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Pankration: An Introduction into an Ancient Olympic Fighting Style and Sport

Updated on November 15, 2012


The author has written Pankration; to educate the reader about an ancient form of martial art lost for almost two thousand years, and was revived in the 20th century. Today in the 21st century the art of Pankration is still strong, and like it MMA is still growing in popularity as more and more athletes are competing in the sport.


To construct this academic paper the author has utilized a number of diverse sources that include the United Full Contact Federation, and Atlanta Martial Arts, just to name a few. The author has found that E. Norman Gardiner’s The Journal of Hellenic Studies and his other work Athletics in the Ancient World has been a great help in writing this paper.

Literature Review


The art of Pankration was lost for almost 2000 years. It was born to a society that experienced conflict. For over 500 years the Persians, Romans, Turks, and Vandals all fought to take over Greece. Pankration is a Greek term meaning “all powers” or “all powerful,” both translations are deemed correct by Greek scholars. The style uses punches, takedowns as well as throws to take out an opponent. (Gardner 1906)

The sport of Pankration made its appearance at the Olympic Games in 648 BC.Olympic Games were also known as the “heavy games.” In Greek culture, everything including war stopped for the games. The Olympics were a men only event, meaning if you were women, you could not even watch let alone participate. If you were a women caught watching the games, the consequence may be death by being thrown over a cliff. (Gardner 1906)

The rules at that time stated there would be no biting or eye gauging, sounds like the Greeks tried to make a safe fun competition with rules such as these. This was not the case, as one could not only win by knock out, or submission, but they could achieve victory by death. In modern day wrestling and mixed martial arts, tapping out is a safe way to submit to your opponent to end the match. In the times of the ancient Greeks, tapping out was viewed as the greatest humiliation to a fighter. Most refused to tap, and a number of deaths by suffocations could be observed.

Regardless of this, there was a division for boys at the Olympic Games, and the first boy who gained the victory was Phaedimus. He was a native of Troas. A division for boys had been instituted before in other national games. In the Nemean and in the 61st Pythiad historians point to a Theban boy named Iolaidas as the victor in the pancratium at the Pythian Games. (William Smith 2011)

Other fighters who have stood out for example, from Sikyon a fighter nick named “Fingertips,” because he would start every match by breaking the fingertips of his opponent. Fingertips started every match this way, because it would give him an obvious advantage.(William Smith 2011)

In Greek history everyone, scholars included had to play a part in the military. Socrates himself was a soldier. In the Greek army soldier had to buy their own equipment, most could not afford the basic equipment. For these soldiers, pankration and hand to hand combat skills were a necessity. (Gardner 1906)

Probably the fiercest Pankration fighters were the Spartans. The Spartans used a unique form of Pankration, because the regular style of Pankration was forbidden in Sparta. They were such serious fighters that they boycotted the Olympic Games, because eye gauging and biting were illegal. Most Spartan men started training in pankration at the age of seven, and would spend the next 23 years perfecting their craft.(Gardiner 2002)

Some historians believe that Pankration has been the backbone for many other martial arts across the world. Pankration has a technique called “shoulder throw,” which is similar, if not the same to Judo’s shoulder throw. Historians believe the man responsible for bringing the shoulder throw to Judo, would be none other than Alexander the Great, himself. It is believed that Alexander the great brought Pankration to India following an invasion in 326 B.C. It is from here Buddhists monks from India may have brought this to China. This would lay the foundation for all Asian martial arts such as kung fu, karate, and muay thai kickboxing.(William Smith 2011)

Like most great civilizations the Greek states began a steady decline. From the 3rd century and on Greek states one by one began collapse. A few centuries later, city-states would begin to disappear completely.

Modern Day Pankration

The art of pankration would be lost to civilization for the next 1,600 years. It would not be until the 1970’s an American named Jim Arvanitis would rediscover pankration. Jim Arvantis was a Greek American with a passion to rediscover the ancient martial art of his homeland. He would develop a full-fledged system of pankration known as “Mu Tau Pankration.” (Hume 2011)

The revival of pankration would really take in 1995, when Greek scholars and athletes used archeological evidence to bring back pankration. Assistance of certain world class karate practitioners and the emergence of mixed martial arts can also be credited to the revival of pankration. (Hume 2011)

The movement to revive pankration as a sport would soon lose steam and almost die. It would not be until the year 2000 when a man named Craig Smith formed the World Pankration Federation.

There are other leagues and sanctioning bodies that sanction pankration events. Matt Hume is the Vice President of AMC Kickboxing in Kirkland, Washington; he has developed his own style called “AMC Pankration.” Hume is president of the pankration division of U.F.C.F or United Full Contact Federation, which holds events in places such as Washington and Hawaii, as well as other parts of the world. (Hume 2011)

Pankration Tutorial

In modern day pankration hand strikes to the head are illegal, however full force kicks to the head are legal. Matches can be one by submission, knock out, like boxing and karate, point are awarded for contact, technique, and difficulty. The style uses punches, takedowns as well as throws to take out an opponent. In this section the author will attempt to break down and demonstrate the various aspects of pankration. It will be a sort of a “how to guide.” The author will not give a detail of full description of every move and technique, but will introduce the basics in the areas of striking, and takedowns.

The first section of this tutorial, the author will introduce his most preferred and favorite way to fight is striking. In pankration, punches are very much the same as boxing, but unlike boxing, pankration does not use hooks or uppercuts, as they will leave one open for takedowns. The kicking aspect of pankration involves two kicks commonly seen in other martial arts the “gastrizein,” otherwise known as the “push kick.” Then there is “roundhouse kick.” The "gastrizein" the author has listed instructions in another section of this hub. The double leg takedown however, will be explained below.

Double Leg Takedown

The double leg takedown is a fundamental and must-know technique in various fighting arts such as jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and mixed martial arts, just to name a few. The double leg take down can be useful in a situation where the momentum may not be in your favor. You may come across a punch-happy opponent, who is just piling on the jabs and power hands. It would be a great way to turn the fight in your favor, by getting your opponent to the ground.

1. From a strikers perspective this is not the norm, but in this case, maintain eye contact with your opponent so that they do not expect you to go for the takedown. You can either throw your hand upward at an angle as if you're going for a clinch or you can use a jab, or some type of jab combo, to fake your opponent out while closing distance.

2. To shoot for your opponent's legs, crouch down into a half squat. This step is very important; it will prevent you from simply throwing your upper body at his lower body (a mistake that can have horrible consequences i.e. you being knocked out). As you lower into the crouch keep your hands out in front of you and be ready to either block a knee or a kick or to jump back away from an oncoming attack from the legs.

3. Take a step forward with your lead foot and go for the takedown. Make sure to lead with your chest and arms and keep your head back. Grab your opponent around his thighs, around his hips and knees. Turn your head sideways against your opponent's body in order to neutralize the possibility of a neck injury and to leverage your body weight.

4. Once you have got your opponent in a hold around his legs and your head is flat against his hips or upper thighs push your weight forward and pull on his legs to take him down.

5. Release and fall into a dominant position. As you fall with your opponent, release your grip from his legs so that when you hit the ground you can land in a dominant position such as a side mount. Keep your arms over him and your legs in a stable position so that your opponent cannot throw a reversal. In pankration much like mma or wrestling take a dominant position as mentioned earlier. Other than the side mount, where you may perform some type of lock, to get your opponent to tap out. You may choose to use a top mount and rain punches on your opponent.


Growing in popularity pankration seems to have a bright, wonderful, but ambiguous future. The sport will continue to grow, and gain popularity, but some questions for modern day pankration is “what is its ultimate goal as a sport and an art?” Is it to preserve, learn, and promote an ancient martial art? Or is it just another way, another excuse for two men, to beat each other senselessly in an organized fashion? In this author opinion, nay to the second question and would say yes to the first.

Pankration like many martial arts hopefully will stay for a long time to come. Like other martial arts, for its practitioners it will be not only a sport, but an art. Not only an art, but a way to protect themselves, not only a way to protect themselves, but protect the ones they love and care for, but also a way of life.


Gardiner, E. Norman. Athletics in the Ancient World . Mineola: Dover Publications, 2002.

Gardner, E. Norman. "The Pankration and Wrestling." The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1906: 4-22.

Hume, Matt. Atlanta Martial Arts. May 7, 2011. (accessed October 12, 2011).

Perseus Digital Library. Pankration. July 17, 2011. (accessed October 12, 2011).

William Smith, William Wayte, G.E. Marindin. Historical-Pankration. June 12, 2011.


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