Pankration Athlima is the modern version of Pankration. This article looks at the original vision and teachings of Jim Arvanitis. The combat art known as ‘Neo-Pankration’.
The Development of Neo-Pankration
The pillars of Arvanitis Neo-Pankration are total fighting freedom, functional efficiency, adaptability, and combat realism.
Arvantis perceived studying the martial arts as a journey of constant learning. He aimed to practise techniques he felt were functional and efficient in standing or on the ground. He wanted to develop fighters that were adaptable to any situation. He hoped they would develop the skills that would enable them to survive in any environment be it the street the ring or the cage. In his mind there was no definitive set of techniques that should be unchanged due to the restraints of tradition. You had to adapt to the times and with what worked and was relevant.
Totality - The Early Concept of MMA
The art and literature of the ancient Greeks conveyed to Arvanitis that the pankratiasts of antiquity embraced what he called ‘totality’. By this he meant the combination of boxing, wrestling, and kicking techniques as a means of total all out fighting. He perceived ancient Pankration as an almost unrestricted mode of combat, both physically and mentally. You were not limited to kicking, punching or wrestling techniques, you used all tools at your disposal.
The concept of totality in Pankration. Kicking, punching, throws, grappling, wrestling, submissions, dirty fighting. All in one system.
This provided him with what he saw as a guide in refining a mindset that was contrary to that of the more popular martial arts during the early 1970s. When in combat sports/martial arts you were either a standup fighter or grappler. One of his foremost objectives was to cohesively integrate moves from these so they flowed congruently and worked under the most extreme conditions.
There were no traditional training methods such as forms or kata to memorise in the Neo-Pankration curriculum. Everything was based on adaptability and interaction with a live opponent. Arvanitis wanted Neo-Pankration to encourage creativity and freedom of expression, as opposed to ‘robotic’ memorised drills that did little to aid a students street effectiveness.
Another of Arvanitis key concepts for Neo-Pankration was to keep up to date with advances in training techniques, diet and fitness. He understood that with advancements in technology, there was always the need to stay current for self-improvement and growth. The training methodology, diet, and techniques of Ancient Pankration were appropriate for a different time. Times have changed, if ancient Pankration had survived, it would arguably be a different art from what was originally practiced.
Old irrelevant training techniques and concepts would have been discarded. It is how fighters have improved over time. Even in the last century the conditioning of fighters has gone through the roof. Sports athletes from the past would not be able to compete with their contemporary counterparts. For that reason, Arvantis stressed the importance of staying on top on modern training methods. He saw it as essential that fighters should continually educate myself from various contemporary sources to improve their abilities.
Arvanitis was always big on the concept of physical fitness and ability. To him there was no point in being skilled in a thousand martial arts if you didn’t have the power, speed or strength to make those techniques effective. From an early age Jim would train like an Olympic athlete. Training around 3 hours a day 6 days/week. Some of his training included:
- Cardio: Running 6-8 miles, rope-jumping, biking up to 40 miles.
- Flexibility: Leg stretching on various apparatus.
- Strength: Split weight and resistance training 5 days per week focusing on different muscle groups.
- Bagwork: Heavy bags, speed bags, double-end bags, BOB dummy, small ball target, focus mitts, Thai kick shields, and many more devices to improve distance, speed, power, accuracy, and timing.
- Competitions: marathons, duathlons (running/biking), triathlons, and obstacle course races throughout the year.
Economy of Movement
Ancient Pankration almost exclusively relied on front kicks (the gastrizein), as opposed to traditional Eastern Martial arts and their enormous variations of kicks. This archaeological record supports this (no vases have been found showing Pankratiasts performing spinning kicks).
Front kicks have a long tradition in Greek pankration and in its earlier predecessor of pammachon. The ancient Greeks were pragmatists and minimized unnecessary movement in their techniques. This was due to the impact of battlefield combat on the earliest version of pankration (known as Pammachon – Unarmed battlefield combat – see below).
Economy of movement was valued in Ancient Greek combat. Fancy manuevers would not have worked for Hoplites (infantry) in a standard Greek formation (the Phalanx – seen left). The tightly locked shields did not allow for great movement. That is why straightforward kicks such as the ‘gastrizein’ (right) were taught in Pammachon (military Pankration).
For the same reason, researchers believe that Pankratiasts optimized economy of movement. Pankration was life or death, one wrong move could cost you all. So why gamble on high risk moves when you can go for something practical, brutal and effective? Straight kicks afforded more balance, and can be difficult to guard against. (The effectiveness of the front kick has been shown by fighters in MMA who KO’ed their opponents by catching them off guard with this move).
Ancient pankration had no weight divisions and most accounts mention that the sport was the domain of the larger, heavier athletes. With weight training for a fighter, the goal should be to enhance both speed and strength, not merely put on size or bulk. Fighters are not bodybuilders, just look at MMA or Boxing and see the range of different body types on display. A fine balance of fine muscle and even fat is generally seen as optimum for a fighter. Too much size/bulk can often slow down a fighters movements and impede flexibility. Ripped physiques may be visually impressive but will certainly not guarantee a fighter the win. Furthermore, size can often be overcome by superior speed and technique.
Arvantitis stressed for fighters to gain a working knowledge of exercises that hone these attributes, rather than hinder them. He also stressed drills for timing and precision as being an absolute must in any fighters training program.
In line with Arvanitis’s stance on changing with the times. He was not afraid to take techniques from more contemporary martial arts and integrate them into his new system. One of those were the elbow techniques from Muay Thai. Arvanitis preferred these as opposed to the ones demonstrated in Ancient Pankration art and sculptures. He felt that the elbow techniques from Thailand were superior to those of Ancient Pankration.
Arvanitis understood that all martial arts have to adapt. Knowing that ancient Pankrations striking techniques needed updating he added strikes from martial arts known for their simplicity and effectiveness. For example, elbow strikes from Muay Thai and kicks from French martial art of Savate.
As a fan of so many styles of combat art, Arvanitis felt that they all had something unique to contribute to the vast pool of martial arts knowledge. He knew that some martial artists were very defensive with regard to anything encroaching on their chosen styles. Many were critical about breaking from tradition or if they felt techniques were being poached by rival martial systems. Jim was not a fan of what he perceived as conformity, he felt you should adapt and use whatever worked for you in your situation. If others wanted to remain stagnant and cling to tradition then that was up to them.
Neo-Pankration and Self Defence
As opposed to its modern version Arvanitis originally intended for Pankration to be as equally effective for self defence as it was for sport.
A big advocate of realism in combat, Arvanitis appreciated that flashy kicks and cool looking techniques didn’t win fights. Particularly on the streets. Coming from the mean streets of Boston, Arvanitis was aware that in high risk confrontations there are too many variables. No rules and no fair play. One on one fights can easily escalate into group encounters, fist fights can easily end up with a weapon being brought into play.
Arvanitis stressed a do-or-die mentality in these circumstances. His self defence advice included avoiding going to the ground in street fights due to the risk of multiple assailants. He stressed in the event of a fight ending up on the ground, a fighter should aim to inflict heavy damage and return to their feet as quickly as possible. Getting a stable mount and looking for a joint lock, might work well in MMA. However, it is not wise if that leaves you vulnerable to others who jump in to help their fallen friend. His tactics involve keeping the fight on the feet where you can control the distance and attack vulnerable targets like the eyes, throat, and groin. Arvanitis also felt that being on the ground compromised your visual awareness.
Arvanitis advocated keeping the fight on your feet in street encounters (due to the possibility of further attack from opponents allies. He had no problem however about sending the opponent to the floor with throws and slams.
Other street fighting tactics involve keeping the kicks low and saving your closed fist to land body shots. (Landing punches on hard skull and jaw bones can fracture your wrist and finger bones). Another important consideration in self defense for Arvanitis was your opponent. He advocated seeking a skills advantage to exploit the weaknesses of your opponent.
Keep it simple
Arvanitis Neo-Pankration aimed to offer students the capability to see combat from all possible angles, standing or grounded. Adaptability to any situation rather than memorised response was stressed. A technique’s usefulness, rather than achieving absolute perfect form, was the key to its effectiveness under realistic conditions. The techniques that Neo-pankration employed were designed to be simple to use but to be brutally effective. Sticking with Arvanitis original principles for his combat system, the main objectives were to do maximum damage to the opponent while expending minimal effort and energy.
Do as the Spartans do
Arvanitis looked at dissecting the anatomy of a street fight. He considered tactics, principles and techniques that traditional martial arts did not permit. In this he considered the Spartans and their anything-goes attitude toward pankration. (The Spartans ceased competing in Olympic pankration as it banned biting and gouging).
Hair pulling, eye gouging and biting. Fine with the Spartans, fine with Arvanitis… in a street fight situation at the very least. Arvanitis stressed in life or death situation anything goes.
Another aspect of dirty fighting drawn from the pages of Ancient Pankration was small joint locks. For example, as in finger-bending and twisting to help get out of holds. In fact Neo-Pankration would advocate gouging, shredding, biting, head-butting, hair-pulling. To Arvanitis they are all considered part of the totality concept. Basically any technique needed to prevail on the streets.
Pammachon and Pankration
Pammachon was unarmed techniques developed for Hoplites (ancient Greek infantry) who would lose their spears/swords/shields on the battlefield. As such they would have nothing to use but their hands and feet. Pammachon was developed with the restrictive armour of the hoplite in mind. Eventually with the development of the Panhellenic games, Pammachon and Pankration diverged to become two distinct disciplines. This was due to the different contexts in which they were use. One was for sport and one was for killing on the battlefield. In a similar manner, armed forces/civilians often have altered specific techniques to accommodate for aims/objectives (see Krav Maga, Sanda and Russian Sombo).
For his training of special forces prior to Desert Storm, Arvanitis would develop a form of Pammachon. This would include combat techniques designed to incapacitate the opponent quickly. Other techniques would include disarming, and weapons training (knife and gun).