In the Panhellenic games of ancient Greece, wrestling, boxing and pankration were called the “heavy events.” The term was chosen to describe combative contests in those arts because they were not only crowd favorites but also the domain of the larger and heavier athlete.
Greek Martial Art #1: Wrestling
Wrestling is Greece’s oldest combat sport, and it had immense appeal in Hellenistic society. Philostratos claimed that Palaistra, the daughter of Hermes, invented wrestling and that the entire world rejoiced at the discovery because the “iron weapons of war would be cast aside and the stadia would gain sweeter glory than the military camps.” He also emphasized the practical effectiveness of wrestling in warfare by claiming that the military achievement at Marathon was almost a wrestling contest and that the Spartans at Thermopylae employed their bare hands after losing their spears and swords.
Ancient Greek wrestling was believed to have been refined by Theseus, who wrestled and killed Kerkyon. Pausanias wrote, “Only size and might mattered until Theseus introduced the qualities needed by a good wrestler: strength and a great build.”
The rules of Greek wrestling were said to have been established by Orikadmos, an early Sicilian wrestler. Striking, grabbing the groin, and biting were prohibited. If the wrestlers went out of bounds, the referee halted the contest and returned them to the center of the pit, where they resumed with the same hold.
There were two forms of the sport: orthia pale (upright wrestling) and kato pale (ground wrestling). In the first, the objective was to throw one’s opponent to the ground; in the second, a throw wasn’t enough and the contest continued until a competitor admitted defeat and was compelled to withdraw. Holds, including submissions, were freely used, and the event was similar to pankration except that there was no striking. An athlete withdrew only when he was so exhausted that he could resist no longer.
For competitions in the stadium, five to eight pairs of wrestlers were chosen. For one to gain victory in upright wrestling, he had to throw his opponent three times. It wasn’t necessary to pin an adversary or make him submit. The rules required that a wrestler cleanly throw his foe and either remain standing or fall on top of him. If any part of the body, other than the feet, came in contact with the ground, it was counted as a fall.
Upright wrestling was conducted in the sand, while ground wrestling usually took place on wet soil. The mud stuck to the competitors’ bodies, making them slippery and holds difficult to apply. In upright wrestling, the upper part of the body—the neck, shoulders, arms, chest and waist—received extra attention in training sessions. In ground wrestling, the arms, waist, thighs and knees were developed most.
A wrestling contest would generally start with a participant grabbing his opponent’s neck or attempting to control his wrists. Frequently, their heads would press against each other in what might be dubbed the “ram position.” Balance and leverage were the key variables in stand-up wrestling because each athlete looked for offensive opportunities while fending off the opposing fighter’s attacks. Another ancient Greek wrestling technique, the underhook, is mentioned in the Iliad. From that position, the wrestlers were proficient at a variety of preliminary grips or setup maneuvers. Foot sweeps were a means of unbalancing the opponent in preparation for a strong throw.
Greek art illustrates numerous finishing moves, such as the shoulder throw and the “heave.” The latter was often used as a counter to a leg-tackle takedown. The top fighter would sprawl his weight on top of his opponent, grab him around the waist, hoist him feet first into the air, and throw him to the ground on his head. A front choke was another possible counter to the takedown, but it was seen more often in pankration matches.
Greek Martial Art #2: Boxing
Ancient Greek boxing differed in many ways from its modern counterpart. There was no ring and no timed rounds. The boxers fought until one of them withdrew by raising one or two fingers or fell to the ground, unconscious. Sometimes they were allowed to break for a short period to regain their strength and wind. Clinching, however, was strictly forbidden; the referee would use a switch or rod to strike a boxer who attempted such a tactic. Weight divisions were unknown, so the heavier athlete was always favored.
According to myth, Apollo was the creator of boxing, although the claim is also made for Herakles, Theseus and others. Apollo, however, remained the main patron of the sport and is said to have killed Phorbas, a boxer who invited travelers to Delphi to compete with him. Apollo inflicted the same fate on all challengers.
The boxers wrapped thongs around their hands to strengthen their wrists. Until the fifth century B.C., the thongs were simple strips of fine ox leather that were wrapped around the first knuckles, diagonally across the palm and back of the hand (leaving the thumb exposed) and tied around the wrist or forearm. By the fourth century B.C., a glove made of ready-wound leather straps was introduced. The new model left the fingers open and was reinforced with straps of hard leather, with an inner layer of wool for the hand and a sleeve for the forearm. This type of glove was exclusively used by boxers in Greece until the end of the second century. Later, during the Roman era (approximately 200 B.C. to A.D. 500), boxers used hand gauntlets that were reinforced with iron and lead.
With each change in the wrapping method came developments in the sport’s techniques. During the time when the thongs were soft, boxing required more agility, accuracy, speed and flexibility. With the gloves, offensive moves were restricted, blows became harder and more focus was placed on defense. However, the pace of the contest was slower because of the increased weight of the wraps, and that forced the fighters to rely more on brute strength than skill.
Ancient Greek boxing’s rules forbade holds, groin attacks, the reinforcing of the thongs with extra layers of straps and the use of pigskin straps. The referee carefully examined the thongs before each contest to make sure they conformed to the regulations. Nevertheless, injuries were frequent and often fatal. Boxers who killed their opponents included Kleomedes of Astypalaia, who subsequently went mad, and Diognetos of Crete. Practitioners were easily identified by their flattened noses and cauliflower ears.
It was not until the 48th Olympiad in 588 B.C. that a more technical form of boxing was introduced by Pythagoras of Samos. Feinting and footwork became more important than slugging it out toe-to-toe. The boxers closed in on each other on their toes, using small steps and shifting their weight from one knee to the other. Positioning was critical. Because the contests took place outdoors, having one’s back to the sun offered a tactical advantage. For this reason, there was much movement by the fighters.
In their ready stance, the left arm was extended and used as a guarding tool, although it was also used to strike. When combined with a lunge, it could score a knockout. A two-fisted attack, however, was needed to win contests. The rear arm was the major offensive weapon and delivered a variety of powerful blows. They included straight punches, short uppercuts and hooks, and downward chops. Most strikes were directed to the head, but concentrated assaults on the body were also common. The ancient Greeks were among the first combat athletes to understand the effectiveness of body punching and observed the motto, “Kill the body and the head will die.”
Ancient texts mention disfigured fighters whose eyes had been poked out by punches effected with an extended thumb, suggesting that blinding one’s adversary was not a rarity. One vase painting indicates that groin strikes were also fair game. In some instances, a potent punch was all that was needed to secure a victory—as was the case with Glaukos of Karystos, who won his first Olympic outing with punching power alone.
The Greeks considered boxing the most hazardous combat sport. An inscription from the first century B.C. begins by saying that “a boxer’s victory is gained in blood.” Kleitomachos of Thebes could attest to this when he was scheduled to compete in boxing and pankration on the same day. Preferring the limb twisting and kicking of pankration to the relentless punches of boxing, he asked the officials to alter the usual order of the events and hold the pankration contest first because emerging unscathed from a boxing match was virtually impossible.
Ancient Greek Martial Art #3: Pankration
Pankration was the earliest no-holds-barred combat sport. It could also be described as ancient mixed martial arts because the techniques were essentially a combination of Greek boxing and wrestling. The rules permitted virtually anything, with the exception of biting and eye gouging. The groin wasn’t off-limits to strikes and grabs. There were no rounds, weight classifications or formal ring areas; the action took place in the pit of an outdoor stadium.
The competitors sometimes wore light boxing thongs to protect their hands. Victory was determined when a contestant either held up an index finger to signal defeat or was unable to continue. Fatalities were common. Being such a rugged event, pankration attracted only the fittest athletes, and those who competed had to possess great kartereia (toughness).
The rules against biting and eye gouging were strictly enforced by the referee, who wielded his rod or switch at the slightest infraction. Regardless, many who emerged from pankration contests, even the victors, did so with bite wounds and impaired vision. The philosopher Epiktetos noted that being gouged was one of the hazards of a career in pankration.
There were two forms of sport pankration: ano or orthostadin (upright) pankration and kato (down) pankration. Ano pankration, like modern kickboxing, required that both combatants remain standing. It was considered the safer version and reserved for training and preliminary matches. Although striking wasn’t allowed in wrestling and grappling wasn’t allowed in boxing, kato pankration integrated both. When standing, the goal was to land lethal blows aimed at rendering the opponent helpless or senseless. Once the fight went to the ground, the nature of the battle changed dramatically. Rolling on the sand or the muddied ground, the contestants grappled with the intent of submitting the other via a choke or joint lock. Strikes were also commonly employed to weaken the opponent. Numerous pieces of art depict fighters in various top-mount positions, pummeling their foes with their fists.
Ancient Greek Martial Arts Training
Each heavy event was an integral part of a boy’s schooling and was considered just as important to overall development as academics. Every male student was required to earn credits in various athletic endeavors. Boxing, wrestling and pankration were taught progressively as a drill to either a pair of pupils or to an entire class arranged in pairs. After mastering the basic movements and their numerous combinations, students proceeded to “loose play,” or free spar.
Ancient Greek boxers used small punching bags for striking. Pankratiasts practiced their kicks and punches on larger, heavier wineskin sacks filled with sand or meal and hung at shoulder height. Both devices were used to develop punching combinations and kicking power. In addition, swinging bags enabled the fighters to resist an opponent’s momentum. Philostratos wrote that the pankratiast’s punching bag “should also be used to maintain balance and to withstand the onslaught of its rebound. The shoulders and fingers are to be exercised against some resistance, and all the upright positions of pankration are to be assumed.”
Ancient Greek wrestlers frequently plied their trade by learning various tactics with a cooperative partner who would follow and not resist. The bulk of their practice involved wrestling rigorously, while pankratiasts and especially boxers sparred lightly to avoid injury before a contest. This was conducted with padded gloves and special headgear that consisted of two circular pieces of thick leather that covered the ears and fastened over the head and under the jaw. Occasionally, they were made of metal.
Other training methods included weightlifting and pyx atremizein, a test of endurance in which the athlete stood motionless with his arms stretched out either in front or above. Many of the workout sessions attracted large crowds of spectators, and the combatants often practiced to the music of a flute. Like soldiers and other athletes, they were well aware of the importance of rhythm in training.
Besides conditioning exercises to build endurance and strength, athletes often drilled on martial arts techniques without an opponent. In shadowboxing sessions, they practiced the movements of boxing, while in “shadow fighting,” they stressed armed combat skills. Breathing exercises were deemed essential. Ancient Greek theories of breathing stemmed from the work of Aristotle, who wrote: “The soul is air. Air moves and is cognizant. Air that we breathe gives us the soul, life and consciousness.” The athletes inspired by Aristotle concluded that air was the pneuma (spirit), or vital force of all life.
(Jim Arvanitis is a freelance writer and martial artist based in Tampa Bay, Florida. His pioneering work in resurrecting the Greek fighting arts has earned him the nickname “The Father of Modern Pankration.”)