
The ancient sources represent the Pankration as a full-contact combat sport that allowed the use of various techniques such as striking, grappling, and wrestling. The only difference to other ancient combat sports was that there were almost no rules. The only exceptions were no biting or gouging the eyes, nose, or mouth of an opponent with fingers (known as fish-hooking). Anything else, such as kicking in the genitals or strangulation was permitted and even expected.
To signal submission a fighter would raise his finger. To submit however was the ultimate form of disgrace!
A Pankration event would start after drawing lots and forming fighting pairs. At the end of each match, the lot drawing was repeated among the winners of the previous fights, and so on until one final winner remained. A match ended either by submission (the opponent would raise his index finger as a sign of being defeated) or by death. According to one story, the fighter Arrhichion of Phigalia won a Pankration competition at the Olympic Games literally dying in the ring. He was locked in a tight chokehold and had to break the ankle of his opponent in order to loosen the deadly clutch. At the same moment, though, when his competitor raised a finger for submission, Arrichion fell dead. Nevertheless, he was honoured as a winner.
Ano Pankration and Kato Pankration
The sport had two main phases. During the first, called Ano Pankration (ἄνω παγκράτιον – Upper Pankration), contestants had to fight upright. As the main goal was to knock down the opponent, punches, kicks and all kinds of lethal blows were usually performed. The second phase, known as Kato Pankration (κάτω παγκράτιον – Lower Pankration) started when they took the fight to the ground. Here grappling, joint locking and even strangulation were used as more effective methods of fighting on the floor.
Left – Ano Pankration (standup Pankration). Right – Kato Pankration (groundfighting).
Over time and with experience, Pankratiasts would develop their own techniques and unique fighting style. At the beginning of sparring, some preferred to use short hooking blows called krocheirismos. A technique known as klimakismos (ladder trick) was often used to climb on an opponent’s back, to lock legs tightly around his body and to strangle him from behind. Which sounds very much like a ‘backpack’ version of an MMA/BJJ rear naked choke.
Preparation and practice
The teaching of pankration techniques fell to the ‘Paedotribae’ (παιδοτρίβαι) ‘physical trainers’, who were in charge of boys’ physical education. Top-level athletes were also trained by special trainers who were called gymnastae (γυμνασταί). Many of these trainers had been successful pankration competitors themselves. The methods and techniques used by different athletes varied. So there appeared to be different styles of Pankration. Specific styles were taught by different teachers. There is also evidence that the teacher of combat sports would assist his athletes to develop their own personal style that would fit their unique strengths and weaknesses.
Pankration fighters training in methods to increase their skill, speed, stamina agility and strength.
The preparation of pankratiasts included a very wide variety of methods. Many of these would still be immediately recognizable by the trainers of modern combat sports trainers. These methods included among others the periodization of training; exercises for the development of strength, speed-strength, speed, stamina, and endurance; specialized training for the different stages of competition anō pankration (standup fighting) and katō pankration (grappling on the floor). There also appear to be drills and methods to help fighters learn and remember techniques. Some of these methods include something akin to Eastern martial arts forms or kata. These methods were known as cheironomia (χειρονομία) and anapale (ἀναπάλη). For conditioning purposes, punching bags (kōrykos κώρυκος, basically filled, leather sacks) of different sizes and dummies were used. This striking practice would assist in the hardening of the fighter’s body and limbs. Nutrition, massage, and other recovery techniques were used very actively by pankratiasts.