There were neither weight divisions nor time limits in pankration competitions. However, there were two or three age groups in the competitions of antiquity. In the Olympic Games specifically there were only two such age groups: men (andres – ἄνδρες) and boys (paides – παῖδες). The pankration event for boys was established at the Olympic Games in 200 B.C.. In pankration competitions, referees were armed with stout rods or switches to enforce the rules. In fact, there were only two rules regarding combat: no eye gouging or biting. Sparta was the only place eye gouging and biting was allowed. The contest itself usually continued uninterrupted until one of the combatants submitted, which was often signalled by the submitting contestant raising his index finger. The judges appear, however, to have had the right to stop a contest under certain conditions and award the victory to one of the two athletes; they could also declare the contest a tie.
Pankration competitions were held in tournaments, most being outside of the Olympics. Each tournament began with a ritual which would decide how the tournament would take place. Grecophone satirist Lucian describes the process in a detailed manner:
A sacred silver urn is brought, in which they have put bean-size lots. On two lots an alpha is inscribed, on two a beta, and on another two a gamma, and so on. If there are more athletes, two lots always have the same letter. Each athlete comes forth, prays to Zeus, puts his hand into the urn and draws out a lot. Following him, the other athletes do the same. Whip bearers are standing next to the athletes, holding their hands and not allowing them to read the letter they have drawn. When everyone has drawn a lot, the alytarch, or one of the Hellanodikai walks around and looks at the lots of the athletes as they stand in a circle. He then joins the athlete holding the alpha to the other who has drawn the alpha for wrestling or pankration, the one who has the beta to the other with the beta, and the other matching inscribed lots in the same manner.
This process was apparently repeated every round until the finals.
If there was an odd number of competitors, there would be a bye (ἔφεδρος — ephedros “reserve”) in every round until the last one. The same athlete could be an ephedros more than once, and this could of course be of great advantage to him as the ephedros would be spared the wear and tear of the rounds imposed on his opponent(s). To win a tournament without being an ephedros in any of the rounds (ἀνέφεδρος — anephedros “non-reserve”) was thus an honorable distinction.
There is evidence that the major Games in Greek antiquity easily had four tournament rounds, that is, a field of sixteen athletes. Xanthos mentions the largest number—nine tournament rounds. If these tournament rounds were held in one competition, up to 512 contestants would participate in the tournament, which is difficult to believe for a single contest. Therefore one can hypothesize that the nine rounds included those in which the athlete participated during regional qualification competitions that were held before the major games. Such preliminary contests were held prior to the major games to determine who would participate in the main event. This makes sense, as the 15–20 athletes competing in the major games could not have been the only available contestants. There is clear evidence of this in Plato, who refers to competitors in the Panhellenic Games, with opponents numbering in the thousands. Moreover, in the first century A.D., the Greco-Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria —who was himself probably a practitioner of pankration— makes a statement that could be an allusion to preliminary contests in which an athlete would participate and then collect his strength before coming forward fresh in the major competition.