Pankration is an ancient Greek martial art that combines aspects of boxing and wrestling together into one of the first examples of mixed martial arts. It was formed after neither boxing nor wrestling could find the best warrior in ancient Greece and was a highlight of the original Olympic Games.
A Brief History
Pankration has long been a part of ancient Greek mythology such as the story of Heracles defeating the Nemean Lion or Theseus submitting the Minotaur. Although the true origins of pankration cannot be pinpointed exactly, it was a product of combining Greek boxing and wrestling. It was also known as pammachon which means “total combat” but nowadays pankration (meaning “all force”) is the far more popular term.
Participants, known as pankratiasts, were allowed to do pretty much anything other than groin attacks and gouging moves. Like every other event in the ancient Olympics, pankration was meant to decide which city-state had the best warriors and therefore the highest chance of winning battles. The ancient Greeks believed this sport to be the best as it was not only the most entertaining but also the most efficient at finding the best killers.
Even though other ancient civilizations like the Roman and Byzantine Empires brought pankration into their training; the discontinuation of the ancient Olympics brought a downfall of the art. Pankration was not reinstated into the modern Olympics because of the sheer danger of the sport; however, FILA, the international governing body of wrestling, labels pankration as a form of mixed martial art. Pankration has some prominence in the modern world represented by fighters like UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and UFC lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov.
What Sets Pankrations Apart
Pankration combines the strikes of boxing and the grappling of wrestling as well as introducing kicks and submissions holds. Although knockouts were common, it was on the ground that most fights were decided. There are two distinct variations of pankration, sport and combat. In sport, gouging, biting, and groin attacks were illegal across all city-states besides Sparta (because Spartans were insane.) In combat, anything was allowed as it was meant to prepare pankratiasts for war. This was apparent in history such as the famous battle of Thermopylae where the Spartans and their allies not only applied submissions but also bit and clawed their enemies to death.
Because clothing at the time was often made of thick, irritable fabrics, pankratiasts would train and compete completely naked and sometimes lathered in olive oil. This was done to help prevent skin rashes as well as some skin infections and disease. At one point, the Greeks added cloth wrappings around the arms and legs for protection and the Romans allowed for cloth underwear and leather gloves; sometimes with metal. Because of the lack of protection and loose rules, death was likely although not entirely common. There is even a story of a dead man winning a match; a pankratiast known as Arrhichion of Phigalia was desperately locked in a chokehold and moved to break his opponent’s foot. Even though he died from the choke, no one knew until after the match as his opponent raised his finger in surrender. Because of the risk of death, referees were given permission to stop the fight if they felt there was a clear victor.
Training for pankration involved a lot of modern aspects of fight training like technique drills, sparring matches, physical fitness and even bag work, massage, and nutrition. Pankration was even taught in schools as a form of physical conditioning and trainers often sought to bring up the strengths and dull the weaknesses of their students.
Pankration for Self Defense
This goes without saying that pankration is easily a very effective martial art. If one were to train like the Spartans did, there would be little short of armed combat that could stop that individual. There is pretty much nothing that I can pick out from this savage sport that could be used as an argument against its efficiency. The Greeks were known for their philosophical thought and if they considered this to be the truest form of ultimate combat than who am I to disagree?
Though there are very few schools and gyms that offer true pankration and even fewer societies that even know what this martial art is, it can’t be too difficult to train the art. Pick up some simple strikes and grappling techniques and you already have the foundation of pankration. Sign up for any legitimate MMA gym or a school that offers both grappling and striking arts and you’re on your way to becoming a pankratiast. Even in the streets with no rules, against multiple assailants, or an armed attacker there could be very little that could stop a hardcore pankratiast. Consider that combat pankration had no rules and the only thing that should be on the mind of the pankratiast is not just surviving but winning the fight. Train as the Spartans did; with conditioning, technique, durability and most importantly, savagery.
Pankration is one of the oldest forms of mixed martial arts that had few regulations and techniques wrapped around nearly all forms of both striking and grappling. It’s an art that, if trained like the ancients did, could be a serious lifesaver. Though there was a lot of tradition in the art, there was no real need for all of pomp and circumstance as much of it was reserved for sport and ceremony. The culture of this art is through sport but the purpose of this art is through combat. I feel that pankration is a mentality more than a lifestyle that most other martial arts represent.
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