Review: “Combat Sports in the Ancient World” by Michael B. Poliakoff

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Combat sports and ancient history are my two favorites. My podcast subscription is nothing but MMA and Spartan history. When I found Combat Sports in the Ancient World by Michael B. Poliakoff, I was enthralled and excited that my two worlds were colliding so to speak. Poliakoff’s book delivers on everything I thought it would be as well.

If Michael B. Poliakoff sounds familiar, that’s because he’s been on the site before. We spoke with Mr. Poliakoff about ancient martial arts for our big piece, The Path To The Olympics: What Must MMA Do To Become An Olympic Recognized Sport? In that article, I tapped Mr. Poliakoff’s mind and plethora of knowledge got a background on what previous martial arts were in early Olympic Games for the exposition of the paper. Mr. Poliakoff’s book further exemplifies his knowledge of the ancient sports world, particularly combat sports.

Reviewing Combat Sports in the Ancient World

Poliakoff’s book delivers an in-depth look at the brutality and development of various martial arts. He eases the reader in with his introduction and general concepts of martial arts in ancient times. The book gives you an overlook on the emphasis combat sports had in the games and provides tons of art, ranging from pottery to art, depicting martial arts.

I will say, while enjoyed this book immensely, it is not for everyone. The read can be tough with all the Greek names and terminology throughout the book. But being the nerd I am for these kinds of things, it was captivating to me.

The book breaks down several combat sports that were at the Ancient Greek games (Olympia, Delphi, Isthmian) including wrestling, boxing, pankration and more.

Wrestling in Ancient Greece

Being the most popular sport worldwide, wrestling makes up the biggest chapter in Poliakoff’s book. Poliakoff provides a laundry list of paintings, vases and other ancient depictions of techniques the ancients used in wrestling. What’s most fun about this section is seeing the techniques used, like headlocks and arm drags, used thousands of years ago that are still used today.

Wrist control on an ancient pottery.

Imagine my surprise when the author mentions Milo of Croton after writing about the ancient wrestler some months ago. Poliakoff touches on several wrestlers with fantastic stories and legends.

It’s not just Ancient Greece that the author goes on about in the book either. Most western ancient cultures are touched upon including Egypt, Rome and more.

Pankration, AKA, Mixed Martial Arts

Pankration is what led me to this book originally. Researching the sport, I stumbled across a link to the book on Amazon and bought it instantly. Michael B. Poliakoff does a good job telling the brutality of pankration and how athletes would often switch between pankration, wrestling, and boxing, often in the same event.

There’s also a short chapter on stick fighting. Combat sports with weapons is not really my cup of tea, but the inclusion is welcome.

Boxing is by far the most brutal of sports in ancient times. Poliakoff spoke on the dangers of boxing and how pankratiast would often compete in pankration first before boxing. Poliakoff tells his favorite story of Diagoras of Rhodes who was an Olympic champion and whose two sons were also Olympic champions. This is a story you really should buy the book and check it out.

Culture, the Gods and More

What’s even nicer is the inclusion of ancient myths of the gods. Namely the fall of Kronos to Zeus in a wrestling match. Combat Sports in the Ancient World tells the story of Apollo who was the deity of boxing as well.

Another great part about the book is the cultural impact of combat sports and the Olympic Games in general. The Games are often glorified and seen as larger than life. It comes off as if competition was universally loved by our forefathers. The fact remains that many people, especially the Spartans, thought sport was pointless and preferred war exercises.

In Conclusion…

For the combat sports fan who also enjoys Ancient Greek culture, Combat Sports in the Ancient World is a must read. Michael B. Poliakoff does a great job telling the stories that matter and keep a true sense of what competing was like in antiquity.

Buy Combat Sports in the Ancient World by Michael B. Poliakoff on Amazon

The link below will take you to Amazon to pick up your copy of Combat Sports in the Ancient World. This link is through our Amazon Associates account that helps fund the site so we can provide more interviews and such for everyone to read! Of course, Mr. Poliakoff gets paid per copy as well! Support this great author!

Combat Sports in the Ancient World Michael B. Poliakoff
A leading authority on classical games here provides a comprehensive study of the practice of combat sports in the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, and the Near East. Describing and analyzing the sports of boxing, wrestling, stick-fighting, and pankration, Michael B. Poliakoff discusses such topics as the function of competition and violent games in ancient society; on the social background of the participants, showing the broad spectrum of Greek athletic personnel; on the significance of the appearance of combat sport in myth and literature; and on the alleged cultic functions of the ancient combat sports. The book is copiously illustrated with photographs of numerous objects rarely or never before published.

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Blaine Henry

Just your friendly neighborhood fight fan!

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