Pankration was a martial art and sport practiced in Ancient Greece which is currently being revived. It consisted of punching, kicking, throws and ground fighting; it thus resembled modern Mixed Martial Arts. The name literally means "all" (pan) "powers" (kratos), perhaps signifying that all fighting skills were allowed; in other words, "everything goes" or "no-holds-barred."
Pankration started out as the unarmed fighting training of Greek soldiers, perhaps as far back as the Trojan War. In the fury of war, spears, swords and shields were often lost or broken, and so the warrior would then have to use his Pankration skills on the field of battle. In 648 BCE, Pankration became an Olympic sport, quickly overshadowing both boxing and wrestling. All three were more popular than all the non-combat sports, with only the possible exception of the equestrian events. As in most ancient Olympic disciplines, all the athletes competed nude, and the winner was crowned with a wreath of laurels. The most famous Pankratiasts were those who won the event two or more times, including such men as Arrichion, Theagenes, and Polydamas. Arrichion is also remembered for his last match: caught in a choke-hold, he managed to grab and break his opponent's ankle, forcing him to submit. Unfortunately, Arrichion died from the effects of the choke.
The Macedonian king Alexander the Great spread Greek culture, including Pankration, as far as India. Some suggest that Pankration was the basis for the Indian martial arts, which in turn influenced most of the martial arts of East Asia. It should be pointed out, however, that the oldest Indian martial arts may be 3,000 years old, pre-dating Alexander by centuries.
The sport of Pankration was banned in the late 4th century CE when the Christians abolished the Olympics and all other sporting events which were also Pagan religious festivals. The martial art disappeared as the Dark Ages wiped out most of the traditions and knowledge of Classical Europe.
Rules and Techniques
The only rules in ancient Olympic Pankration were no biting, no scratching with the fingernails, and no eye-gouging. Everything else was allowed, including strikes to the groin and headbutts. Unlike the boxers, the Pankratiasts fought bare-knuckled. It was thought by some recent scholars that killing one's opponent resulted in automatic disqualification, the victory going to the deceased, but further research has proven this idea false.
The fight would start out standing up. At this stage, the fighters would use punches, kicks, and knee and elbow strikes. They were trained to punch in a manner similar to that used by the boxers, including crosses, hooks, uppercuts, and also hammerfists and backfists (which were both allowed in ancient Olympic boxing, unlike modern Western boxing). Vertical punches (see Wing Chun) and open-hand techniques were also used. Pankratiasts used toe-kicks and front-kicks to the stomach and groin, and also many leg-kicks and sweeps, seldom high-kicks. Ancient Pankratiasts may also have had early knowledge of pressure points (see Dim Mak). Often, the fighter with better ground-fighting skills would take his opponent down with a shoot at the first opportunity.
Although some fights ended with stand-up knockouts, most ended on the ground, with the loser submitting, or being choked or knocked out (or killed). Pankratiasts excelled in the use of joint locks and choke-holds to force the opponent to submit, which was done by raising the index finger. Many fights ended with a fighter breaking a limb or joint of his opponent, including on occasion his fingers. They were also skilled in striking on the ground, often using hammerfists to beat the opponent into submission.
If the fight continued for too long, with neither fighter seeming to have prospects for victory, the fight would end in a one-blow stand-off called a klimax ("climax"). A coin toss was used to decide who would strike first. In one famous match, a fighter killed his opponent with a finger-strike ("spearhand") to the stomach. The judges, however, ruled that such a strike was illegal and awarded the posthumous victory to his opponent. (This may have been the only illegal hand-strike in Olympic Pankration.)
The sport of Pankration is now being revived in Europe and North America by numerous organizations using ancient literature and portrayals of the sport on Classical Greek pottery. Rules have been added to make it less violent and less likely to result in death. The modern sport resembles Mixed Martial Arts competitions. These groups are also trying to get the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to include the sport in the modern Olympic games.