Pankration – The First Mixed Martial Art

What was the name of the first Mixed Martial Art?

There have been many iterations of mixed martial arts throughout history, but the first to be termed as a mixed martial art in the history books is Pankration.

What was Pankration?

Pankration was an ancient Greek sporting event that combined boxing and wrestling, and it was introduced to the Greek Olympics over 1,300 years ago at the XXXIII (33rd) Olympiad in 648 BCE.

The term comes from the Greek παγκράτιον [paŋkrátion], meaning ‘all of power’, from πᾶν (pan) ‘all’ and κράτος (kratos) ‘strength, might, power’. from Wikipedia

Although billed as a cross between boxing and wrestling, it was more of a free-for-all, with athletes employing savage techniques such as strangling, joint manipulation, and much, much more. The only fouls identified were biting and gouging, so make of that what you will.

The Mythos of Pankration

In Greek mythology, Heracles (Hercules) and Theseus created Pankration as a result of using a mix of boxing and wrestling in battles with their opponents. Most notably, Theseus was said to have used Pankration to defeat the Minotaur, and Heracles is depicted in old artworks using Pankration to defeat the Nemean Lion. The latter appears to be employing a crude Guillotine Choke against the lion (pictured below).

Hercules' fight with the Nemean lion, by Pieter Paul Rubens
Hercules’ fight with the Nemean lion, by Pieter Paul Rubens
Heracles slaying the Nemean lion. Depicted in a Roman mosaic in Spain.

The Characters of Pankration – Trivia

Arrhichion – the only dead man to win a Pankration title

So history tells, Arrhichion was the winner of the pankration at the 52nd and 53rd Olympiads. Whilst competing for another victory, Arrhichion essentially had his back taken, and was thrown in a rear-naked choke. Through his best efforts, Arrhichion dislocated the toe of his adversary, before succumbing himself. The opponent conceded about the same time as Arrhichion due to the pain in his toe, and so the corpse of Arrhichion was crowned the victor, and a dead man won pankration.

Dioxippus – without getting dusted

Dioxippus was an Olympian renowned for his pankration victories. He was crowned the 336 BC champion by default when no other competitor dared face him in a match. They referred to this victory as “akoniti”, which literally meant without getting dusted.

Dioxippus entertained a banquet hosted by Alexander the Great, who was a fan of his performances. Alexander’s men allegedly mocked the visitor, and Dioxippus was eventually challenged to a fight by a man named Coragus. Despite efforts to cool tempers, the fight was declared official, and Dioxippus and Coragus would meet in pankration.

A fair fight

Dioxippus reportedly came out well oiled and nude, with a purple cloak in his left hand, and a club in his right. Coragus was clad in full armour, and equipped with a bronze shield, a long pike, a javelin, and a side sword. Dioxippus would dodge the thrown javelin, before tackling Coragus whilst he was switching to the pike, he would secure underhooks on both of Coragus’ arms, sweeping him to the ground, disarming him, and stepping on his throat. Alexander stopped the fight before it could escalate, but it was an embarrassing defeat since it had happened Infront of recently conquered Persian prisoners.

As a consequence of embarrassing the Macedonians, Dioxippus was conspired against. He had a golden cup placed under his pillow and was framed for theft. Made aware of the conspiracy, and feeling great dishonour, Dioxippus wrote a letter for Alexander describing the conspiracy, before committing suicide by falling on his sword.

Sostratus of Sicyon

Sostratus was known for his style of fighting which involved bending or breaking his opponent’s fingers. He won the pankration crown three times in a row at three successive Olympiads (364, 360, and 356 BC). This record is only matched by three others and surpassed by nobody else in the entire history of the Olympic games.

Elements of Modern Mixed Martial Arts in Ancient Pankration

Many techniques we consider as modern implications were actually present in ancient pankration. The aforementioned Arrhichion was subdued with what would be described as a body-lock, rear-naked choke combination, which is one of the most fundamental submissions in BJJ and modern MMA. Dioxippus used effective wrestling with underhooks, described as a ‘bearhug’ by the uninitiated at the time. Sostratus was obviously using finger holds and finger locks. There is even evidence of heel hooks and leg locks being used.

Heel hooks in ancient pankration

Some would say that Arrhichion secured a type of heel hook to dislocate the toe or ankle of his opponent. This is open for interpretation, but there was another man who most certainly pioneered heel hooks in ancient pankration.

Halter – the heel-hooking pankrationist

The little known Halter was a pankrationist that went undefeated in combat, by utilising a technique that involved “being trampled upon”, and securing the victory by holding onto the heel.

He possessed excellence in skill and courage, and harmony of body made him very strong. When the young man arrived at this sanctuary (he sailed directly to Delphi for the trial of strength) he asked Protesilaos how he might overcome his rivals. He said, “By being trampled upon”. Faintheartedness immediately seized the athlete, as if he had been struck down by the oracle. After he first discovered the heel maneuver during a contest, he later realized that the oracle ordered him not to let go of his opponent’s foot. For the one who wrestles with the heel must be trampled upon repeatedly and lie under his opponent. By doing so, the athlete gained an illustrious name for himself and was defeated by no one.

Heroicus 14.4-15.3

There’s a fantastic resource here describing the “heel manoeuvre” in pankration.

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Mathew Riddle