3 – Pankration (8th Century BC, codified 2nd Century BC)
“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, or one of the Hellanodikai 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 the beta to the other with the beta, and the other matching inscribed lots in the same manner.” Greek satirist Lucian on the process for choosing opponents in Olympic Pankration
For all those who see the Ultimate Fighting Championship as a new, exciting method of sorting out which style of fighting is the most effective – there is not a new idea in the world. The quest to find out who would win a simple, no rules scrap is as old as time and in ancient Greece, it was one of the most celebrated sports.
The Ancient World’s UFC was even more brutal than the one that we see today. It was devised, just like modern-day mixed martial arts, to fill a void for those who wanted something even more violent than boxing and wrestling and it certainly lived up to that: it included essentially no rules, save for prohibitions on biting and eye-gouging. Other than that, pretty much anything was fair game. While it was possible to win by knockout, historians think that the majority of fights went to the ground, where the MMA array of chokes, armbars and locks decided the outcome.
The Pankration was one of the most prestigious events at the Ancient Olympics and the competitors among the most celebrated of all. In a sport without weight categories or time limits, it was seen as the ultimate test of strength, with bouts continuing as long as both men was able to fight, with judge’s decisions rare indeed. Instead of tapping out, contenders would raise their finger to intimate that they no longer wanted to, or were able to, continue.
It is thought that the Ancient Greeks organised the sport by an open draw, with sometimes as many as 16 competitors in the tournament. The quote at the head of this section illustrates the somewhat convoluted way in which opponents were drawn to each other, with four rounds culminating in a final. Plato speculated that there were qualifying tournaments to reach the larger Panhellenic Games, the larger and more important event.
Once they reached the games, the technique of fighting would be vital. It is easy to work out how the pankratists used to fight: there are countless examples in both writing and in sculpture that depict the fighters in full flow. We can easily see the stances that they used, equally between the square stance of wrestling and the split stance of boxing; we can estimate the importance of strikes, both from a traditional boxing punch and from kicks, which were essential to successful pankration, we can judge the huge variety of holds, chokes and locks that were used.
There were secondary concerns too. The contest was held outside in the head of the afternoon, so some considered an ability to control the contest area and direct your opponent towards the sun to create an advantage, while some would prioritise endurance and economy of effort – after all, to win the main prize, four or more victories might be needed.
Training methods were sophisticated as well. Pankratists were taught a rounded fighting style rather than specialising in one discipline, with fighting methods tailored to their physical characteristics. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of punching bags and training equipment, while fighters also self-mutilisation to dumb the pain in their striking zones, such as shins and forearms, just like modern Muay Thai fighters do. There is also evidence that they practiced kata forms, like those found Asian martial artists.
The brutality and completeness of a pankration practitioner would not be matched by many in the whole history of martial arts, but the discipline is just one of the many that we will cover. On the other side of the world, one of the great other traditions was well underway: that of Kung Fu.