If there is one discipline of the ancient days that resembled today’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), it was the Greek discipline of pankration. As an ancient combat sports discipline, pankration was introduced into the Greek Olympic Games in 684 BC, and the games scarcely knew any of the rules.
Practitioners were allowed to use any technique from boxing and wrestling, as well as kicking, holds, locks, and chokes. Biting and eye gouging were the only moves which were not allowed, except in Sparta.
Etymology and Origin
The word Pankration comes from the Greek pan (all) and kratos (power). Thus it literally means “all powers.” It was originally developed by combining boxing and wrestling techniques into a singular contest of strength and courage.
Greek mythology stipulates that Hercules and/or Theseus created the Pankration mode of fighting. Our early ancient sources contain a mix of fact and fiction, so it is difficult to ascertain exactly when Pankration developed as a historical phenomenon.
However, we do know that Pankration was regarded as the premier Olympic combat event, and was introduced at the games of 648 BC. The date of the first Olympics is generally agreed by historians to have been 776 BC.
Many athletic contests which made it to the Olympics had been around for several centuries prior, and this is most likely the case with Pankration. Thus it seems reasonable to assume that it was invented at least a few hundred years before the first Olympics, since boxing and wrestling had been known in the Greek world dating back thousands of years.
Those who practiced Pankration were known as Pankratiasts. Eventually, Pankration became the core focus of a Greek soldier’s hand-to-hand training regime. This evidence suggests that Pankration was created to supplement a warrior’s battle prowess (as weapons would often break and combatants would have to use their bare hands and feet).
Ancient literary sources state that wrestling was a very important component of a Greek hoplite’s repertoire (heavy infantrymen were called hoplites). Hoplites would use their wrestling skills to stay balanced and get back to their feet quicker than the enemy if they fell down. Getting back to your feet quicker was often the difference between life and death.
Over time, the accomplishments of the strongest and most successful Pankratiasts formed the basis of legendary stories and mythical embellishments. One famous tale focuses on the Olympic victor Polydamas, who was rumored to have killed three fully armed Immortals (elite Persian warriors) with only a stick, after the king Darius invited Polydamas to his court and had him ambushed to test his skills.
Some competitors were well-rounded enough to win both the boxing/Pankration and wrestling/Pankration events at the same tournament, with the latter feat occuring more often than the former. The available evidence suggests that grappling was more integral than striking and that most fights ended on the ground, so those better trained in wrestling and submissions had an advantage in Pankration fights.
Rules and Regulations
There were two kinds of Pankration: ano pankration (when the fight had to stay standing, similar to kickboxing) and kato pankration(in which the fight could go to the ground). Only two rules prevailed: no biting and no eye gouging (similar to the early UFC events). In Sparta, even these techniques were allowed during their bouts.
Pankratiasts would compete naked in a wrestling-pit, and covered themselves in oil. The referee would use a rod to enforce the rules. There were no rounds or time limits, and the fight only ended once somebody gave up or was rendered unconscious (or dead). Fighters would signal defeat by raising their arm or tapping out.
Fatalities were common, especially by strangulation, as many fighters refused to give up after being caught in a choke. Submissions were prominent, and there is ample evidence to suggest that the ancient Greeks knew all or almost all the submissions that current fighters use today, including knee bars, heel hooks, and a variety of chokes and arm locks.
Kicking was not neglected either, and one source sarcastically states that the prize in Pankration was awarded to a donkey due to his kicking ability. Broken fingers were often sustained while trying to sink in a submission, and even broken necks. An age group for younger competitors was introduced around 200 BC.
Pankration was regarded as dangerous, bloody, and brutal even by the ancient Greeks, who were certainly no strangers to the art of war and violence. Pankratiasts fought for honor and pre-eminence amongst their peers, and were very proud warriors. They would often rather die than submit to an opponent.
Olympics and Other Tournaments
There were several different Pan-Hellenic (all-Greek) competitions in the ancient world, with the Olympic Games regarded as the most prestigious. The Spartans did not participate in the Pankration or boxing events at such festivals, but only the wrestling tournament (where three falls in each match were needed for a victory, and the Spartans believed that you did not concede defeat in such a manner, i.e. having your back touch the floor).
Pankratiasts fought in tournaments to decide who the best fighter was. There would often be a regional qualifying tournament before a major tournament. Larger competitions such as the Olympics would contain at least four rounds (not counting the preliminary qualifiers, which could have been up to five fights per contestant), thus having a draw of 16 fighters in the main tournament.
Lots would be drawn each round to determine the match-ups. Athletes would be representing their own city-state, or polis. The Pankration tournament proceeded in a single knockout format, often being contested on the same day directly after the boxing tournament.
Winners of the Pankration tournament were regarded as heroes by their polis, and often recieved lavish rewards when they came back home. Their names would be inscribed on the Olympic victor lists, and they were given various prizes depending on the specific tournament won (with Olympic winners receiving the famous olive wreath).
The wrestling-only contest was distinct from Pankration. It was somewhat similar to modern submission wrestling. In Greek wrestling, three points were needed to win a match, and you could score a point by making your opponent’s back touch the floor; by submitting him; or by forcing him out of the wrestling-area. Any form of striking was disallowed.
Historical Decline and Legacy
The conquering Romans would eventually incorporate a modified form of Pankration into their gladiator games. Ultimately, Pankration was practiced as an Olympic event for over a thousand years, and remained the focus of a hoplite’s training program for just as long a period.
In the year 393 A.D., the Roman Emperor Theodosius I issued an edict that outlawed all pagan festivals, including Pankration. There is evidence that Pankration continued in some shape or form until the sixth century, though in an underground setting. Traces of Pankration could be found in some parts of Greece and Turkey until its revival this past century.
Pankration left a wide and varied legacy. Alexander the Great recruited the strongest combatants into his army. It has been argued by scholars and historians that his conquests spread the techniques of Pankration into Asia, and that this contributed to the rise of Eastern martial arts such as kung fu, karate, and Japanese jiu-jitsu.
Pankration aided Greek soldiers throughout the many wars and battles of the Classical and Hellenistic periods (500-150 BC). It complimented a hoplites training with a spear and shield, and was useful in close quarters (it is said that the Spartans at Thermopylae fought with their bare hands and teeth once their spears and swords had shattered).
Ancient Greek Pankration was the first historical instance of a combined multi-art hand-to-hand fighting system. As such, current MMA may justifiably be termed an evolved form of the Pankration that the Greeks of antiquity practiced.