When the Olympic games were revived in 1896, many ancient sports were brought again to life, except for one glaring omission. That sport was called pankration. In English, it meant all-power. It was the ancient Greek version of Mixed Martial Arts.
It was introduced in 648 BC and it became the most well documented western martial art. It was one of the most violent sports ever. The rules were also brutally simple. No biting. No eye gouging. Anything goes. And anything went on a rampage.
To mitigate the harshness of the rules, pankration was never fought to the death. In fact, if you killed your opponent, you lost. The goal was not the opponent’s death. It was his submission. If you killed a person that meant he never submitted at all. His spirit lies undefeated and that meant your spirit must be the one that lost.
Pankration can last indefinitely. If it takes the whole day to make your opponent scream uncle then you definitely must take your time. There are no breaks. You can use any barehanded means at your disposal. It doesn’t matter how deadly it is. Kicking anywhere, punching everywhere and various death grips are all part of this brutal sport. Fighters were divided by age and not by weight divisions. The Greek poet Xenophanes called it “a terrible contest… of all holds.”
Because this was ancient Greece, no protection was ever used in the boats. At most the fighters had himantes. These were strips of leather that were wrapped around the hands. They did not really protect anything. This was the only covering in this ancient Greek sport.
The sport was gleefully adopted by the Romans. However, they wanted more blood. Combatants were forced to fight with spiked gloves. When such barbarity was finally disallowed by the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius, pankration died out too.
There were many examples of incredible feats by great Greek pankration fighters. One of the most amazing stories involved Arrachion. He won the Olympic pankration three consecutive times. During the third time he won, he faced a particularly fearsome opponent. In order to get away from a stranglehold, he unleashed a kick that dislocated his opponent’s ankle. The injury caused his opponent to submit and Arrachion was declared the winner. However, he was already dead. Kicking while in a stranglehold also caused his neck to snap.
While the Olympics were reborn anew, pankration did not revive along with it. However, many still called for it to be brought again. The Olympic committee still refuses but until it is welcomed again to its old home, pankration fans can watch MMA.