Martial Arts in the Olympics: Have the Games Changed Wrestling? Is There Hope for Pankration?

In Part 1 of this series, Black Belt examined judo and how it’s changed because of the Olympics.

In Part 2, we looked at taekwondo and the effect the Games have had on the Korean martial art.

In Part 3, the subject was the Olympics and karate — which, it was recently confirmed, will debut at the 2020 Games.

Here, we discuss how wrestling has been altered and whether pankration has a chance of getting back in.

— Editors

Mark Hatmaker (Photo Courtesy of Mark Hatmaker)

EXPERT: Mark Hatmaker, contributing editor, founder of Extreme Self-Protection

QUESTION: How is Olympic wrestling different from the various styles of folk wrestling?

MARK HATMAKER: In a nutshell, you’ve got two forms of wrestling in the Olympics: freestyle and Greco-Roman. Both are blends of traditional wrestling styles designed to meet an agreed-upon competitive standard that will translate across many styles and cultures. There are differences between freestyle and Greco-Roman, but if we allow for the simplistic observation that freestyle permits shooting takedowns on the legs and working the legs — whereas Greco-Roman does not — we’ve got a good picture of the two.

Earlier versions of folk wrestling, many of which still exist, can differ on points as varied as one or both shoulders being required for a pin, mandatory grips, gear used in matches (belt wrestling and the like), time limits and so on.

QUESTION: Did being in the Olympics change wrestling from a martial art to a martial sport?

MARK HATMAKER: If legend is to be believed, the original incarnation of the Olympics had wrestling, boxing and, of course, pankratium in forms that were far more brutal. More latitude was given regarding the holds and locks that were permitted, and striking was not necessarily prohibited even in “straight wrestling” matches.

As such, this gives more weight to the notion that wrestling used to be practiced as a martial art or warrior art. Then, with the resurrection of the Olympics in 1896, we see the transition to codified and restrictive rule sets that moved wrestling into the territory of sport.

QUESTION: Has Olympic inclusion boosted the popularity of wrestling overall?

Announcing a new low price on the Greg Jackson Mixed Martial Arts Core Curriculum, an online course from Black Belt magazine and the world’s leading MMA coach! Learn the best fighting techniques, combinations and strategies on your tablet or smartphone. More info here!

MARK HATMAKER: This is a tough one to answer. The historical evidence seems to point to wrestling being quite popular in many cultures between the two Olympic eras. There’s hardly a village festival of note that didn’t include some gathering of locals to wrestle for bragging rights or town honors.

If we accept that, then modern wrestling was merely keying into that popularity. It seems to be more since the advent of show/entertainment wrestling that we’ve seen a marked decrease in the actual sport’s popularity and a gradual disappearance from festivals.

Some of this might be blamed on the show version of wrestling itself, where the spectacle of what’s clearly pretend becomes so entangled in some minds that — let’s face it — it delivers a crushing blow to the acceptability of what is legitimate.

Wrestling is popular with youth, but we must look to show wrestling as one of the drivers of this. As show wrestling was rising in the 1920s and ’30s and taking over the legitimate circuit, many shooters — real-deal professional wrestlers with actual wrestling prowess — became disenchanted and left the circuit. Many of these athletes didn’t want to give up on the game and wound up starting high-school wrestling programs.

QUESTION: Did the addition of wrestling to the modern Olympics change it from a form of self-defense to a “sport kids do in high school when they’re forced to”?

Kelly McCann’s Combatives Self-Defense Course, a new remote-learning program from Black Belt, will help you fine-tune your street-defense skills using your tablet or smartphone!

MARK HATMAKER: Adding a rule set to protect athletes moved it a bit into the less-than-real-world-martial-arts category, but I say that with some qualification. If we accept that MMA is a sport — which it is, albeit a sport that seems like it has good transfers to self-defense — and if we acknowledge that most MMA fighters believe there’s no finer base for MMA than wrestling, we must conclude that wrestling is a sport. But it’s a combat sport that will stand you in better stead in a real-world confrontation than, say, tennis or basketball.

All in all, the rules are there to protect the athlete, but anyone who’s been on the mat can tell you that, rules or not, if you aren’t prepared for what the wrestler is going to dish …

Jim Arvanitis on the Greek Olympic Games, MMA and Pankration

Internationally known as the “Father of Modern Pankration,” Jim Arvanitis, the Black Belt Hall of Fame 2009 Instructor of the Year, contends that “be it a front kick, hammerfist or shoulder throw, the lineage of each can be traced back to the ancient Greeks.” He should know, having studied pankration and both its modern-combat and mixed-martial arts applications for decades.

When visiting the Black Belt photo studio for a technique shoot, he broke into a brief history of pankration and the Greek Olympic Games and how they tie into what we now know as mixed martial arts.

Pankration Icon Jim Arvanitis Gives a Brief History of Ancient MMA and the Greek Olympic Games

“You look at MMA today [and] for us it’s nothing new,” Jim Arvanitis says. “This was goin’ on 3,000 years ago and more.

“The Greeks were great documenters. They had great poets and great writers of the era who loved sports. [In Greek culture], sport dominated their everyday life.”

The Sports of the Early Greek Olympic Games

“They were able to put everything together because they were looking for the ultimate sport,” Jim Arvanitis says about the Greeks and their early Olympic Games. “Wrestling was introduced in the Olympics first as one of what was called the heavy events. And the Greeks were happy with that for a while. Then they introduced boxing.

“Then they felt, Well, we need something that combines the two. We need something a little bit more rigorous, a little more challenging. We’ve got the greatest athletes here!

“And that’s where the pankration came from, which I simply modified as [modern] pankration.”

How Jim Arvanitis Modernized the Pankration of the Early Greek Olympic Games

“I took some of the ideas [in ancient pankration techniques] and gave [them] a contemporary flair,” Jim Arvanitis explains. “It has its roots in antiquity, going way back. It had to be modernized because (a.) we’re not fighting naked anymore and (b.) I really felt some of the techniques were not simplistic techniques. You could see the end results … you could see a throw, you could see a submission hold, you could see them actually doing fall tactics. You could see the referee using a stout rod to hit [athletes who were] doing something that considered forbidden — like gouging out an eye or biting the fingers.”

Learn more about throws in this FREE REPORT — Three Judo Throws at the Foundation of Judo Training: An Introduction to Self-Defense Techniques!

Differences Between Pankration of the Greek Olympic Games and the MMA of Today

“[Pankration] was to the submission,” Jim Arvanitis says. “And they didn’t submit verbally or tap out like they do in MMA today; they raised a finger. Basically, when a fighter knew he was being defeated and couldn’t continue, he would raise his index finger in submission.

“[Sometimes] it did end in death because a lot of these guys were Spartan-type spirits and they would not know when to quit.

“There are some fascinating stories about Olympic champions who were actually being choked out and yet they made their opponent surrender with, let’s say, an ankle lock and at the same time they were choked to death.

“However, [the fighter getting choked out was] given the kotinas (victory wreath) because actually they made the opponent quit before they died — so they were declared the winner!”

The First Mixed Martial Art: Pankration From Myths to Modern Times

Jim Arvanitis’ The First Mixed Martial Art: Pankration From Myths to Modern Times is a full-color, 230-page book that covers the history of the early Greek Olympic Games with beautiful artwork, maps, historical quotes and more, as well as dozens of modern-pankration techniques explained through full-color photo sequences and detailed captions. …

Using Pankration Techniques Against Modern Weapons

If you’re a student of self-defense, learning how to wield ancient weapons and defend against them is impractical. Why? Because it’s unlikely you’ll face a Greek spear or a Japanese katana outside the dojo. It’s much more practical to acquire a working knowledge of edged weapons and firearms and concentrate on how to neutralize them.

The pankration approach to weapons defense teaches you to always assume your assailant is armed while you look for subtle clues about what he’s actually carrying. If he’s wearing a coat in hot weather or has one hand behind his back or in a pocket, he might be concealing a handgun. Regardless of how good you are at gun disarms, you should resort to using such a technique only if you think all other alternatives—avoidance, de-escalation and escape—are futile.

To learn more about Jim Arvanitis’ take on empty-hand self-defense, pick up a copy of the September 2011 issue of Black Belt magazine.

Knife defense is just as serious, sometimes even more so. Your chances of not getting cut are slim. Therefore, your goal should be to keep from being stabbed and to prevent your attacker from slicing a major artery.

Empty-hand techniques against weapons are clearly the last resort.

When you practice defense, similar principles apply to both endeavors. You must move off the line of attack and simultaneously perform a hand defense. If your opponent’s weapon is a handgun and you’re close enough to touch it, you can take it. That often entails gripping the end of the barrel and twisting it away from you, then applying a joint manipulation to make it easier to remove it from his grasp. Once it’s in your possession, you can strike him or move into a safety zone while holding him at gunpoint.

The First Mixed Martial Art: Pankration From Myths to Modern Times

Knife assaults can be static—such as when the blade is held against a part of your body—or in motion—such as when he’s slashing at you from various angles. You must strive to immobilize the weapon hand (without gripping the blade) or disarm the assailant. Either way, once the immediate threat is neutralized, strike with speed and ferocity until he’s incapacitated. Pankration teaches a multitude of techniques for finishing the fight at this point, whether it’s standing or on the ground.…

Jim Arvanitis Resurrects Pankration: The First Mixed Martial Art

There’s no denying that Jim Arvanitis is a skilled martial artist. He moves like a 30-year-old both on his feet and on the ground, where he flows from technique to technique with an ease you seldom see outside a high-end grappling school. And there’s no denying that he’s a martial arts historian par excellence. One look at his most recent book, The First Mixed Martial Art: Pankration From Myths to Modern Times, reveals that he’s intimately familiar not only with pankration, the fighting system of his Greek ancestors, but also with the rise of the martial arts in the West.

But neither of those is the reason I admire him. What struck me the first time we met was his honesty. It’s starkly illustrated in the following passage, which was lifted from a yet-to-be-published article he wrote: “In 393, pankration, along with gladiatorial combat and all pagan festivals, were abolished by an edict from the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I. In terms of an Olympic sport, pankration had been practiced for some 1,000 years. While there’s proof that wrestling persisted in Hellenic society after the conclusion of the Olympic Games, little evidence supports that either boxing or pankration continued. It’s safe to assume that pankration vanished for the next two millennia.”

Nick Hines, Jim Arvanitis’ senior student, penned a paragraph that continued the story—and reflected his teacher’s truthful approach to the history of his art: “Although it’s been claimed that various clans in Greece attempted to assemble what remained into a martial art, not until the 20th century was it regenerated into a tangible form and introduced to the martial arts world. Jim Arvanitis … spent years researching the history, modifying the training methodology and codifying pankration into a contemporary form of hybrid fighting.”

Such honesty is rare. In most parts of the world where martial arts developed, you can find masters who claim to teach ancient fighting arts that exhibit techniques that are identical to those of other arts, yet they deny there was any cross-pollination. And here we have Jim Arvanitis, openly admitting that many of the specifics about pankration’s techniques were lost in time and that he had to patch those holes.

“With my continuing research, I noticed ‘voids,’ or areas that necessitated modification,” Jim Arvanitis said. “That’s where the inclusion of modern resources came in. I never intended my revival effort and personal interpretation of the ancient form to be an exact replication. Having been defunct for some 2,000 years, how could it be? Why should it be?”

Which sources did he rely on to fill those voids? Boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling, as well as muay Thai and judo, especially its ne waza (grappling techniques), he says. “I also studied tactical knife fighting with some skillful Greeks and Massad Ayoob for the battlefield component, and Massad Ayoob and I have worked extensively on handgun disarms since 1974.”

Such is the martial art that Jim Arvanitis teaches—through classes and seminars, as well as via video and the printed word. Throughout the years, his message has been essentially the same: The ancient Greeks had their own style of combat, and if you try it, you’ll find that it’s every bit as comprehensive and effective as anything in Asia. He says his goal is to bring credit to his ancestors for their contributions to the martial arts, and he’s doing a fine job of it.

The staff of Black Belt is pleased to induct him into its Hall of Fame as 2009 Instructor of the Year.…

Pankration, Boxing and Wrestling: 3 Combat Sports From Ancient Greece

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 …