In creating pankration’s modern derivation, Jim “Renaissance Man” Arvanitis has extensively studied its historical counterpart. In conjunction with the knowledge he gleaned from training in boxing, wrestling, muay thai, karate, and kosen judo, Arvanitis used ancient Greek literature and artwork to inform his reconstruction. Likewise, Arvanitis’ many experiences in street fighting and competitions gave the Greek-American insights combat psychology and professional training.
Aside from seminars, Arvanitis has published many books and videos on martial arts. Following his recent publication, Pankration: The Unchain Combat Sport of Ancient Greece, Arvanitis will be publishing two more books in the upcoming year and featuring in his third cover article for Black Belt magazine. I recently had the opportunity to interview Jim Arvanitis. The following is the second of a two-segment interview and revolves around Arvanitis’ research into ancient pankration and its possible effects on modern mixed martial arts.
In reconstructing pankration techniques, images recovered from the archaeological record form an important source of information. The medium cannot, however, easily convey combination or sequence based attacks. How did you address this issue?
The remnants left to us by the ancient Greeks conveyed to me that the pankratiasts of antiquity embraced totality. They combined boxing, wrestling, and kicking techniques in their Panhellenic festivals as a means of testing their skill, knowledge, and courage in an almost unrestricted mode of combat, both physically and mentally. These images from sculptures and vases, along with literature from poets and philosophers, provided a guide in refining a means of total fighting freedom that was contrary to the more popular martial arts during the early-1970s. Back then, a martial artist was either a standup fighter or grappler. Few were blending both. The combinations and what I call transitions were the direct result of my training in fighting systems that were compatible … boxing, wrestling, catch, kosen judo, muay-Thai, and savate. One of my foremost objectives was to cohesively integrate moves from these so they flowed congruently and worked under the most extreme conditions.
Individuals in Pankration would have developed their own approach to combat based on their physical and physiological characteristics. Do you believe distinct styles/schools of pankration eventually emerged in ancient Greece as a result?
While there were no specific “styles” per-se of pankration with their own distinctive names (as in classical karate or kung-fu), ancient Greek pankratiasts were highly influenced by their regions and their athletic trainers. The Elean Greeks, for instance, were extraordinary grapplers and feared for their ability to quickly seize control of their adversaries and submit them with lethal chokes. Before the Spartans discontinued competing in Olympic pankration, they were known for their dominant boxing prowess.
The ancient Greeks heavily debated the usefulness of combat sports like pankration in preparing individuals for military action. For instance, Euripides and Plato had reservations but Plutarch and Philostratus stressed its benefits. Why do you believe there wasn’t a widespread consensus? Do you lean towards one side or the other?
There will always be critics who question whether a combat sport produces an exceptional warrior in life-or-death conflict. Greek history tells us that on at least one occasion a trained pankratiast (Dioxxipus) defeated an armed and armored hoplite (Coragus) with relative ease. We also have evidence that some highly-regarded combat athletes lost their lives in panoply facing sword and spear. Critics such as Plato (among scores of others) felt that as the sport evolved the greater reliance on ground fighting made pankration useless for war. I believe that while the two share some common characteristics, they’re also vastly different. Being a great military warrior does not make for a great combat athlete. Nor does a great combat athlete make for a great military warrior. Qualifying as both is somewhat of a rarity.
You mentioned Pankration almost exclusively relied on front kicks, an assertion supported by the archaeological record, because they optimized economy of movement, afforded more balance, and were more difficult to guard against. Do you believe MMA fighters will eventually follow suit?
One of my favorite sayings is that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Front kicks have a long tradition in Greek pankration and in its earlier predecessor of pammachon (Gr. total fight). I favor front kicks due to their motion economy, better balance, and their directness makes them more difficult to defend against. The ancient Greeks were realists and minimized unnecessary movement in their techniques. This was due to the impact of battlefield combat on the earliest version of pankration. It was only when it evolved in the Olympic Games did the skills become more diverse, especially in the grappling and ground component. However, I also utilize other kicks to add greater utility to my striking arsenal. We have already seen the effectiveness of the front kick in MMA by some fighters who completely took their opponents out of their game plan by surprising them with this relatively uncommon technique.
Ancient sources consistently mention the advantages of superior size and strength convey to participants in pankration competitions. Do you believe that actively attempting to increase muscle mass and overall bulk is as important as honing timing and precision?
Ancient pankration had no weight divisions and most accounts mention that the sport was the domain of the larger, heavier athletes. When training with weights, the goal should be to enhance both speed and strength, not merely size or bulk. Fighters are not bodybuilders. This requires a working knowledge of those exercises that hone these attributes, not hinder them. At the same time, drills for timing and precision are an absolute must in one’s training program. Too much size/bulk can often slow down one’s movements and impede flexibility. A ripped physique from training and diet is visually impressive but does not ensure invincibility in fighting. In addition, size can often be overcome by superior speed and technique.
Pammachon, the battlefield origin of the combat sport pankration, was developed with the restrictive hoplite panoply in mind. Because of the different contexts in which they were used, hand to hand combat in pankration and pammachon eventually became distinct disciplines. In a similar manner, when working with armed forces have you altered certain techniques to accommodate for gear and body armor?
I teach material based on the needs of my students, and modify techniques and tactical applications accordingly. Pammachon was evident in the earliest pankration events with the limited number of techniques and emphasis on standup (ano) combat, but transforming a pure combat method into a competitive sport is always a complicated task. There were certain elements that worked in the skamma (Gr. sandpit) that would prove futile on the blood-soaked battlefields, and vice versa. The same holds true today when comparing reality-based survival fighting to the rules-laden combat sports such as MMA. In many cases, the ultimate intent of one is to kill while the other is to win. I have trained special military forces since Operation Desert Storm in 1992. Each time I work with them I consider their attire, the weaponry carried, and the fact that most of their skirmishes take place at close quarters. I also teach gross motor moves for rapid conflict termination.
What insights into the ideal fighting mindset have your experiences in street fighting, where your opponents could easily have drawn weapons and gone for the kill, given you?
Just because a martial art is popular does not make it effective for serious self-defense. One must always be on the lookout for edged weapons, handguns, bludgeons, and mass assaults in a high-risk confrontation. This comes from my own experiences in street brawls where no rules or referees exist. A kill-or-be-killed mentality is paramount under these circumstances. Going to the ground is not an ideal ploy as there is always the risk of multiple assailants. Even if the fight does end up there, the goal should be to inflict heavy damage and return to your feet as quickly as possible. Getting a stable mount and looking for a joint lock, which works so well in MMA, is not really a wise choice here since locking the legs under an opponent’s thighs makes you vulnerable to others who decide to jump in to help their fallen friend. It’s better to stay upright where you can control distance and attack soft targets like the eyes, throat, and groin. Keep your kicks low and save your closed fist for body shots. Landing punches on a hard head can fracture your small bones and splay your wrist.