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Before there was mixed martial arts, there was Pankration – a fighting style consisting of boxing and wrestling, along with many other fighting techniques, that derived from ancient Greece. Meaning ‘all of power,’ this rather brutal, anything-goes fighting style involved hand-to-hand combat, where practitioners utilized any technique to take out their opponent. This was either through submission or knock out. Not only were fighters trained in using their fists to box their opponents, they also learned to wrestle, chokehold, and grapple accordingly.

Although first introduced in 648 BC, some believe that Pankration was practiced much earlier. Ancient Greek mythology indicates that the first Pankration practitioners to be recorded were the heroes, Heracles and Theseus. It was believed that they would utilize pankration techniques to deal with their opponents, using boxing and wrestling to conquer. There are many drawings that depict Heracles fighting a Nemean lion using pankration. It was also noted that in the Greek mythology of Theseus versus the Minotaur, he had defeated the Minotaur in the Labryinth using pankration techniques.

A Pankration Tournament

Pankration competitions were typically held in tournaments where fighters would be classified by two groups: men and boys. Besides this, there were no specific weight divisions and each fight would continue until a fighter submitted – which was usually indicated by the lifting of one’s index finger. This meant that there were no time limits. In pankration, there were no real regulations.

Besides eye gouging and biting, almost anything was possible during a pankration fight. Yet, even with these restrictions, the brutality of the sport led to many deaths, which later resulted in referees being armed with rods in the case they believed a bout was getting out of hand, they themselves could stop the fight.

When choosing, who would fight who, it was noted that fighters would usually pick out bean-size lots that were previously placed inside a silver urn. These lots would have inscriptions of Greek characters on them, going down from alpha, beta, etc. As the athletes took turns stepping up to the urn and pulling one lot out, they would then hold out their lots without looking themselves as to what they received. Afterward, once every athlete had pulled a lot out, the judges would come make their way around each athlete to see who had received what. From there, they would bring together the athletes that had pulled out the same lots, thus deciding who would fight whom.

Upper & Lower Pankration

Pankration Ancient Greek

When fighting, individuals would either combat standing (also known as ‘upper Pankration’) or grappling on the ground (‘lower Pankration’). There was no preference and much like modern MMA, how a fighter took down their opponent was entirely up to him. Over the years and through the various illustrations of pankration in statues, urns, pots, and other artifacts, historians have could collect a rough understanding of the main techniques many fighters would use in a battle.

  • Strikes – Besides typical boxing punches, pankration fighters have been depicted to use kicks in striking their opponent. Many illustrations show men executing the technique of kicking their opponent in the stomach, which apparently as a rather common move amongst pankratiasts.
  • Locks – If fighters were not striking each other with their fists or legs, they were often seen putting each other in locks. Many ancient Greek statues show pankratiasts locking their opponent’s shoulder from behind, with one arm extended out and back. In this position, the one being locked on would have their knees to the ground and their wrists grabbed and pressed down on.
  • Chokes – Many athletes were seen to have grab their opponent’s Adam’s apple area with his fingers (between the thumb and four fingers), either from behind or in front. Besides this, the rear naked choke – a common martial arts chokehold – has also been illustrated to be used by pankratiasts.
  • Throws – There have been many illustrations showing pankration fighters grabbing their opponents from a reverse waist lock from the front and heaving them down to the ground using their hips.

Modern Day & Beyond

Pankration Ancient Greek
By English: Attributed to the Theseus Peinter Français : Attribué au Peintre de Thésée (Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011)) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Over the decades, pankration has become more regulated and what was once was a way of battling for men had transitioned into a lighter version for boys. Introduced to Olympian Games in 200 BC, pankration eventually found its way to be regarded as a form of mixed martial arts among the United World Wrestling.

Peter Gordon
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