Pankration was an Ancient Greek no-holds-barred martial art combining aspects of boxing and wrestling, introduced in the Greek Olympic games in 648 BC. Lost for centuries the art was resurrected between the 70s to the 90s by enthusiasts and historians. With its combination of striking/grappling the art became the precursor to modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
Pankration was originally a combat sport introduced into the Greek Olympic Games in 648 BC. The term comes from the Greek παγκράτιον [paŋkrátion], literally meaning ‘all of power’ from πᾶν (pan) ‘all’ and κράτος (kratos) ‘strength, might, power’. Pankration athletes utilised boxing, kicking, and grappling methods, as well as wrestling elements such as locks and chokeholds. The sport was infamous for its ferocity with such tactics as knees to the head and eye-gouging. Severe injuries and death were very common.
One ancient account tells of a situation in which the judges were trying to determine the winner of a match. The difficulty lay in the fact that both men had actually died in the arena from their injuries. Eventually, the judges decided the winner was the one who didn’t have his eyes gouged out! Over time, however, manoeuvres like eye gouging were discouraged to prevent such unpleasant incidents.
Ancient pankration didn’t bother with weight divisions (as is the norm for every modern combat sport). Furthermore, there were no time limits either, a fight would not end until one of the two opponents surrendered or died.
When the Greeks declined as a major power, the Romans stepped in. Impressed with the sport they adopted it (as they did with many Greek traditions) and it became ‘Pancratium’. The Romans being Roman and never to be outdone when it came to violence took things further. They added mailed fists and other weapons to stir the bloodlust of the crowds even further. With the advent of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Pankration began to be frowned upon as Pagan and barbaric. In 393 A.D. the Roman Emperor Theodosius I issued an edict that outlawed all pagan festivals, including Pankration and the sport was seemingly lost to the annals of history.
Greece (or Hellas as it’s known to its inhabitants) home to the brutal grand-daddy of Western fighting art known as Pankration.
Reborn? Not quite…
In 1896, the ﬁrst modern Olympiad took place in in Athens in 1896. Most of the original sports including Pankration were originally to be included. However the Cardinal of Lyon, condemned the sport as too violent for society. He insisted that any it be removed from the Olympic committees considerations. The Roman Catholic church had a lot of sway in those days and so Pankration was removed. For another 75 years, pankration remained a dead sport.
Pankration was considered as an event for the restarted Olympics in Athens in 1896, until the Cardinal of Lyon put the smackdown on the idea.
In 1969, Greek-American combat athlete Jim Arvanitis decided to resurrect the system. Arvanitis studied striking and grappling from traditional martial arts styles (Muay Thai, Savate, Boxing, Wrestling and Judo). He also spent long hours researching ancient descriptions of Pankration techniques. Taking what was useful from every style he studied and combining techniques from the ancient sources, Arvanitis created a style which eventually became known as ‘Mu Tau Pankration’ or ’Modern-Pankration’.
Jim Arvanitis, a man with a mission to restore Greek Pankration to its former glory.
By 1973, Arvanitis had generated enough interest to impress the editors of the esteemed martial arts magazine ‘Black Belt’. The editors decided to write an article on him and he was featured on the front cover of their magazine. It was that article that became the first exposure point of Modern Pankration to the international community.
Today, many consider Arvanitis to be one of the early pioneers of integrating striking and submission grappling into one system. Known as the ‘Father of modern Pankration’ his efforts are considered pioneering in what would eventually become Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
Click on the links below for an insights into this combat systems history, principles, influences and to see the benefits of training in Pankration.
Due to the efforts of martial arts enthusiasts and scholars*, Pankration has been reintroduced as a martial art to a contemporary audience. Their combined research on literature, epigraphy, methodology and archaeology related to ancient pankration has helped restore this lost art to Greek culture. Thanks to the efforts, pankration has enjoyed a global renaissance, and awareness of this millennia-old sport is reaching new heights every day.
*Much of the restoration work from martial artists is a result of Arvanitis and Makris’s efforts. For scholars researching the art, there are many, but I have added links below to key researchers if you are interested.
Like any combat sports there are many benefits to training in Pankration. It encourages participants to stand up for themselves and have the mental and physical resilience to cope with the challenges of modern life. It is a great way to keep fit, engage with friends, it helps encourage healthy lifestyles and provides a good outlet for stress. Training in Pankration instills confidence, self reliance, respect, discipline and humility.
Pankration as it stands is a fairly diverse combat sport, with a good combination of striking and grappling. So the techniques learned in it can be certainly effective for a street fight situation. Perhaps not on the self-defence level of Krav Maga, but certainly on the level of defending yourself against another unarmed opponent.
Progression to MMA
At present, outside Greek ‘Submission fighting’ (see Origins and History above), Pankration could be perceived as ‘MMA-lite’. This might be a good option for fighters looking to start in MMA and looking to gain some experience. Since Pankration is a combat system that combines grappling and striking the eventual transition to MMA might be a bit easier. It may also be a good option for those interested in Pankration for cultural reasons such as Greek heritage.
Overall, Pankration has a lot to offer the martial arts community and indeed the world. It is an art very rich in its traditions, history, philosophies, cultural relevance, and balance of martial arts techniques from striking to grappling. Long dead, with great effort, it has crawled its way out of the grave and has made a significant impact. Like it or loathe it, accept it or not, Pankration is here to stay. This fighting art played an important part in sports combat history, and for those traditions to be lost would be as regrettable as any Greek tragedy.
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