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Tune into any broadcast from a mixed martial arts promotion and you can see all levels of skill mixing, or not mixing, martial arts. It’s in the name: mixed martial arts. The sport exploded into popularity in 1993 with the debut of the UFC. The event saw Renzo Gracie run through a one night, no holds barred tournament, defeating Gerard Gordeau in the third match of the night, making him the first ever UFC champion. Just like that, mixed martial arts caught on like wild fire. But MMA’s history predates UFC 1. It predates Pancrase. It even predates Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki fighting in 1976. Mixed martial arts has been happening for centuries. The combining of striking and grappling dates back almost as far back as combat sports itself. I plan to look back to history and get some of the earliest forms of mixed martial arts called “pankration.” We will dive into what pankration was, the history of the sport including the mythology behind the sport, some of the notable names, and it’s impact on sports today.
Pankration was the last game added to the Greek Olympic games in 648 BC. The name comes from “pan” meaning “complete” and kratos meaning “strenght” or victory. The word pankration comes from an older word that has similar meaning: pammachon. Pammachon meant “total fight.” Pankration was very similar to the original UFC tournament. It was a no holds barred contest combining boxing, wrestling, and submissions. The only two rules of pankration were no eye gouging and no biting. In Spartan fashion, being the toughest of the Greek, allowed both of those and was truly no holds barred. The fight didn’t have rounds and went on until the fight was finished. A submission wasn’t the modern tap, however, ancient greeks had to hold up his index finger to signal submission. Judges also held the right to stop the fight and give the contestants a victory or a draw.
The mythology of Pankration
The Ancient Greeks were fantastic story tellers. The fables from their gods permeate even to this day. The Greek Pantheon and their stories hold strong in pop culture to the day. From Kratos destoroying all of the gods in the PlayStation title “God of War” to Hercules being a Disney movie, the Greek Gods undoubtably left their imprint on society. The Greek had a story involving a god for almost any situation in life. While the ancients often add their stories in after the fact, they are still fantastic stories that I will preface this podcast with.
There are two main Greek gods credited with the start of the concept of pankration. Both used pankration to slay great beasts in man over monster stories. The first is Heracles (also known as Hercules). Heracles was driven mad by Hera, the queen of the gods representing women, marriage, and child birth. She was the wife to Zeus, the god thunder and of all the gods. Zeus had Hercules out of wedlock, if there is such a thing for a god. It was Zeus’ infidelity that led Hera to loathe Heracles, being a failure of the exact thing she represents. After a lifetime of trying to get rid of Heracles or even kill him at times, it was obvious that Hera wanted nothing to do with Zeus half son. Heracles eventually wed and had children of his Own. Hera stepped in to his life his once more, driving him mad, causing him to kill his wife and kids.
In despair and looking for a path to forgiveness, Heracles wound up in Delphi and spoke to Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, looking for said path. Pythia told Heracles that performing ten years of service to his cousin her, King Eurystheus would afford him the retribution he sought. While Heracles reeled at the fact that he would have to serve a man inferior to himself, his fear of retribution for killing his family with Zeus was far greater. That is when King Eurystheus tasked Heracles with the Ten Labors, which were things he had to do for redemption that no mere mortal could.
This is where pankration is invented according to the Greek mythology. The first of the ten, eventually twelve labors, was the slaying of the Nemean 1ion, which resided in Nemea, a settlement in the Corinthia region of modern day Greece. The Nemean lion was the offspring of Orthrus, a two headed dog who was also killed by Heracles, and Chimera, a fire breathing goat-1ion hybrid. According to Hesiod, a Greek poet, the Nemean lion was raised and fed by Hera, another spite to Zeus for Heracles. Hera then let the Nemean lion out to terrorize the hills near Nemea.
While traveling to Nemea, Heracles ended up tracking the lion near the town of Cleonae, When searching for the lion, Heracles retrieved some arrows, not knowing that the lion had fur that was impenatrable. Eventually, Heracles found the lion’s den which had two entrances. Heracles devised a plan to trap the lion, making it’s only way out for the 1ion through Heracles. He blocks one entrance of the cave and enters the second, trapping the lion. Heracles shoots his arrows at the lion and they bounce off of the beast. What Heracles did not know is that this beast’s divine power is impentrable, golden fur, which prompted King Eurystheus to ask for the hide upon it’s return. Heracles and the beast struggle for some time and finally Heracles strangles the lion with his bear hands. Viola, pankration.
If you look at ancient art on the topic, you see a few different variations of how Heracles did the deed. Some show Heracles choking out the lion from the rear, some show him using his fists. Other modern art work has the demi-god in almost a guillotine position. Other art work shows Heracles isolating the leg of the lion, something you see in freestyle wrestling. One thing is certain, Heracles had to punch, kick, wrestle, and eventually submit the Neman lion.
The story continues that Heracles could not cut the hide off the lion, part of the stipulation for the job from King Eurystheus. Heracles had to use the lion’s own claw to cut the hide, suggested by Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
The other Greek credited with the invention of pankration is Theseus, the iconic king of Athens. It involves the slaying of the Minotaur and the labyrinth. The Minotaur, which is half human and half bull, was put in a labyrinth by king Minos of Crete built a giant labyrinth to keep the minotaur in. To appease the beast, Minos would send seven young men and seven unwed girls as a sacrifice every seven or nine years depending who is telling the story.
The third sacrifice approached and a young Theseus volunteered to be one of the men to be sent into the labyrinth for the Minotaur to feast on, except Theseus intended to kill the Minotaur to stop the senseless killing of Greece’s young men and women. Theseus told his father, who objected to Theseus’ idea, that should he live, the ship returning would put up a white sail, and should he die, a black sail would be up.
Once in Crete, the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, became infatuated with Theseus and fell in love with him. Not wanting him to die, Ariadne went to Theseus in private and told him it would be impossible for him to exit the labyrinth if he managed to kill the Minotaur. She gave Theseus a ball of yarn and tied the other end to the entrance of the labyrinth so he could trace his way out of the maze should he slay the minotaur.
When Theseus found the Minotaur, details are scarce and the artwork doesn’t tip it’s hat to pankration, but it is said he had to combine his boxing, wrestling, and club or sword to defeat the monster, which he did. He then traced the yarn out of the labyrinth, decapitating the beast and accomplishing his goal. Fearing her father, Ariadne fled Crete with Theseus and set sail back home.
The story somewhat branches here and merges back at the end. In one version, the crew beached at the island of Naxos, owned by Dionysus. Theseus and the crew spent the night resting on the island when Athena, goddess of wisdom, came to Theseus and told him to leave Ariadne there for Dionysus. In another version, according to Homer, Theseus became bored with Ariadne and left her on the island and she wed Dionysus. Regardless of the version, the important facts are that Theseus left Ariadne on the island and she ended up marrying Dionysus.
Continuing with the story, Theseus neglected to put up the white sail as he promised his father, either out of distress from not bringing Ariadne at the instructions of Athena, or for some other reason. When seeing the black sails approach the city, the king, Theseus’ father, thought that his son was dead. He flung himself off the cliff killing himself, prompting the sea to be named the Aegean sea, after his father, Aegeus.
The artwork with Theseus and the Minotaur almost always depicts the use of the sword. But some pieces show Theseus using a headlock in conjunction with his sword and occasionally you will see a leg sweep as well. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur don’t have near the art that the story of Heracles and the Nemean lion had, despite Theseus being one of the Greek’s more popular characters.
Actual historical pankratiasts
But the fables are not reality. I want to explore the root of the sport and how it came to prelevance. I feel those stories are important to tell because it shows you how important these sports were to the Ancient Greek people. The gods were what gave the people purpose and life and was inspiring to many to follow their favorite stories in pursuit of similar greatness. And that is what the Olympic Games are about, representing your country or town for the glory for yourself, your family, your town or country, and your gods.
The sport of pankration was the amalgamation of the desire to see who the best fighter was across boxing and wrestling. Wrestling, the most popular of the Olympic sports in Greece, was added in 708 BC. Boxing was added to the Olympics in the 688 BC. It would be 40 years later, in 648 BC that pankration was added to the Greek’s Olympic events. While boxing was more brutal and wrestling was more popular, a large portion of the viewers wanted the crossover to see who was the best at total fighting. Much like the early UFC events, pankration was an all out fight. If a fan of mixed martial arts had a time machine and went back to 648 BC to watch pankration live, they would instantly recognize the sport and know who is winning. Punches, kicks, takedowns, chokes and joint locks were all part of pankration in Ancient Greece.
It wasn’t only sport that pankration was used in. The Greek knew the benefits of a well trained army in hand to hand combat without weapons. Everyone knows about the battle of Thermopylae, as depicted in Zach Snyder’s movie 300, one of my favorite movies incedentally. King Leonidas of Sparta led 300 Spartans to battle with the Persians, holding off hoardes of the opposing army for days. In Philostratus’ Gymnastikos, he mentioned the Spartans fighting the Persians off after their spears broke with their bare hands.
Even Alexander the Great was partial to pankratitists. Alexander often searched out pankration practicioners for his legendary phalnyx in his great army. Dioxippus won the games in 336 BC and was one of Alexander’s soldiers, which we will go into later on.
If you watched the original UFC card, the rules were very similar to pankration. UFC 1 was advertised with only three rules were no biting, no eye gouging and no groin shots. In the original ruleset of pankration, groin shots were allowed, making it even more brutal. In the city state of Sparta, biting eye gouging were allowed. The sport allowed punches, kicks, headbutts, wrestling, submissions, joint locks, and pretty much anything that would work a hand to hand combat situation. There was a referee who would hit the combatants with a stick or rod if the only two rules were broken.
One didn’t have to die when competing in pankration, though they occasionally did. A knockout or submission via a tap or unconscious fighter would end the fight. There were no weight classes or time limits in pankration either. But, the sport was separated into two age groups, men, or andres, and boys, known as paides. The paides pankration came around at the Olympic Games in 200 BC.
There were judges at pankration events as well. The judges had the right to stop the matches under certain conditions like near death, mangled limbs, or to declare a tie for a match that went on too long or was evenly matched.
Ancient pankration events were in a tournament format as well. Lucian of Samosata, a writer and satirist, described the process in his Hermotimus paper saying, ” A sacred silver urn is brought, in which they have put bean-size lots. On two lots, an alpha is inscribed, on two a beta, and on another two a gamma and so on. If there are more athletes, two lots always have the same letter. Each athlete comes forth, prays to Zeus, puts his hand into the urn and draws out a lot. Following him, the other athletes do the same. Whip bearers are standing next to the athletes, holding their hands and not allowing them to read the letter they have drawn. When everyone has drawn a lot, the alytarch (rod bearer), or one of the Hellanodikai (Judges), walks around and looks at the lots of the athletes as they stand in a circle. He then joins the athlete holding the alpha to the other who has drawn the alpha for wrestling or pankration, the one who has beta to the other with the beta, and the other matching inscribed lots in the same manner.”
Should there be an odd number of combatants, Lucian says that the lucky one who drew the bean without an accompanying bean would get a bye and hold an advantage in the next round. The next round would see the process repeated again, not having the tournament take place in a bracket.
These tournaments got quite large at times. Xanthos mentioned that there were once a nine round tournament. Knowing what we knew about how the rounds were held would calculate around 512 combatants for one tournament.
Pankration was seen in two different lights like today’s mixed martial arts events are looked at. Ano Pankration was the standup portion of the event and kato pankration was the ground game. The sport possessed many of the techniques we see used today. In addition to punching and kicking, Ancient Greeks utilized a teep to the body as well. Counter fighting was also used. Catching kicks and dumping ones opponent backwards by the heel or the knee was documented in ancient literature as well as follow up strikes on the ground.
Submissions were advanced as well. Shoulder locks, arm bars and rear naked chokes are very common in surviving artwork. Looking at said artwork you can see the technique being applied properly with hooks in, wrist control and all. To the modern MMA fan, it is instantly recognizable.
On the more rare side of things, Halter, an undersized competitor, was looking for ways to defeat larger opponents. He developed a method that involved “being trampled on” and utilized “the heel maneuver” to win his bouts. In other words, Halter was heel hooking fools out here in 600 BC. Halter was said to not have his trick figured out, which led to his undefeated record.
The Greek pankratist were so advanced that they had a distinction between leg lock styles: “the one who wrestles with the ankle” and “the one who wrestles with the heel.” This points out the fact there were two different approaches to leg locks. The mere thought of the distinction shows the attention to detail the ancients had for the sporting events.
If you were to take an ancient fight from 600 BC and put it behind a curtain or silhouette it with some sort of software, it would be virtually indistinguishable from early mixed martial arts.
Arrhichion is the best example of giving his body for the sport. The Greek held the sporting of the Games to a very high standard and to many, it was the ultimate profession for a mortal.
Arrhichion is the most popular Greek pankratist according to Greek legend. The Phigalia native won the 52nd and 53rd Olympiads in 572 and 568 BC. He entered 54th Olympiad in 564 BC already a legend. But the events at the 54th would bring him to an entirely new leve.
His final match in competition saw Arrhichion caught in a bad situation about to be submitted. His trainer and coach, Eryxias, shouted encouragement to him from the sidelines saying, “What a noble epitaph you’ll recieve if you do not submit! ‘He was never defeated at Olympia.'” With the choke deep, Arrhichion struck a blow to the knee of his opponent breaking his ankle, or hurting his foot in some stories. The pain caused his adversary to release the grip and submit.
But, when he let his grip go, Arrhichion fell to the ground dead. Pausanias, a geographer, described the event saying, “For when he was contending for the wild olive with the last remaining competitor, whoever he was, the latter got a grip first, and held Arrhachion, hugging him with his legs, and at the same time he squeezed his neck with his hands. Arrhachion dislocated his opponent’s toe, but expired owing to suffocation; but he who suffocated Arrhachion was forced to give in at the same time because of the pain in his toe. The Eleans crowned and proclaimed victor the corpse of Arrhachion.”
Philostratus, the author mentioned earlier in the podcast, weighed in on the event as well. “Accordingly the antagonist of Arrichion, having already clinched him around the middle, thought to kill him; already he had wound his forearm about the other’s throat to shut off the breathing, while, pressing his legs on the groins and winding his feet inside each knee of his adversary, he forestalled Arrichion’s resistance by choking him till the sleep of death thus induced began to creep over his senses. But in relaxing the tension of his legs he failed to forestall the scheme of Arrichion; for the latter kicked back with the sole of his right foot (as the result of which his right side was imperiled since now his knee was hanging unsupported), then with his groin he holds his adversary tight till he can no longer resist, and, throwing his weight down toward the left while he locks the latter’ s foot tightly inside his own knee, by this violent outward thrust he wrenches the ankle from it’s socket.”
The two stories can give us a bit of an idea what went down between the late Arrhichion and his foe. Arrhichion was in a bad spot. His foe was probably on his back given the descriptions about the legs from his opponent. The legs were wrapped around into the groin of Arrhichion and feet inside the knees and his forearm or hands around his neck. To win the match, Arrhichion took advantage of his adversary not keeping the hooks in and kicked his right leg out, and it seems like Arrhichion was now in half guard. Arrhichion then has the loose foot of his opponent between his legs and thrusts his hips, dislocating or breaking his opponent’s ankle. The opponent submits but not before Arrhichion is gone with the gods.
Arrhichion would have a statue put up for his accomplishments in the Games and is believed to reside in a museum at Olympia.
Our next story comes a little later down the timeline in 336 BC. Dioxippus was a former Olympic pankratiast champion. He won when no other adversary would dare challenge him in the pit and won an akoniti victory which literally means “without getting dusted.” In other words, Dioxippus didn’t even have dirt on him from fighting. The man was seemingly too dangerous to fight and no other wanted a piece of him. I like to imagine he had real bad cauliflower ear.
But, Dioxippus didn’t really become legendary until after he retired from competing at the Olympiad. The story is as follows.
Alexander the Great was deep in his conquest of Asia near India. Alexander, never one to shy away from a battle, was in the rage of the conflict and found himself getting beat. He was isolated and was hit on the head, thankfully he was wearing his helmet. He then was caught by an arrow below his breastplate and took a knee. The sharp shooter rushed Alexander, thinking he was helpless, and Alexander thrust his sword into the side of the Indian. Alexander rose to his feet and the Indians were closing in. But his army saw their king in trouble and surrounded him, protecting Alexander. The Macedonians eventually took the city and killed and ransacked the city.
Alexander recovered from his wound and decided to hold a banquet for his friends. In typical Greek and Alexander fashion, there was plenty of booze. Dioxippus was one of those soldiers that joined the party celebrating the recovery of their king. Deep into the night, a Macedonian named Coragus had a little too much to drink and became belligerent. With the Macedonian army already not liking Dioxippus, likey due to their jealousy from his Olympic accomplishments, he was the target of the army’s picking. Coragus especially went for Dioxippus and challenged him to a fight. Instead of them fighting drunk, Alexander the Great picked a day for them to fight.
Fight day came and the two met with Alexander and the Macedonians backing their Coragus and the Greek backing Dioxippus. They were simply pulling for the home team. Dioxippus showed up nude, like he was accustomed to in pankration, and with a club. Coragus donned his armor, and held his javelin and shield with his sword at his side and a spear on his back. The two were very obviously imagining a different kind of confrontation. The fight was compared to the two specimens as if it were the gods getting ready for a match.
Coragus threw his spear, which Dioxippus slipped. Coragus then drew his spear and charged Dioxippus. When Coragus was in range, Dioxippus struck the spear with his club, shattering it. Coragus then went to draw his sword but Dioxippus was too fast and got the body lock on Coragus. With the two underhooks, Coragus could not reach his sword. Dioxippus, with the body lock, sweeps the feet of Coragus and has his opponent on the ground. He puts his foot on the neck of Coragus and raises his club and looks towards the crowd.
Alexander the great then steps in and stops the killing. The story goes on that the Macedonians were especially bitter with Dioxippus and framed him for theft. Being overcome with guilt, Dioxippus would fall on his sword.
While there are many more stories, our last one we will cover today is that of Kleitomachos. He won at the 140th and 141st Olympiad in pankration and boxing in 216 and 212 BC. He was the champion of three Pythian pankration events as well. But perhaps his most impressive accomplishment was when he won in wrestling, pankration, and boxing in the same day at Isthmian Games, the first person to do so.
Kleitomachos was a fan favorite. The crowd ate up the Greek athlete and often cheered for him. Once, while in a match against an Alexandrian, which is in Egypt, the crowd was not on Kleitomachos side. He allegedly stopped the match and told the crowd he was a real Greek taking on an Egyptian. His opponent was trained by the Egyptian King Ptolemy wanting to prove Kleitomachos was not unbeatable. His adversary was named Aristonikos and was well trained. He was holding his own and landed some good shots that got the crowd cheering from him. Kleitomachos was infuriated that the Greek crowd was cheering for an Egyptian and stopped the match and berated them for not pulling for the home team. The crowd came around to Kleitomachos as the Greek went on to victory.
But the biggest achievement of Kleitomachos was winning in wrestling, pankration and boxing in one day. While the details of the events weren’t recorded, it was the circumstances that made the event legendary. First of all, winning one event is an incredibly challenging thing. Kleitomachos winning all three was unheard of. Especially in the same day.
But while being no holds barred, pankration was not the most violent sport. It was simply the most complete version of fighting in the Greeks eyes. Boxing was considered more dangerous than pankration. But, the order of events went as follows: wrestling, boxing, pankration, placing emphasis on the complete fighting being that of a main event of sorts.
This order would not work for Kleitomachos who had glory in mind. He went to the Hellanodikai and requested that the pankration event move from last to second. The Greek athlete wanted to go into pankration without the damage brought on by boxing, thus putting the hardest sport last. This had never been done before, boxing was always second. But, the organizers granted Kleitomachos request, presumably to give him a chance at doing something great. Of course, history tells us that he did and won all three in the same day.
Pankration’s influence on modern MMA
The influence pankration has on modern mixed martial arts is not a direct influence. After the fall of Greece, pankration, like the Olympic Games, fell to the wayside, a footnote in history. But martial arts continued to evolve. The traditions of folk wrestling and striking permeated throughout history.
People became more specialized in their martial arts. Karate, Judo, boxing, wrestling and pretty much any other combat sport developed new techniques, became more finely refined, and highly specialized. The explosion of jiu jitsu on the scene really marked the return of pankration under a new name.
While no holds barred fighting existed from the time the Olympic Games were banned in 393 AD with the banning of pagan festivals, it was never as popular as it was in Ancient Greece. The death of the Olympic Games really did mark the death of pankration. But, as previously mentioned, jiu jitsu saved the concept.
MMA and the UFC rose out of the long dead ashes of pankration with the same idea in mind: a complete version of fighting. The original tournament pit different styles against each other. A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu player, a savate kickboxer, a catch wrestler, sumo wrestler and more. But the sport evolved into pan, or “complete,” and kratos or “strength.” Modern MMA fighters embody what the Ancient Greek were going for. A complete form of fighting that encompasses all forms of combat.
While the UFC’s forefathers didn’t likely have pankration in mind, it was the human desire for a complete form of combat that essentially brought back pankration to the modern world under a new name.
The techniques learned in pankration, ancient boxing and wrestling are also the building blocks of what we use in martial arts today. The human body uses the same mechanics now as it did in 600 BC. The fortunate time traveling martial artists of tomorrow will be able to go to the original Olympic Games and compete in a timeline and an arm will till only bend back so far. Power from a cross will still be generated from the hips and foot placement. Body locks will still neutralize an opponent. The evolution of the sport is what the Ancient Greek gave modern martial artists. They figured out head locks and rear naked chokes so we can further improve on them through years and years of micro-refinements.
While pankration’s influence on MMA is not direct, it’s influence through history is undeniable.
Thank you for listening to my first ever Fight Library Special. If you enjoy this, please drop it a share on social media. I spent hours researching this and to have people listen and chime in on it is all I can ask for. If you wish to reach out and talk to me about the podcast or fights in general, get at me on Twitter. My handle is @BlaineHenryTFL. I will include a clickable link in the description of the episode.
For future episodes, I have the next two episodes lined up. First will be somewhat of a spinoff of this episode. We will dive into the life of Milo of Croton. I’ve written about Milo on my website, fight-library.com, and want to get that in audio form and expand on it more.
Again, thank you for listening and sharing. It means a great deal for you all to show me all the love you do. Until next time!