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What is Pankration?

While I cover some of the broader known Martial Arts, I also like to spend a moment from time to time on styles that are barely mentioned outside of those heavily involved in the Arts.

Pankration is one of these, finding its origins in Greece as part of the original Olympics in 648 BC. It is derived from two root words: pan meaning ‘all’ and kratos meaning ‘strength or force.’ Differing from other Olympia counterparts such as wrestling, pankration allowed strikes and throws. The only attacks that were not allowed were those consider dishonorable, such as biting or attacks to the eyes. The contests would continue until sunset or an opponent giving up and sometimes even death! The champion would be recognized as the greatest all-around athlete of the whole world.

As in other Martial Arts styles, there are many different aspects to it that make it more than just a fighting style. There are forms and techniques used to improve the fighting style. And there is an internal piece that is as critical to the warriors in developing as the external discipline.

Under the leadership of Alexander the Great, it is believed that his armies helped to spread this art into the Eastern worlds. While it is debated how much influence this art had on the present day Eastern Martial Arts such as Kung Fu and Karate, it is clear that characteristics from pankration do exist in many current day styles.

As the Greek society faded and the Roman Empire came into power, pankration found a new home with the gladiators and was taught as part of their regular training programs. However, when the last gladiator school closed, so did the knowledge of this art disappear, melting into other forms of fighting that still exist today.

In recent years with the increasing interest in Martial Arts, there has been a revival of this art. It is touted as one of the many arts used in training different military organizations around the world. It encompasses many different arenas of training, the strongest of which is street-fighting.

Today, the term ‘pankration’ is used in a variety of ways, including referring to adapted or hybrid variations of kickboxing styles (referred to generally as mixed martial arts). Much of the original pankration training died with the last gladiator back during the days of the Roman Empire. And in essence, the ability to absorb new techniques and modify your fighting style over time was probably a strong part of the original Greek art.

However, a true pankration training would include learning about the Hellenistic culture that this art derives from. There should be a strong thread of honor and respect that should be involved in most Martial Arts styles. Those who watch the techniques executed within the fighting rings will see a lot of movements similar to grappling techniques in arts like juijitsu as well as many Greco-Roman wrestling rules being applied. Just as important are the other aspects of the training that happen outside of the ring: forms known as pyrrics and the strengthening of the body internally and externally. Because of its origin, being fought naked in the rings of the Olympia, there are no weapons taught with this style.

Today, both men and women practice pankration. There are tournaments held all over the world with competitors in open combat. Biting, eye gouging, and other dishonorable techniques are still illegal as are now techniques that will permanently maim a person. The matches are no longer to death or disablement but rather run more like other kickboxing or boxing matches with rounds and a set time limit. The rounds are long (almost double the length of those in professional boxing rounds) so participants have to be in great physical shape to participate. There is light protective gear used, with no gloves on the hands to allow for grappling techniques.

Many active in pankration also work to get it included as a sport again in the modern Olympics. Perhaps some day it will be part of this tournament again.

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