Since the Athens Olympics, there has been a schism in the teaching of Pankration. When Pankration Athlima emerged it put aside much of the methodology and techniques from Neo-Pankration. But are the changes between the two so great that they are now two separate disciplines?
Separated by centuries
Ancient pankration was bloody and brutal sometimes even the victors did not leave the skamma. Neo-pankration moved away from this level of brutality. Sport Pankration (Pankration Athlima), even more so.
The savagery of Ancient Pankration vs its rules and safety orientated descendant, Pankration Athlima.
Neo-Pankration was the version of Pankration advocated and practiced by teachers such as Jim Arvanitis and Aris Makris. Their versions of Pankration were very much combat orientated with real life applications. The training was intense, involved a high level of conditioning and encompassed philosophy and mindset as well as a physical fighting component. Neo-Pankration was versatile, combat in any arena was considered, be it the street, the ring or the battlefield. It successfully blended practical and effective elements of striking and wrestling from numerous martial arts into one system.
Pankration Athlima is the sports version of Pankration, created to make Pankration more palatable for the Olympic committee (IOC). Pankration Athlima has allowed many the ability to participate in this revived combat sport (without having their eyes gouged out). Like any good combat sport it allows practitioners to develop physical and mental strength, to be more confident and improve overall fitness. The sport is well regulated and professionally run. So the safety element of the sport allows participants to compete knowing that permanent injury is extremely unlikely. For Greece and people of Greek heritage, Pankration has been returned to them as an artform that they can be proud of.
Pankration Athlima. Too far apart to be recognizable from its ancient ancestor? Or has Pankration simply adapted and become civilised for a more civilised time?
As it stands, if the entire history of Pankration were viewed on a spectrum measuring the level of violence/realism. Ancient Pankration would be on one end of the spectrum representing pure violence. Pankration Athlima would be on the other representing safety, rules and regulations. Neo-Pankration might be seen somewhere in the middle (perhaps veering more towards the ancient). It could be argued that Pankration Athlima is an altogether different art than Neo-Pankration.
Past its Sell By Date?
There are many who feel that Pankration Athlima has deviated too far from its ancient origins. It is a very different art from what was envisioned and practised both in ancient times and in comparison to Neo-Pankration. The trade-off to make Pankration more palatable to the Olympics committee has diluted the fighting art considerably. The softer rules have made the sport more attractive to family-oriented crowds. However, this trade-off of getting rid of some of the combat-realistic elements of the system to make it more palatable for the Olympics has had consequences. The reimagined combat teachings that Arvanitis and Makris espoused appears to have been left behind.
Neo-Pankration was a combat ﬁghting system that focused on defeating an opponent and resembled Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in many ways. Pankration Athlima (Pankration Sport) focusses on scoring points instead of submitting or knocking out the opposing ﬁghter. In a ‘Karate tournament style’ as opposed to real-time combat and boxing-style judge scoring. Rules stripped away in Sports Pankration include the removal of knees and elbows, strikes to the head, ground and pound and hard takedowns. Another surprising rule introduction was a rule of instant DQ for any move that made an opponent bleed.
Back to its Roots
Despite the decline of Neo-Pankration, both Arvanitis and Makris have been generally positive of Pankration Athlima. They believe that sport Pankration can be a proving ground for effective techniques and tactics. However, they also conceded that the limitations of the rules made those fights much different to both ancient and Neo versions of Pankration. They also stated the rules made sport Pankration less ‘street effective’. (Arvanitis disassociated himself from Pankration Athlima and did not want to be linked to any organisations teaching this method).
In a bid to popularise the sport some organisations have began using the MMA 5-ounce gloves and others competing in a cage.
Pankration and MMA
Pankration has undoubtedly inﬂuenced modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) both philosophically and symbolically. In fact, MMA is certainly a closer relative to ancient Pankration than Pankration Athlima. (It actually looks more like ancient pankration than any other combat discipline). MMA has also pushed the boundaries in terms of realistic combat sports. Indeed the success of the Octagon seems to have become the measure of combat sports, success worldwide.
The Success of MMA
On an entertainment level, MMA has succeeded where Pankration failed. Years ago, MMA was still in its infancy and under fire from politicians asking for it to be banned. The UFC (Ultimate Fighting Champiosnhip) took heed of this and made many changes, adding the ‘Unified rules’, weight categories, rules and regulations. The changes the organisation made became the accepted rules worldwide for MMA. However, the organization realised the potential for MMA as a combat sport, they knew that ‘all-out fighting’ was something that fans wanted to see. As such they got rid of the dangerous elements but kept the sport intact as an all out combat system. Pankration Athlima went the other way, stripping down its techniques and applying many rules. As such, the sports version was barely recognisable as Pankration.
Twist of Fate
Pankration Athlima tournaments don’t allow many of the things MMA is known for (punches to the head, big takedowns). It also operates on a points system similar to karate and so shies away from ‘realistic combat’. For this reason, Pankration does not seem as interesting and as relevant as MMA which has led to its popularity and uptake being somewhat stunted. In a strange twist of fate, it is now MMA that is inﬂuencing pankration as opposed to the other way around. In a bid to maintain relevance Pankration tournaments have begun adopting MMA elements for example ﬁve-ounce MMA gloves in Elite competition. Some competitions even take place in a cage (although this brings Pankration away from the traditional ‘Skamma’ pit).
Even with these types of changes, some feel that a kind of passing of the torch has occurred. That Pankration has had its time in the sun only to be overshadowed by the emergence of its younger relative MMA. Interestingly, both Makris and Arvanitis tip their hats to MMA as an emerging sport they view it as a modified form of the pankration practised by the ancient Greeks.
Not to be over-critical of Pankration Athlima. Indeed, many MMA fighters have Pankration as one of their ‘foundation’ (baseline) fighting arts. The sport is a good place to start for introduction into combat sports such as MMA. Pankration in very popular in Canada, Europe and Russia, perhaps the next great MMA fighter may come from a pankration background. Furthermore, the sports version makes Pankration accessible to those who are not fighters and wish to learn for reasons of fitness or just general interest. Pankration Athlima still has a lot to offer combat sports and indeed, the world.
The ‘Submission fighting’ scene in Greece shows how many still hope for Pankration to be restored to what Arvanitis/Makris had envisioned. The success of MMA has put pressure on other combat sports to step their game up, Pankration is one of those sports. Will Pankration ever return to the ‘all out’ combat art that Arvanitis/Makris had envisioned for it? Time will tell.
Perhaps what is needed are two separate versions of Pankration to be recognised. In a manner similar to other fighting arts Chinese Sanda and Russian Combat Sombo. One version of Pankration that is sports orientated with a safety element (Pankration Athlima). The other version (Neo-Pankration) with self defence and real life combat applications. At the minute, the Greek authorities do not allow anything other than Pankration Athlima to use the name ‘Pankration’. Something which is unfortunate and perhaps short sighted. People come to martial arts for all manner of reasons, some to get fit, some to be confident in a fight, some for the sport, but many come merely to be able to defend themselves on dangerous streets. To limit an art to just one version does seem a wasted opportunity.