In Greek mythology, it was said that the heroes Heracles and Theseus invented pankration as a result of using both wrestling and boxing in their confrontations with opponents. Theseus was said to have utilized his extraordinary pankration skills to defeat the dreaded Minotaur in the Labyrinth. Heracles was said to have subdued the Nemean lion using pankration, and was often depicted in ancient artwork doing that. In this context, it should be noted that pankration was also referred to as pammachon or pammachion (πάμμαχον or παμμάχιον), meaning “total combat”, from πᾶν-, pān-, “all-” or “total”, and μάχη, machē, “combat”. The term pammachon was older, and would later become used less than the term pankration.
The mainstream academic view has been that pankration was the product of the development of archaic Greek society of the seventh century BC, whereby, as the need for expression in violent sport increased, pankration filled a niche of “total contest” that neither boxing or wrestling could. However, some evidence suggests that pankration, in both its sporting form and its combative form, may have been practiced in Greece already from the second millennium BC.
Pankration, as practiced in historical antiquity, was an athletic event that combined techniques of both boxing (pygmē/pygmachia – πυγμή/πυγμαχία) and wrestling (palē – πάλη), as well as additional elements, such as the use of strikes with the legs, to create a broad fighting sport very similar to today’s mixed martial arts competitions. There is evidence that, although knockouts were common, most pankration competitions were probably decided on the ground where both striking and submission techniques would freely come into play. Pankratiasts were highly skilled grapplers and were extremely effective in applying a variety of takedowns, chokes and joint locks. In extreme cases a pankration competition could even result in the death of one of the opponents, which was considered a win.
However, pankration was more than just an event in the athletic competitions of the ancient Greek world; it was also part of the arsenal of Greek soldiers – including the famous Spartan hoplites and Alexander the Great’s Macedonian phalanx. It is said that the Spartans at their immortal stand at Thermopylae fought with their bare hands and teeth once their swords and spears broke.
The feats of the ancient pankratiasts became legendary in the annals of Greek athletics. Stories abound of past champions who were considered invincible beings. Arrhichion, Dioxippus, Polydamas of Skotoussa and Theogenes (often referred to as Theagenes of Thasos after the first century AD) are among the most highly recognized names. Their accomplishments defying the odds were some of the most inspiring of ancient Greek athletics and they served as inspiration to the Hellenic world for centuries, as Pausanias, the ancient traveller and writer indicates when he re-tells these stories in his narrative of his travels around Greece.
Dioxippus was an Athenian who had won the Olympic Games in 336 BC, and was serving in Alexander the Great’s army in its expedition into Asia. As an admired champion, he naturally became part of the circle of Alexander the Great. In that context, he accepted a challenge from one of Alexander’s most skilled soldiers named Coragus to fight in front of Alexander and the troops in armed combat. While Coragus fought with weapons and full armour, Dioxippus showed up armed only with a club and defeated Coragus without killing him, making use of his pankration skills. Later, however, Dioxippus was framed for theft, which led him to commit suicide.
In an odd turn of events, a pankration fighter named Arrhichion (Ἀρριχίων) of Phigalia won the pankration competition at the Olympic Games despite being dead. His opponent had locked him in a chokehold and Arrhichion, desperate to loosen it, broke his opponent’s toe (some records say his ankle). The opponent nearly passed out from pain and submitted. As the referee raised Arrhichion’s hand, it was discovered that he had died from the chokehold. His body was crowned with the olive wreath and taken back to Phigaleia as a hero.
By the Imperial Period, the Romans had adopted the Greek combat sport (spelled in Latin as pancratium) into their Games. In 393 A.D., the pankration, along with gladiatorial combat and all pagan festivals, was abolished by edict of the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I. Pankration itself was an event in the Olympic Games for some 1,000 years. It is a matter of controversy whether and to what extent pankration persisted in Greek and the broader Byzantine society after the ancient Games were discontinued.