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Pankration (Greek: ?a????t??(?), Pagkratio(n), IPA: [pa?.’kra.ti.o(n)]) is a martial arts sport introduced to the Greek Olympic Games in 648 BC and founded as a blend of boxing and wrestling. The term comes from the Ancient Greek pa????t???, literally meaning “all powers” and that from p?? (pan) “all” + ???t?? (kratos) “strength” or “power”. It is also used to describe the sport’s contemporary variations. Some consider it as the first all-encompassing fighting system in human history. It is also arguable that pankration competitions in antiquity were the closest an athletic event has come to outright, no-rules, empty hand combat. Modern mixed martial arts competitions have come to feature many of the same methods that were used in pankration competitions in the ancient Greek world.[1]

In Greek mythology it was said that the heroes Herakles and Theseus invented pankration as a result of using both wrestling and boxing in their confrontations with opponents. Theseus was said to have utilized his extraordinary pankration skills to defeat the dreaded Minotaur in the Labyrinth. Herakles was said to have subdued the Nemean lion using pankration, and was often depicted in ancient artwork doing that. In this context, it should be noted that pankration was also referred to as pammachon or pammachion (p?µµa??? or paµµ?????), meaning “total combat”, from p??-, pan-, “all-” or “total”, and µ???, mache, “combat”. The term pammachon was older[2], and would later become used less than the term pankration.

The mainstream academic view has been that pankration was the product of the development of archaic Greek society of the seventh century BC, whereby, as the need for expression in violent sport increased, pankration filled a niche of “total contest” that neither boxing or wrestling could.[3]. However, some evidence suggests that pankration, in both its sport form and its combat form, may have been practiced in Greece already from the second millennium BC.[4]

Pankration, as practiced in historical antiquity, was an athletic event that combined techniques of both boxing (pygme/pygmachia – p??µ?/p??µa??a) and wrestling (pale – p???), as well as additional elements, such as the use of strikes with the lower extremities, to create a broad fighting sport very similar to today’s mixed martial arts competitions. There is evidence that, although knockouts were common, most pankration competitions were probably decided on the ground where both striking and submission techniques would freely come into play. Pankratiasts were highly skilled grapplers and were extremely effective in applying a variety of takedowns, chokes, and punishing joint locks.

However, pankration was more than just an event in the athletic competitions of the ancient Greek world; it was also part of the arsenal of Greek soldiers – including the famous Spartan hoplites and Alexander the Great’s Macedonian phalanx.

The feats of the ancient pankratiasts became legendary in the annals of Greek athletics. Stories abound of past champions who were considered invincible beings. Arrhichion, Dioxippus and Polydamas of Skotoussa are among the most highly-recognized names. Their accomplishments defying the odds were some of the most inspiring of ancient Greek athletics and they served as inspiration to the Hellenic world for centuries, as Pausanias,[5] the ancient traveller and writer indicates when he re-tells these stories in his narrative of his travels around Greece.

Dioxippus was an Athenian who had won the Olympic Games in 336 BC, and was serving in Alexander the Great’s army in its expedition in Asia. As an admired champion, he naturally became part of the circle of Alexander the Great. In that context, he accepted a challenge from one of Alexander’s most skilled soldiers named Coragus to fight in front of Alexander and the troops in armed combat. While Coragus fought with weapons and full armour, Dioxippus showed up armed only with a club and defeated Coragus without killing him making use of his pankration skills. Later, however, Dioxippus was framed for theft, which led him to commit suicide.

In an odd turn of events, a pankration fighter named Arrhichion (????????) of Phigalia won the event despite being dead. His opponent had locked him in a chokehold and Arrhichion, desperate to loosen it, broke his opponent’s toe (some records say his ankle). The opponent nearly passed out from pain and submitted. As the referee raised Arrhichion’s hand, it was discovered that he had died from the chokehold. His body was crowned with the olive wreath and taken back to Phigaleia as a hero.

By the Imperial Period, the Romans had adopted the Greek combat sport (spelled in Latin as pancratium) into their Games. In 393 A.D. the pankration, along with gladiatorial combat and all pagan festivals, was abolished by edict of the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I. Pankration itself was practiced for some 1000 years in the context of an Olympic event. It is a matter of controversy whether and to what extent pankration persisted in Greek and the broader Byzantine society after the ancient Games were discontinued.

There were neither weight divisions nor time limits in pankration competitions. However, there were two or three age groups in the competitions of antiquity. In the Olympic Games there were only two such age groups: men (andres- ??d?e?) and boys (paedes – pa?de?). The pankration event for boys was established at the Olympic Games in 200 B.C.. In pankration competitions, referees were armed with stout rods or switches to enforce the rules. In fact, there were only two rules: contestants were not allowed to gouge eyes or to bite.[6]The contest itself usually continued uninterrupted until one of the combatants was submitted, which was often signalled by the submitted contestant raising his index finger. The judges appear, however, to have had the right to stop a contest under certain conditions and award the victory to one of the two athletes; they could also declare the contest a tie.[4]

Pankration competitions were held in tournaments, most being outside of the Olympics. Each tournament began with a ritual which would decide how the tournament would take place. Grecophone satirist Lucian describes the process[7] in a detailed manner:

This process was apparently repeated every round until the finals.

If there was an odd number of competitors, there would be a bye (?fed??? — ephedros “reserve”) in every round until the last one. The same athlete could be an ephedros more than once, and this could of course be of great value to him as the ephedros would be spared the wear and tear of the rounds imposed on his opponent(s). To win a tournament without being an ephedros in any of the rounds (???fed??? — anephedros “non-reserve”) was thus an honorable achievement.

There is evidence that the major Games easily had four tournament rounds, that is, a field of sixteen athletes. Xanthos mentions the largest number—nine tournament rounds. If these tournament rounds were held in one competition, up to 512 contestants would participate in the tournament, which is difficult to believe for a single contest. Therefore one can hypothesize that the nine rounds included those in which the athlete participated during regional qualification competitions that were held before the major games. In this context, it should be noted that it is quite certain that such preliminary contests were held prior to the major games to determine who would participate in the main event. This makes sense, as the 15-20 athletes competing in the major games could not have been the only available contestants. There is clear evidence of this in Plato, who refers to competitors in the Panhellenic Games, with opponents numbering in the thousands. Moreover, in the first century CE, the Greco-Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria —who was himself probably a practitioner of pankration— makes a statement that could be an allusion to preliminary contests in which an athlete would participate and then collect his strength before coming forward fresh in the major competition. [4]