Over the last 50 yrs, many have been involved in the resurrection of Pankration as a combat sport. By combining evidence from archaeological remains, ancient literary accounts, and knowledge of the fighting arts. However, credit is due to the man who spearheaded pankration’s revival and earned the title ‘Father of Modern Pankration’, Jim Arvanitis.
In 1969, Greek-American combat athlete Jim Arvanitis was interested in forging a new functional path in martial arts. Arvanitis felt that many of the techniques from traditional martial arts (karate, kung fu and Taekwondo) were stuck in the past. He felt that the techniques and training methods of these systems were outdated. He was also concerned about the lack of cross-training within the martial arts community. So he began a personal journey within martial arts with the idea of collating methods/techniques that worked and getting rid of the obsolete and outdated.
Being of Greek heritage himself, Arvanitis was familiar with and interested in the history of Ancient Pankration. He began to read up on as much information as he could gleam regarding the ancient system. Recognising techniques from ancient art as well as descriptions of the techniques in literature, Jim realised that many of the techniques sounded/looked very similar to moves found in modern martial arts/wrestling systems. With that knowledge in mind, Arvanitis wondered about the possibility of resurrecting the system. Could he bring Ancient Pankration back from the dead?
About Jim Arvanitis
Jim Arvanitis was born in the United States in the Greater Boston area. The son of a Greek-born restaurateur, Jim attended a Greek school as a child. There he learned to speak the language and respect his heritage. Arvanitis always had a fascination with the fighting arts and began to train in boxing and wrestling.
Jim always had a fascination with the fighting arts and read up on the origins of many. Always trying to improve himself as a martial artist. Once he discovered Ancient Pankration he began a life-long mission to resurrect the long dead combat sport.
Arvanitis’ interest in grappling brought him in contact with many former professional wrestlers from the old NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) and WWF (World Wrestling Federation now WWE). These included the likes of wrestling legends such as Lou Thesz, Bruno Sammartino, and Walter “Killer” Kowalski. They would come into his father’s restaurant for dinner whenever they were in town to perform, and Jim would eagerly discuss wrestling moves with them at length. They took a liking to him and invited him to work out with them. Although Jim realized that pro-wrestling matches were rigged he also knew that many wrestlers were highly skilled in catch wrestling. During his training sessions with them, they helped him develop his grappling skills.
To be a kid and have some of the best wrestling teachers. (From left to right) Bruno Sammartino, Lou Thesz and Walter ‘Killer’ Kowalski.
Traditional Martial Arts
Arvanitis later took an interest in martial arts. At the time traditional Eastern martial arts (Kung Fu, Karate, Taekwondo etc) were very popular. Jim was not a fan of the lack of fluidity, rigid styles/stances and prearranged forms associated with these styles. Instead, Jim began to look at martial arts that he felt were more pragmatic such as Muay Thai, Savate and Combat Judo (a form of Judo taught to the US military in the 40 and 50s).
Muay Thai, Savate and Combat Judo. Some of the martial arts that Arvanitis looked to when attempting to re-create Pankration.
Jim realised that the majority of the modern combat arts specialised in either ‘stand-up’ striking or wrestling/grappling methods. There were not many martial arts that combined the two, at least not effectively in Arvanitis’s eyes.
Jim began to direct his learning towards methods of combining striking and wrestling methods in combat. By 1969 he began assimilating his techniques in an effort to combine them into a cohesive system.
Around the same time, Jim also began to read extensively about many other fighting systems of different cultures. It was during this time that he learned of pankration, the ‘all-powers’ fighting sport of his ancestors.
Digging up the Past
It became Arvanitis’s goal to rebuild the long-dead legacy from scratch. He aimed to use ancient artwork and prose as a blueprint and fuse that knowledge with his more contemporary martial studies. He spent long hours researching ancient descriptions of Pankration techniques. His sources for this research were ancient Greek artwork and descriptions of fighting techniques from ancient manuscripts and historians.
Arvanitits studied ancient literature and art in a bid to help him understand the techniques used and combat methodologies of Ancient Pankration.
Arvanitis studied the techniques described/demonstrated in ancient art/manuscripts. Arvanitis compared Pankration techniques to the striking and grappling from his foundation martial arts styles (Muay Thai, Savate, Boxing, Wrestling and Judo). It was these systems Jim felt that provided the best mix that could be synchronised to flow together. Finding many similarities between ancient and modern techniques. Arvanitis melded the various techniques to try to recreate what had been lost. Taking what was useful from every style he studied and combining techniques from the ancient source. For example, the punches, mobility and footwork of boxing, the kicks, elbows, and knees of Muay Thai, the ground control positions of wrestling, and the judo submissions). He attempted to fuse his studies with the techniques he had learned into a cohesive ﬁghting art. Arvanitis created a style which eventually became known as ‘Mu Tau Pankration’ or ’Modern-Pankration’.
A Lost Art
Arvanitis knew from the start that whatever ancient pankration was it would be impossible to 100% recreate it. Much had been lost to time and a lot of subtle nuances would be lost forever, unfortunately. He also realised that a lot of the brutality from ancient Pankration would have to go for him to market it effectively. American families at the time probably would not want their sons/daughters training in a Gladiator-Esque bloodsport! Arvanitis did aspire to the next best thing though and aim to make his version of Pankration as close to the original version as feasible.
The main foundational goal Arvanitis was trying to achieve with his new art was one of total fighting freedom. He also aimed to develop a combat system with functional efficiency that could end a conflict quickly.
Nothing New Under the Sun
Arvanitis often quotes the saying “there is nothing new under the sun” meaning there are not many things a man will do that haven’t been done before. The techniques in today’s combat sports are very similar to what was used in the past. Hammer fists, front kicks, takedowns, throws, submissions, trapping, et al, were all practised thousands of years ago. Indeed, if the human race exists in another 1000 yrs we might still be practising the same moves.
Arvanitis’ new combat system was a combination of stand up striking methods, wrestling takedowns, submissions and dirty boxing.
The emerging combat system looked very similar to modern MMA. With its combination of strikes, joint locks, takedowns and anything else that Arvantitis felt had relevance in combat. Although Neo-Pankration did not develop any new techniques it did chain together moves from various fighting arts in a seamless fashion. Striking moves from boxing and karate began to be chained together with wrestling and Judo takedowns. Arvanitis says he simply reconstructed something extremely old but with new ideas and techniques.
Name of the Game
Research and Development
Rather than simply making a smorgasbord of random techniques from boxing, wrestling, and savate. Arvanitis aimed at fusing the techniques in such a way that the transitions (going from one position or level to the next) in wrestling and striking became seamless.
Another of his goals was for Neo-Pankrations techniques to do maximum damage while expending minimal effort. The guiding principle was always to keep it as simple as possible. Minimise energy expenditure and to seek to finish a fight quickly.
Throughout his training, Arvanitis adopted a functional approach to martial arts by assimilating or discarding techniques based on combat effectiveness. Arvanitis’s system was geared toward reality-based street fighting. The emphasis was on conditioning and applying one’s skill set against a live opponent in hard-contact sparring. In many ways, it was very similar to today’s MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) in that it included standup and ground tactics. This included joint locks, takedowns, throws, and anything else that he felt was effective.
Its a Hard Knock Life
Rather than practising on padded mats as in traditional gyms and dojos. Arvanitis and his students would train and spar on the sand to simulate the ancient ‘skamma’ (sandpit) arena of the ancient pankratists. They would also train at times on hard pavement. In Neo-Pankration there were no prearranged forms, bowing, or belt ranks.
For Jim, teaching always remained secondary to his own personal training. He felt he was still learning himself. Arvanitis was very selective with his students emphasizing quality rather than quantity. He only found it rewarding to work with those with the right qualities. Those qualities were previous experience in contact sports/martial arts, or those possessing the right attitude to learn. At the time the concept of Mixed Martial Arts was almost unheard of. People stuck to traditional combat sports and martial arts. As such, Jim’s following was always small but constant. His students consisted of a hardcore group who were looking for something more realistic to help them gain advantages in street encounters.
Jim is a long-time advocate of physical fitness (previously holding several thumb-push-up World records himself). Arvanitis trained daily for most of his life, stretching, lifting weights, and running between six and eight miles on a daily basis. He would develop unorthodox training methods to improve his striking accuracy, timing and power. These methods were laughed at back in the day, yet nowadays are perceived as accepted training methods for combat athletes.
Putting Pankration to the test
Arvanitis continued to modify and work on Neo-Pankration techniques so that they would work in real-world combat. He was always eager to test himself and was apparently involved in numerous real-life scrapes. Jim attempted to spar with many kinds of opponents of different sizes and from various disciplines. He sparred with boxers, kickboxers, and karate black belts and wrestlers. Some of his opponents outweighed him by more than sixty pounds. His aim was to develop a system that was versatile enough to take the fight to any opponent, regardless of size or weight differentials.
Black Belt Magazine
Jim was eager to promote Neo-Pankration and realised that teaching classes were not enough. He looked to the media to help increase awareness. Arvanitis has made available numerous well-reviewed books and videos on pankration and martial arts.
In 1973, Arvanitis’ style finally had some reward and acclaim for his efforts. At the time, he lived near some rough areas, so getting into fights would be something that just happened. This was how martial arts journalist Massad Ayoob discovered him. At the time Ayoob was searching for a martial artist with real combat experience for magazine articles he was working on. Ayoob was intrigued by Jim’s knowledge of pankration and his skill set. They teamed up to do a story for the prestigious ‘Black Belt’ magazine.
It led to Jim being featured on the cover of the Black Belt magazine as the father of Modern Pankration. The article became the first exposure point of Modern Pankration to the international community.
Arvanitis faced much criticism and even ridicule for his efforts to resurrect Pankration. Fighters from other disciplines and the media still favoured traditional Eastern martial arts. As a result, his efforts were often rubbished as nonsensical and laughable. They perceived Arvanitis as having rehashed ‘pankration’ by simply scraping together odds and ends from multiple systems. Despite the incoming flak, Arvanitis persevered as one of the earliest martial artists to cross-train in various styles, from both eastern and western disciplines.
The True Birthplace of Martial Arts?
Naturally, this statement created even more of a furore in the martial arts community. For more on this debate click here.
In time, Jim would eventually open his own school, known as the Spartan Academy of Modern Pankration. He continued to promote his new fighting art further, travelling the US and giving seminars and lessons.
Arvanitis competed in various official tournaments and non-sanctioned events often with good results, helping to prove the effectiveness of pankration against other disciplines.
Over the years
Through the years he would teach at his academies and seminars in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Arvanitis also conducted seminars for professional bodyguards, law enforcement personnel, military special forces, and Army Rangers. He stopped teaching publicly in 1992 after he was contracted to train Special Forces for Operation Desert Storm.
After that contract was finished, he backed away from undertaking seminars and teaching in schools. Preferring to teach private lessons and short-term military courses, make instructional videos, and write books.
Note: Pioneers of MMA.
Around the same time, Bruce Lee was having similar ideas experimenting with different martial arts styles. His martial arts philosophy would become known as Jeet Kune Do.
For more information on Jim Arvanitis original vision for modern Pankration check out the link below.
Arvanitis did not take control or claim ownership over his emerging art form. In his mind, Pankration was already a thing, he did not own it, it always had been since Ancient Greece. People were free to add or adapt to the teachings as long as they kept to the traditions and respected the cultural aspect. His decision not claim ownership or trademark his product would cause later problems he probably did not foresee.
The Pankration Olympics Proposal
In the late 1990s, Athens was named the host site for the 2004 Olympics. Subsequently, a movement was undertaken to return pankration as an Olympic medal event. However, compromises would be needed and changes made to Pankration in its then current form. Neo-Pankration was simply too violent for the mainstream Olympics. To make it more palatable for the family-orientated Olympics audience, Pankration got a serious revamp. Many of its brutal techniques were removed with an emphasis on tournament ‘karate-style’ points scoring. The finished product was very different from the version of Pankration Arvanitis had set out to re-create. For more on this see Part 2: Digging up the Past. This version of Pankration was termed ‘Pankration Athlima’ (Sports Pankration). After the olympics bid, this version of Pankration would grow to dominate, leaving Neo-Pankration in the shade.
Pankration Athlima, a more sports orientated version on Pankration. Stricter competition rules were added to make it more palatable to the IOC (Olympic Committee).
The sport version (Pankration Athlima) ultimately failed to gain Olympic entry after a decision from the IOC (International Olympic Committee). The Olympics are primarily concerned with sportsmanship and safety, and combat sports are heavily scrutinised as a result. This version of Pankration was severely watered down, so one can only imagine what changes would be needed for the IOC to consider any future considerations. Needless to say, the end result would hardly resemble the true pankration.
Arvanitis and Pangration Athlima
Arvanitis himself never held competitions or tournaments but did however support Pankration Athlima tournaments held in Greece. Arvanitis has nothing against the version that they teach, seeing it as a good opportunity to test techniques in a safe environment. He views Pangration Athlima as a much safer contest than MMA. He did disassociate himself from their brand of Pankration, however.
The version of Pankration being taught worldwide in many schools now is the Pangration Athlima version. The methodology and training of Neo-Pankration fell by the wayside. Is this the fault of Arvanitis? Partly. If Neo-Pankration had been better organised and represented then perhaps there would be Neo-Pankration schools dotted around the world alongside the Pangration Athlima ones. Neo-Pankration organisations might be more prominent and the art easy to find and study. As a martial art, this version might have been taught with a similar reverence for street effectiveness as perhaps Krav Maga. However short of the submission fighters who practice a form of Neo-Pankration in Greece today, this is not the case. Neo-Pankration seems likely to become a lost art like its ancient forebear in times to come.
The Warriors Path
Ultimately fame and fortune are not what Jim Arvenitis was all about. He was a combat athlete on a personal journey, he started something and encouraged others to pick up where he left off. He wanted fighters to adapt Pankration as they saw fit. Like the fighters of old, developing their techniques of what worked for them in battle. Using what was useful and discarding the rest. Arvanitis wanted his revival on Pankration to be his gift to Greek culture and heritage. In this, he has been successful, and Greece is very proud of its restored combat sport. Greek organisations continue to promote and practice Pankration throughout the country and worldwide.
The restoration of Pankration as a fighting art. Arvanitis gift to Greek culture and combat sports.
Today, many consider Arvanitis to be one of the early pioneers of integrating striking and submission grappling into one system. Known today as the ‘father of modern Pankration’. His efforts are also considered pioneering in what would eventually become Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
As for Arvanitis’s original vision of Neo-Pankration, perhaps some future budding enthusiast will echo his sentiments. Picking up the ball where Arvanitis left off. Perhaps years from now someone will be attempting to recreate Neo-Pankration as a fighting art by viewing old books and DVDs. A good fighting art will never stay dead.