10 Ancient Greek Pankration Facts

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As the direct ancestor of mixed martial arts, many people wonder about the ancient sport of pankration. To entertain you, I’ve collected ten fascinating facts about ancient greek pankration.

Keep reading to learn something unique about this fighting sport. 

1.  Created by the Greek God Heracles

Pankration was introduced in the first Greek Olympics in 648 BC. However, its origins were up for debate. 

Historians have attributed the creation of pankration to two legendary Greek mythology icons: Heracles and Theseus. 

The Greeks during this period have speculated that either one of these two created the ancient sport. It was because both used the combination of boxing and wrestling in their historic fights. 

It has been said that Heracles, the son of Zeus, used pankration to defeat the Nemean lion with his bare hands. Theseus, on the other hand, slayed the Minotaur in the labyrinth.

2. Pankration fighters used to be nude and bare-knuckled

Greek pottery depicting a pankration fighting scene
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

In tribute and respect to the gods of Ancient Greece, men competed in pankration completely naked and bare-knuckled. 

It was to celebrate the male physique. Pankratiasts would wear nothing and were often covered in oil.

Only after the Romans embraced the ancient sport were fighters allowed to wear leather thongs and added materials on gloves like spikes or glass.

Pankration eventually influenced the fighting styles of Roman gladiators in the Colosseo.

3. Pankration was also used in war

Pankration was not only just a sport in the Olympics. It helped Greeks train their men to be ready for war or conquest.

After it was introduced in the Olympics, it was adapted into the military training for ancient Greek cities and kingdoms like Sparta, Athens, and Macedon.

Recorded history states that Sparta used pankration as a last resort in the Battle of Thermopylae. Their men were disarmed and forced to fight with their bare hands. 

Some military camps now see the benefits of pankration and include it in their exercises.

4. Women were not allowed to train and watch 

In ancient Greece, society heavily favored men over women in sports.

Pankration was viewed as a manly sport, and women were prohibited from training. This also applied to boxing and wrestling.

In Pankration, women were forbidden from watching the competition because the men fought naked. 

Severe punishments were implemented to prevent women from attending the events. Married women had it worse because if they were caught, they would be thrown off a mountain.

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Fun fact: a woman named Kallipateira once tried to disguise herself as a man to watch her son compete. 

5. Winning while deceased

In Ancient Pankration, the results of fights were usually lethal because of the dangerous nature of the sport. 

The main goal of pankration was to make your opponent quit, or men who refused to submit sometimes were led to fatal results.

But did you know there was a pankratiast that won the fight despite him being dead?

Arrhichion was a back-to-back pankration champion at the time. 

His opponent choked him out unconscious. However, Arrhichion dislocated his opponent’s ankle before he passed and made him quit. 

The Olive wreath was laid on his body, and Arrichion is one of the most popular post-humous Olympic champions. 

6. Olympic winner without lifting a finger

Macedonian Army Pezetairos
Public Domain Source

One of the most popular pankratiasts in history is Dioxippus of Athens. In 336 B.C, Dioxippus won the Olympics by “akoniti,” or without getting dusted. 

Known for his skills as a pankratiast, he won by default because no one dared to fight him that year.

Dioxippus was famous for beating one of Alexander the Great’s men, Coragus, when challenged to single combat. 

Coragus was fully armored and had a spear. Dioxippus beat him unarmored with a club in his hand. 

Unfortunately, after killing his man, Alexander disliked and envied him. Only a brave man will make the world’s greatest war general insecure. 

7. The prizes were olive wreaths

Kotinos olive wreath
FocalPoint, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The biggest motivations of fighters throughout history are gold and glory. Modern combat sports fighters like UFC fighters fight for money to support the needs of their families.

Prizes are given to the participants to increase their drive to compete and win.

However, in Ancient Greece, Olympians were not paid with money or gold. The winners were given an olive wreath.

Why were they awarded only a crown made with leaves even though they fought hardly?

The olive wreath was introduced by Heracles, proclaimed founder of pankration, to honor his father, Zeus. It symbolizes peace, honor, glory, and unity.

8. Win, lose, draw, or klimax

Pankratiasts fighting depiction on a Panathenaic prize amphora
Kleophrades Painter, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

During a pankration fight, there can be multiple results. Winners can be awarded by knockout, submission, or opponents no longer capable of continuing.

What happens if both are very exhausted to continue?

There is this concept called klimax, which was applied to both ancient Greek pankration and boxing.

This results when both fighters are too exhausted to fight or cannot be separated. Basically, klimax is where pankratiasts are given a free hit until someone goes down

A tossed coin is done to decide who goes first.

9. Ground and pound was frowned upon

Terracotta depicting pankratiasts fighting under eyes of a trainer
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The basic idea of pankration is the combination of boxing and wrestling. 

The greeks divided pankration into two parts. First, ano pankration, which means upper pankration, where fighters adapted boxing. 

The second one is kato pankration or lower pankration which is similar to Greco-roman wrestling. 

Unlike MMA, the idea of ground and pound were frowned upon because they wanted to strike only when they were standing.

Fighters were trained to use punches, kicks, and elbows while standing up. Meanwhile, they used wrestling to submit their opponents using chokes and joint pressure when on the ground.

10. Pankration’s decline was brought about by modern Religion

Bust of Theodosius I
www.livius.org, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the rich history of ancient Greek games, it was unfortunate that some of the pankration qualities were lost in time.

The decline of pankration started when it was banned by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I. This was brought about by the rapidly increased relevance of Christianity throughout Europe. 

Pankration was prohibited because of its pagan and polytheistic roots. This almost erased pankration from history because it was no longer practiced. 

Fortunately, ancient pankration was revived when modified and fitted into modern combat sports. Jim Arvanitis is known as the father of modern pankration.

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