Ancient Greeks Had The Most Brutal Olympic Combat Sport Imaginable
If boxing, wrestling, taekwondo, and other combat sports just aren’t doing it for you, you can combine everything to get mixed martial arts. But, if that isn’t satiating your taste for blood in hand-to-hand combat sports, then it is time to go back to ancient Greece, where the sport of pankration reigned supreme.
The word pankration means “all powers” in Greek, and this is exactly how fights played out. Everything was legal in pankration bouts, with the exception of biting and gouging. Pankration was a combination of boxing and wrestling at its core, but fights were often much more brutal than that. Breaking the fingers and toes of your opponent or choking them to death was fair game.
As with most things in Ancient Greek society, the Greeks believed pankration to have its origins in the heroes of mythology. In this case, pankration was believed to come from Heracles and Theseus. According to the myths, Heracles used pankration to defeat the Nemean lion, and Theseus practiced pankration techniques to fight the Minotaur. The idea that this sort of training was needed to fight monsters carried over into the intense nature of the sport itself.
Fighters were called pankratiasts (stupid name for sure, but you try telling them that to their face), and they were extremely popular. Audiences loved boxing and wrestling, so putting them together was a no-brainer. Tales of the absolute badass feats of pankratiasts spread, like the story of Arrhachion, one of the most famous combatants. During a bout, an opponent choked Arrachion to death. Rather than submit, though, Arrachion used his last moments to dislocate his killer’s toe. The opponent submitted, and Arrhachion’s dead body was declared the winner. Moments like this were inspirational to the Greeks, who valued the toughness and sacrifice that pankratiasts displayed. This is why soldiers trained in pankration as well, to prepare them for real life-or-death combat.
During the Ancient Olympics and other sporting festivals, pankration was one of the most popular events. Alas, those pesky Romans had to ruin it, and Emperor Theodosius abolished the Games in 393 A.D. He didn’t like the idea of a festival supporting gods he didn’t believe in, and no one else was allowed to have fun as a result.
Those who are sad that they missed out on the height of bloodsport by a few thousand years can take some solace in modern MMA. Some progenitors of MMA even used terms like “modern pankration” in naming their sport. Without the lawlessness of the OG pankration, though, it’s just not the same.
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