Table of Contents
Rules and Regulations
Ancient Olympic pankration moves were far more brutal than the modern version. Ancient pankration had few rules and regulations, to win, you must stop your opponent (by any means necessary) or force them to submit. This allowed ancient pankratiasts to use techniques that would now be deemed illegal.
This included striking any part of the body you wished or using techniques that today would be considered potentially lethal. For example, rabbit punches (punching to the back of the head), striking vulnerable areas such as the groin or the spine, strangulation, and hitting and kicking opponents when they were down. Fighters would show no mercy and would not expect or give no quarter to a downed opponent.
Phases of Combat
As noted earlier, there were two phases of the fight, Ano and Kato Pankration. The Ano phase involved all the striking and clinching aspects prior to the combat going to the ground. Which is something that would almost inevitably occur. The Kato phase involved all the wrestling, locks, strikes and submissions on the ground.
A Pankrationist would seek competency in both phases of combat just as modern MMA fighters today strive to have good ‘standup’ and ‘ground game’. Fighters would also design their fight strategies and training regimes around the skills and abilities of other fighters. Weakness in either phase of combat would be exploited by a well rounded opponent.
Ano Pankration - Striking Methods
Striking (punches and kicks) were the most utilised moves in Ancient Olympic pankration. The rules were that you could strike any body part you want.
Punches proved effective in targeting the upper body section. Two of the most effective spots to land a punch were the head and the liver. As many combat sports fans will know, a clean shot in either of those areas might give you a finish. Any strike to the back of the head was legal in ancient pankration (see rabbit punches below). Fighters would work their way to the opponent’s back and hammer fist their occipital bone at the base of the skull.
- Forearms (Implied by use of the elbows)
- Open Palm.
- Lunge (superman) Punch.
The use of elbow strikes is evident in much of the art from ancient Pankration. The fighters appear to have recognised the of the hard bony protrusion known as the olecranon.
The sturdiness of the olecranon allows for hitting opponents with considerable force. It is also a sharp protruding bone that makes its useful for close quarter ‘slashing’ attacks. Well timed blows from a fighter could easily knock out, cut, or injure opponents. Elbows were used in the clinch but also (like in many martial arts) probably used in combination with punches or kicks. This would allow the fighter to close the distance first and then catch them with an elbow attack.
Elbow strikes in Pankration appear to have been used in a number of ways.
- Horizontally – (sideways similarly to a hook).
- Downwards – (downwards with the point of the elbow).
- Upwards – (similarly to an uppercut).
- Backwards strike into opponents face (No reference of this but considered obvious).
- On ground (Again, no reference of this but considered obvious).
A rabbit punch is a blow to the back of the head or to the base of the skull. Blows to the back of the head have great potential to damage vital nerves and tissues and so cause irreparable damage. Furthermore, strikes to this area can damage the cervical vertebrae and subsequently the spinal cord. The resultant damage may lead to serious and irreparable spinal cord injury. A rabbit punch can also detach the victim’s brain from the brain stem, which can kill instantly! Easy to see why this move is banned from modern combat sports. However, not so in Ancient Pankration, anything goes.
Ancient pankratiasts made effective use of kicks during battles and would kick any body part. Leg strikes are one of the most powerful blows available in a fight. This is due to the powerful muscles (glutes, hams, quads and many others) used and their ability to generate force. Pankratiasts could use any variation of kick. Valuing simplicity and economy of movement they opted for straight kicks (see gastrizein below) and variations of sidekicks, and knee strikes.
- From the clinch to head, chest, body or legs.
- On the ground (Implied by use of the knee in clinch).
- Push to upper thigh or body.
- Round kicks (not referenced but considered obvious and elementary)
- Straight (Gastrizein) – see below.
The gastrizein is a straight kick using the bottom of the foot to strike the opponent’s stomach. This looks very similar to a Muay Thai ‘Teep’ or push kick. It was apparently a common technique, given the number of depictions of such kicks on vases.
Groin Kicks and grounded kicks
These included kicks to the genitals, head, or legs for maximum damage. Leg kicks were also used to compromise their enemy’s movements. They could even soccer kick their opponent to the head or body if they knocked them down. Landing this move successfully to the head of an opponent unable to defend themselves will almost guarantee a knockout win.
Spine attacks are any strikes that are intended to damage the spinal column. These strikes can be landed anywhere on the spine. Spine attacks are effective because the layer of skin protecting it is thin. This means any strikes would have the chance to damage the spinal cord easily. It’s also easy for fighters to attack the spine once they had managed to get to the back of an opponent. Since in that position, it is very difficult for a defending opponent to defend and is vulnerable to attacks. Ancient pankratiasts were aware of the consequences of damaging the spine. That’s why they would use this technique to inflict maximum damage on their enemy.
From the vast sources of literary and artistic sources available on the subject, Pankration certainly was not short of wrestling techniques. There are a plethora of techniques on display including, throws, chokes, grabs, locks and submissions. There is no doubt of the significance of the grappling arts in this form of ancient combat.
The clinch is an important part of stand-up fighting that allows a fighter to advance into a dominant position.
A clinch involves both opponents grappling and attempting to trap their opponent in clinch type holds. These holds gives the fighter more control of their opponent’s movements. Once they have gained dominance various options may be open to them.
From the clinch, takedowns, throws or sweeps could be used to switch the fighting from stand-up to the floor. Alternatively, they might want to use the clinch to land close quarter punches and kicks. (examples of this would be the use of dirty boxing in MMA and elbows and knee strikes in Muay Thai).
Clinch fighting can also be used defensively to neutralize a strikers advantage. If a one fighter is good with ranges (fighting at a distance) and his opponent is slower but stronger. It benefits the slower fighter to neutralize the striking advantage and get the fight into a grapple where they might have the advantage. Furthermore, grappling can be exhausting affair and requires a lot of energy. For strikers not used to it they will have little energy to power their punches and kicks later in the fight.
Uses of the Clinch
- Negating offense of Striker.
- Setting up strikes.
- Setting up Submissions
- Setting up takedowns.
- Frustrating takedowns.
- Off Balancing opponent.
- Transitions to other clinches.
Although more famous with the professional wrestlers of today, body slamming was a technique widely used within Pankration. Body slamming was a technique that required you to lift your opponent and slam them to the ground. Slamming the opponent was done abruptly once a fighter had lifted them to the desired height. Body slams were often used in ancient pankration because they dealt a lot of damage. Most of the damage was a result of the contributory factors of the slamming fighters’ strength, the force of gravity and the opponent’s body weight. Slamming was also an excellent technique to transition the fight to the ground. The shock of hitting the floor can often wind an opponent and cause them to struggle for breath. This provides the opportunity for further attacks (ground and pound or submissions) as they try to recover.
There are also cases of body slams knocking out fighters. Usually, as a result of them landing on their neck or head, and thus losing consciousness. Also, performed by stronger opponents, slams have the potential to break bones.
Throws and takedowns
- Hip Toss.
- Shoulder Arm Drag.
- Single or Double Leg Takedown.
- Waist lock (front, rear, side, reverse + Escape).
- Hold and Leg Trip (off balance).
- Twisting Standing Arm lock with Leg Block.
- Ankle Pick.
- One arm head control.
Kato Pankration - Ground Game
The ground transitions found in Pankration appear very similar to those found in contemporary wrestling traditions and disciplines such as Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ). They were used to gain positional advantage and end the fight with devastating blows or brutal submission holds. There are many examples and representations of Pankratiasts using grappling submissions, locks and chokes to great effect.
Ground Positions demonstrated:
- Side control.
- North south.
- Back mount.
- Half Guard.
This is essentially, your basic murderer’s strangulation. Neck strangling is perhaps the easiest submission in ancient pankration. Fighters would mount their opponent and put their hands around the opponent’s neck until they passed out. Choking the life out of them. Unlike any other submission, neck strangling doesn’t require complicated setups. An excellent takedown or slam would provide the opportunity. Aside from being a straightforward submission to do, it’s also very painful. Strangling can inflict an extreme amount of paint on your opponent’s pharynx.
Choke from behind with the forearm
The rear naked choke is a chokehold in martial arts applied from an opponent’s back. This type of choke appears in a number of examples in Pankration art. In ancient Pankration the choke seemingly has two variations: in one version, the attacker’s arm encircles the opponent’s neck and then grabs his own biceps on the other arm. The other version involves the attacker clasping his hands together instead after encircling the opponent’s neck.
Counter for chokeholds:
Unlike today’s grappling combat sports where there are rules and regulations. Pankration had very effective ways to help break out of these types of holds, all of them legal. It involved twisting or breaking the fingers of the opponent trying to choke you out! This type of counter is mentioned by the Greek Philosopher Philostratus.
Tracheal grip choke
One lethal choke you would never see today in MMA or BJJ was the Tracheal grip choke. This choke involved a fighter athlete grabbing the throat of their opponent. They would use the four fingers on the outside of the throat and the tip of the thumb pressing in and down the hollow of the throat! They would then put pressure or attempt to crush the trachea (windpipe)!!
Groundwork (submissions etc) Identified:
Some of the limb locks demonstrated or described in the ancient sources include variations of:
- Variety of Arm locks.
- Single shoulder lock (overextension).
- Single arm bar (elbow lock).
- Leg locks.
- Rear Naked Choke.
- Standing Arm Bar.
- Hammer lock (not referenced but probable)
- Neck Cranks (not referenced but extremely probable)
- Achilles Foot Lock (Features in a Delphic wrestling tale).
- Side Choke.
- Ground & Pound.
- One Hand Choke with strikes.
- Side mount with arm control for striking.
- Reverse leg wrench.
Spartans Only (Illegal Moves)
- Eye gouge.
- Fish hooking.
- Hair Pull (Implied rules against).
- Biting (Implied rules against).
- Head butts (clinch & ground) (not referenced but considered obvious).
Strategy and tactics
Using the Sun for advantage
Since pankration competitions were held outside and (usually) in the afternoon, for a fighter to be facing the low sun was a major tactical objective. This is obviously because it would leave the fighter partly blind to the incoming blows of the opponent. Furthermore, this would make it very difficult to accurately target his opponent in specific areas. Fighters would therefore scramble for positional advantage, trying to use the sun to blind their opponent. The poet Theocritus, in his narration of the (boxing) match between Polydeukēs and Amykos, noted that the two opponents struggled a lot, vying to see who would get the sun’s rays on his back. In the end, with skill and cunning, Polydeukēs managed so that Amykos’ face was struck with sunlight while his own was in the shade.
Remaining standing versus going to the ground
Like modern MMA, the decision to remain standing or go to the ground obviously depended on the relative strengths of each fighter. If a fighter was stronger with striking they would aim to keep it a ‘standup’ striking match. Alternatively, if they were more of a grappler they could aim to take the fight to the floor with a takedown.
Offensive versus reactive fighting
Regarding the choice of going on the offensive in a fight versus fighting a defensive/counterattacking style of match, there are indications that it was preferable to attack. The Greek writer Dio Chrysostom noted that defensive matches generally tended to result in greater injuries for Pankration fighters. Pankration was a highly aggressive sport so more aggressive opponents tended to fare better.
Identifying and exploiting the weak side of the opponent
Like modern combat sports, fighters would try to learn and take advantage of the relative strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. The philosopher Plato (a skilled wrestler himself) stated an important element of wrestling strategy was to ascertain if the opponent had a weak or untrained side. Then force the opponent to operate on that side and exploit that weakness. For this reason, some fighters trained themselves to be ambidextrous and not have a weak side.