Sweat trickles down my brow, stinging my eyes, but I ignore the discomfort. Between the protective barrier of my MMA gloves, I carefully follow my opponent’s hand faints and head movements. The stifling heat weighs us down, constricting our breathing. Fortunately, I had just spent eight hours excavating in the Athenian Agora under a blazing summer sun. In comparison, even with the doors and windows thrown wide-open, the shaded interior of the gym feels refreshing.
I slide my feet over the cool surface of the mats, circling slowly as my mind runs through techniques and combinations. I lean back from a left-hook and counter with a straight cross. It’s been three days since I first stepped into the Pankration Arena, a small gym tucked away on a side street of the Pangrati district. Coming from a background in taekwando, the shuffling steps feel unnatural.
“Oxi. To kaneis lathos” Our coach, Panos, interrupts our sparring. “I told you, Mike, keep both shoulders facing forward”
Faced with my first attempt at full contact sparring adjusting stance seemed low on the priority list but I oblige nonetheless. I continue to circle my opponent, intermittently testing his defenses. Suddenly, with speed belying his size, he steps within striking distance and slams a heavy jab into my brow. My response is instantaneous.
As the jab connects my anger flares. I can still feel the burning sensation where synthetic leather pressed into my brow. Without conscious thought, my muscles tighten and my hands close into tight fists. Then I meet my opponent’s eyes.
I find no antagonism in his calm expression, no personal vendetta. As I slip another jab, I wonder at his control. To him the exchange is just a game with higher stakes, a way to improve his techniques against a reacting opponent. We continue sparring as the sun sets behind the distant acropolis. Although strikes land and sweat flows freely, by the time we lower our hands the exchange feels more like a conversation than a fight.