Jim Arvanitis, widely known as pankration’s “Renaissance Man”, has won numerous Hall of Fame awards in martial arts, including Grandmaster of the Year, Black Belt magazine’s Instructor of the Year, and PanHellenic Athlete of the Decade. The Greek/American has dedicated his life to reconstructing pankration, the ancient combat sport of his Spartan forefathers. By combining evidence from archaeological remains, ancient literary accounts, and his own expansive knowledge of martial arts, Arvanitis has spearheaded pankration’s revival and earned the title “Father of Modern Pankration.”
In his formative years, Arvanitis trained in boxing, wrestling, muay thai, karate, and kosen judo. Throughout his training, he adopted a functional approach to martial arts by assimilating or discarding techniques based on combat effectiveness. Arvanitis always emphasized physical fitness and set several world records through feats of strength. To ensure the applicability of his style in modern altercations, Arvanitis became an experienced competitor and street-fighter. His practical approach to hand to hand fighting, including grappling and striking in equal measures, lead Black Belt magazine to name Arvanitis “the first mixed martial artist.”
While continuing his own personal training and experimentation in martial arts, Arvanitis also began disseminating his teachings to the public, including seminars for professional bodyguards, law enforcement personnel, military special forces, and Army Rangers. Arvanitis has made available numerous well-reviewed books and videos on pankration and 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 the pankration grandmaster. The following is the first of two segments and revolves around Arvanitis’ thoughts, experiences, and perspectives in pankration and mixed martial arts.
Your new book “Pankration: the Unchain Combat Sport of Ancient Greece” heavily emphasizes the biomechanics of fighting. Are there any techniques or concepts in your newest publication that you previously believed in, but now reject in light of your continued research into martial arts?
I see my martial arts journey as a process of constant learning. In that sense, I still practice those techniques which I feel are FUNCTIONAL either standing or on the ground. For me, a true pankratiast must be adaptable to any situation, and be proficient at skills that enable him to survive in any means of physical engagement … ring, cage, street, or wherever it happens to take place. So I remain confident in that which I have accumulated through the years though I am free to modify where necessary for optimum efficiency. That is the beauty of a non-stylized mindset … there is no definitive set of maneuvers that must remain stagnant and unchanged due to the confining shackles imposed by tradition.
Have modern understandings in nutrition and kinesiology advanced your reconstruction of certain techniques beyond the level of ancient pankration? Does this hold true for MMA fighters?
I agree with the quote, “There is nothing as constant as change.” With advancements in technology there is always the need to stay current for self-improvement and growth. Ancient pankration is merely a blueprint in my evolution of “all-powers” combat. Its training methodology, diet, and techniques were appropriate for a different time. More essential was that I
continually educate myself from various contemporary sources to understand what could make me a better martial artist and athlete. This is the value of cross-training and independent research. MMA coaches are following this same approach for adequately preparing their fighters for competition. They involve specialists in striking, wrestling and BJJ, nutrition, strength and conditioning, and strategic planning for this purpose in their training camps.
TRAINING AND PREPARATION
What convinced you to add weight lifting to your calisthenics and isometric exercises in honing your body for combat?
Due to my relatively small frame as a teenager, I felt that incorporating weight training into my workout routine would aid in making me stronger. My later study in the college of kinesiology and sports exercise gave me a better comprehension of the human body and those muscle groups that were applicable in combat movements. This was vital for striking effectiveness, and very instrumental in the grappling (pale) and ground (kato) phase.
You have endorsed both researching your opponent before a fight and remaining adaptable to change. What kind of training schedule, as far as intensity, activates, or exercises, do feel are most effective for modern MMA fighters the week before a competition?
I might suggest light contact sparring, combat simulation drills with equipment, and analyzing films of an opponent in action to exploit particular strengths and weaknesses. Too much hard sparring so close to a scheduled bout should be avoided. Going into a fight injured from training or having to withdraw altogether are not good options. The MMA competitor should stick to the fight plan devised by his coaches. Deviation from this plan might work against him, but he must always remain open and pliable enough to take advantage of mistakes made by the opposing fighter during the course of a match.
MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM
The ‘movement’ concept endorsed by people like Ido Portal, which revolves around training fluid and complex movement patterns seen in gymnastics and breakdancing, is gaining traction with MMA fighters. What are your thoughts on training in other disciplines outside of martial arts to improve body movement?
I have always emphasized fluidity of motion in combat from the outset. Training in gymnastics and certain forms of dance can certainly improve one’s unpredictability in combat due to swift, agile footwork and upper body movement. From my study of boxing, I found that boxers that bob and weave and slip punches effectively were much more difficult to hit squarely or knock out. Elusive mobility is a core principle of my personal fighting philosophy.
The Greeks incorporated the pyrrhic dance to help develop rhythm in combat, are there similar exercises you incorporate?
Similar to the pyrrhic dances, I believe in implementing music (including rock as well as that of modern-day Greece) in many aspects of my training. For instance, I listen to my favorite songs while I jump rope, run, and when hitting equipment. I also shadow fight where I focus on developing my footwork and music plays an important role to promote my sense of rhythm. The ancients performed their combative maneuvers to the accompaniment of musical instruments, such as the lyre, to help them in this regard. However, they were free-form practices rather than the memorized patterns of karate’s kata.
MODERN MARTIAL ARTISTS
Are there any current Mixed Martial Artists that have caught your attention and why?
There are several outstanding mixed martial artists currently competing. I like those who bring the true spirit of respect and honor into the cage as opposed to ridiculous WWE antics. I also notice those who are well-conditioned with excellent cardio. In my humble opinion, being fit is at least 50% of the fight game. The Diaz brothers are good examples of MMA fighters who just keep going and going. They do a lot of running and triathlons which I also have participated in for several years. I feel activities like these help with maintaining proper energy levels. Many excel as either standup strikers or grapplers but there are but a handful that are truly well-rounded. Even this Mcgregor fellow who receives so much PR for the UFC needs to improve his skill-set on the ground, especially if he draws a tough grappler such as Khabib Nurmagomedov. On the other side of the coin, fighting is never an exact science … sometimes all it takes is a fluke punch or a flash injury to end a contest.
Bruce Lee’s open-minded approach to martial arts, like your own, predated many concepts in MMA. Have you had any interactions or conversations with Bruce Lee, or been influenced by his work?
When I first arrived in Los Angeles in 1973 to shoot the landmark cover story for Black Belt magazine, the editor wanted to arrange a meeting with Bruce Lee. He felt the similarities in thinking would make for an interesting discussion. Lee, however, was filming in Hong Kong at the time. Unfortunately, he died a few days later. While I respect Lee’s legacy, I was never actually influenced by his work. Many tend to compare my concepts with his, but the fact is that our backgrounds are entirely different. Bruce emerged primarily from a classical wing chun background and branched out later in his ideology, whereas I came from Western combat sports where freedom of expression and movement were already ingrained in my cognitive and physiological makeup. I evolved my own personal art exclusively from my individual studies and experiences. I really had no preference as to striking or wrestling … I was equally passionate about both. I also feel that grappling and ground-based skills were far more evident in what I was doing than Lee’s original JKD. One thing we did have in common is our passion for martial arts and being fit, and there’s no denying that!