Fighting sports have long been considered primitive, and to a certain extent, that belief is true. Fighting may be one of the most primal of human activities after eating, sleeping, and sex. It is easy to imagine the earliest species of hominids swinging at each other over left-over meat or a closer proximity to the fire. But although we can only speculate as to the validity of this scenario, historical evidence exists that proves fighting was indeed considered sport in the ancient world. Wall paintings in Egypt from 2000 B.C.E. depict groups of men practicing various wrestling techniques. Artwork and pottery provide some of the earliest accounts of boxing and wrestling: a beautifully preserved sixteenth century B.C.E. fresco dubbed “Boxing Boys” from the island of Santorini shows two young men with long dreaded hair and a small loin cloth punching each other at very close quarters. A fragment of a Mycenaenan pot circa 1300-1200 B.C.E. found in Cypress features two stylized male figures striking at each other with extended arms.
Nearly every society, existing and extinct, has a martial art or a folk fighting style practiced by certain portions of its citizenry. The ancient Greeks are most often trotted out in reference to historical fighting sports, not necessarily because they practiced it more than other nations or dynasties, but because the Greeks were prolific writers, obsessed with their own history, and their place in the world.
Ancient Greece, in particular, celebrated the combat sports practiced by their athletes as the embodiment of their most cherished cultural codes. Combat sports demonstrated athletic prowess, bravery, power, determination—they did not shy away from violence, or capitulate to an enemy. Wrestling, boxing, and the Pankration were called barea athla, the ‘heavy events,’ because the sports were dominated by large, strong men, for there were no weight-classes in antiquity.
The combat triad were also heavy in that participants were engaging in the most violent form of athletics at the time. Death was not unheard of and in fact, the ancient Olympic Games held that an athlete was free of legal responsibility were he to kill his opponent during a match.
Boxing, wrestling, and the Pankration were three distinct sports, each with their own stable of fighters and fans. Numerous fighters, however, were multi-disciplinary, competing in boxing one day and Pankration the following day. That is, if he were able to compete. For all three were, again, heavy, and demonstrated the cultural concept of karteria, meaning toughness or perseverance. The Greeks loved all their sports, but they revered the barea athla, the heavy events.
The fighters in the heavy events competed in today’s version of Absolute. There were no weight classes, and other than dividing the competitors between men and boys, athletes could face any opponent in their sport, regardless of size. While larger, stronger men typically dominated, the agility, speed, and precision of a smaller fighter could prevail over a bigger opponent. In addition to the lack of weight classes, none of the three sports had rounds or time-limits. There was no a point system, which meant that contests were won by knockout or submission, or when a fighter could not continue due to fatigue or injury. Since admitting to either one would have been shameful, the matches for all three sports typically lasted a very long time. An excruciating long time by today’s standards.
Because the fights could only end by death, knockout, or submission, fighters were strategic in every aspect of their match. The three heavy events shared an arena, the skamma, which was part of the running track in the event stadium. According to sports historian Nigel B. Crowther, extra sand would be laid down upon the track in order to provide an extra bit of cushion for the fighters. There was no ring to restrict the fighting space, which was apparently would have been the size of a modern football field, but at times, officials would cordon off an area of the skamma in order to bring the fighters closer together and diminish the amount of rest. While judges did not call fights based on a combatant’s ability to continue, the judges used sticks to poke, prod, or beat fighters who stalled, committed fouls, or just seemed tired.
Fighters from all three disciplines trained indoors, in the palaestra, a special training academy for top Greek athletes. But during competitions, whether the Olympics, local tournaments, or funeral games, athletes competed outside, in the sunlight. Therefore, fighters worked hard to ensure that they were not staring into the sun. Good footwork was imperative, even more than strength, in this particular strategy.
The ‘heavy events’ of ancient Greece had much in common, from their venue in the skamma to the lack of weight-classes, points, time-limit, and rounds, but each also had their own rules and rituals that made them unique. And of course, all of them have their stories, the tales of athleticism, of horror, and of triumph, that establish boxing, wrestling, and the Pankration in ancient Greece as one of the originators of today’s combat sports.
Boxing was considered the ‘heaviest’ of the heavy sports because the fighters generally landed very hard punches from a distance, rather than the shorter strikes common the Pankration. One of the earliest written accounts of an organized boxing match occurs in Homer’s The Iliad, a text considered a historical reference by Ancient Greeks rather than our current classification as a literary masterpiece. The funeral games for the recently slain Patroclus included a prize fight in “the painful art of boxing.” The first contender, Epeus, took up the challenge, the prize of which was a mule, with a loquacious dispersion, setting a precedent for the type of bravado that is now standard for any fighter. The man swaggered and declared:
Let the man who is to have the cup come hither, for none but myself will take the mule. I am the best boxer of all here present, and none can beat me. Is it not enough that I should fall short of you in actual fighting? Still, no man can be good at everything. I tell you plainly, and it shall come true; if any man will box with me I will bruise his body and break his bones; therefore let his friends stay here in a body and be at hand to take him away when I have done with him.
Epeus’ boasting scared all the soldiers except for Euryalus and the two prepared for the fight. Homer described the match in this way:
the two men being now girt went into the middle of the ring, and immediately fell to; heavily indeed did they punish one another and lay about them with their brawny fists. One could hear the horrid crashing of their jaws, and they sweated from every pore of their skin. Presently Epeus came on and gave Euryalus a blow on the jaw as he was looking round; Euryalus could not keep his legs; they gave way under him in a moment and he sprang up with a bound, as a fish leaps into the air near some shore that is all bestrewn with sea-wrack, when Boreas furs the top of the waves, and then falls back into deep water. But noble Epeus caught hold of him and raised him up; his comrades also came round him and led him from the ring, unsteady in his gait, his head hanging on one side, and spitting great clots of gore.
In 688 B.C.E., boxing became an official Olympic sport. Boxing matches were not judged on points or style, nor did a fight ever go to decision. Instead, the boxers fought until one of them could not continue due to exhaustion or knockout—or if a fighter raised his right hand in defeat, essentially throwing in the towel. There is conjecture that this is why Sparta never sent their athletes to the Olympic games—the risk that a fighter might have to admit defeat went against their code.
Boxing in ancient Greece was a bloody sport, made bloodier and more brutal by the thin leather wraps that boxers wore as gloves. The himantes meilichai were intended to protect the hands (although not the fingers), not the head or face of the opponent. There has long been a misconception that the Greek’s used caestus, a leather glove studded with bits of metal and glass, apparently adopted from the Romans. But historians now challenge that the caestus were ever truly in use. Roman historian Hugh Lee argues that neither Greeks nor Romans sewed bits of metal into their gloves, and that other historians “misread the evidence to push the notion of Roman decadence.” Donald G. Kyle points out in his book, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World that there is no need to adhere to this false mythology: Greek and Roman boxing was violent enough without prescribing to the false idea that they intentionally made it even bloodier with the caestus. Boxers in antiquity were athletes, highly trained and valued by the culture. While injury and death absolutely occurred in boxing, wrestling, and Pankration, the sporting community would not want to add unnecessary maiming with metal-studded-gloves. After all, they wanted the men to go on to fight another day.
While boxers and Pankration fighters wrapped their hands in leather, they wore nothing while competing in the Olympics and other games. Additionally, athletes of all sorts covered their bodies in olive oil. There were oiling rooms specially designed to apply the goodly substance. Scholars have long argued about the purpose of the olive oil, assuming the intent to be everything from hygene, protection from the sun or the cold. Interestingly, most scholars today assume that the oil was used simply to make the body glisten and look more attractive. Training and competing in the nude is anecdotally attributed to Orsippus, a runner who, in 720 B.C.E. apparently lost his loincloth, yet went on to the win the event. His competitors thereafter ran in the nude, thinking that Orsippus may have simply been more aerodynamic while in the nude. Another story claims that a runner tripped on his loincloth while in the race, and officials declared the end to all clothing
Ancient boxing matches had no ring, no rounds, no rests and few rules. Boxers could strike while their opponent was down and fought until one of the fighters could not continue. Emperor Augustus apparently loved boxing matches over all other gladiatorial events featured in the Colliseum. Seutonius claimed that while the emperor’s “chief delight was to watching boxing” he especially loved amateur bouts, “slogging matches between untrained roughs in narrow city alleys.”
Amateur ‘street fights’ may have delighted Augustus, but most men preferred to watch the trained boxers compete because they demonstrated the concept of karteria in a way that would horrify many of us today. Fighters did not show that they were injured, and reportedly made no noise when they were struck or knocked the ground. In a particularly brutal example of perseverance, Euraydamas of Kyrene famously won a match through a war of attrition. When his opponent his him hard enough to break his teeth, Eurydamas swallowed them, rather than giving his opponent the satisfaction of seeing him spit them into the dirt.
Like boxing, wrestling makes an appearance in The Iliad. This seminal match was between two very famous characters, Ajax and Ulysses.
Forthwith uprose great Ajax the son of Telamon, and crafty Ulysses, full of wiles, rose also. The two girded themselves and went into the middle of the ring. They gripped each other in their strong hands like the rafters which some master-builder frames for the roof of a high house to keep the wind out. Their backbones cracked as they tugged at one another with their mighty arms—and sweat rained from them in torrents. Many a bloody weal sprang up on their sides and shoulders, but they kept on striving with might and main for victory and to win the tripod. Ulysses could not throw Ajax, nor Ajax him; Ulysses was too strong for him; but when the Achaeans began to tire of watching them, Ajax said to Ulysses, "Ulysses, noble son of Laertes, you shall either lift me, or I you, and let Jove settle it between us."
He lifted him from the ground as he spoke, but Ulysses did not forget his cunning. He hit Ajax in the hollow at back of his knee, so that he could not keep his feet, but fell on his back with Ulysses lying upon his chest, and all who saw it marvelled. Then Ulysses in turn lifted Ajax and stirred him a little from the ground but could not lift him right off it, his knee sank under him, and the two fell side by side on the ground and were all begrimed with dust. They now sprang towards one another and were for wrestling yet a third time, but Achilles rose and stayed them. "Put not each other further," said he, "to such cruel suffering; the victory is with both alike, take each of you an equal prize, and let the other Achaeans now compete.
Thus did he speak and they did even as he had said, and put on their shirts again after wiping the dust from off their bodies.
Ajax was a famously huge man, and Ulysses’s failure to lift his larger opponent was par for the course in ancient wrestling. Great wrestlers were typically already large men who trained, and ate, to be even stronger. Milo the wrestler famously ate twenty pounds of meat, twenty pounds of bread, and drank eighteen pints of wine every day. It is said that one time, in a particularly unique style of training, he carried a four-year-old bull around the stadium of Olympia for his cardio and strength workout, then sat down and ate the entire bull.
Like boxing, wrestling also had no rounds, weight-classes, or time-limits. Many matches would end in a draw after seemingly hours of protracted combat. In order to win a wrestling match, a fighter had to throw his opponent to the ground three times. A successful fall was typically constituted when the wrestler’s shoulders hit the ground—throwing your opponent merely to his knees would not count. Additionally, pinning was not practiced by the ancient Greeks. However, submissions, including chokes, were legal and encouraged.
Although the matches were not as bloody as boxing or Pankration, wrestlers still sustained injuries from submissions and before it was banned, a wrestler dubbed “Mr. Fingertips” systematically broke his opponent’s fingers in order to win a match. With the exception of Mr. Fingertips, wrestling was the least violent of the ‘heavy events,’ yet the most popular, given its prominence in antique art and sculpture. Wrestling was part of the pentathlon in antiquity as well as its own event. The pentathlon in Ancient Greece consisted of javelin, discus, jumping, running, and wrestling. It is fascinating to imagine a modern athlete proficient in all these forms, especially the widely distinct sport of wrestling.
Wrestling, more than boxing or the Pankration, was practiced by some of the ancient gentry, probably because the risk of injury was relatively low. Socrates was an avid wrestler, training with two of his most famous students, Alcibiades and Aristocles, both of whom, in addition to being accomplished rhetoricians, were purportedly skilled wrestlers. Aristocles is best known for his nickname, given to him by a wrestling coach. He is more commonly known as Plato, which means ‘broad-shouldered.’
The Greeks competed in the Pankration, which translates to “complete strength” or “complete victory.” The Pankration was an amalgamation of boxing and wrestling, with the added techniques of leg sweeps, kicks and knees; the only prohibited techniques were biting and eye-gauging. Pankration fighters had to be proficient at all forms of fighting, but the preferred strike was a kick to the stomach. Attacking the genitals was not off-limits, and supposedly many of the Pankrationists learned to cover their genitals in certain positions to prevent grabbing or twisting.
The Pankration joined the Olympic Games in 648 B.C.E. and quickly became the most popular of nearly all of the sports. According to Thomas Green’s incredible encyclopedia, Martial Arts of the World, Pankration champions were elevated to instant celebrity status, and some of them were even worshipped as demi-gods. Many boxers and wrestlers were also Pankration fighters, although since the Pankration event took place on the day after boxing at the Olympic Games, many of the boxers never made it to their Pankration competition due to injury. Alexander the Great was a Pankration enthusiastic, and his trips across Asia, where he apparently continued to practice the sport, has led to speculation as to whether the Macedonian spread the art to Asia or if he picked up the techniques there.
Because the athletes had to be well-rounded, Pankration fighters were typically large and powerful. They were allowed to employ a wide range of techniques, and breaking fingers and toes was an accepted and popular way to submit one’s opponent. The art had four primary areas of fighting—arm techniques, such as punches, slaps, and elbow strikes, leg techniques such as kicks and knees, throws and takedowns, and grappling, which includes holds, joint locks, and chokes. Fighters trained in a gym, the korykeions, where there were heavy bags called korykos, suspended in the air for the students to kick and punch. There were wrestling and grappling classes, as well as gymnastics and calisthenics. Schools even included masseuses, dieticians, and coaches, many of whom were former Pankration champions themselves, ready to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.
The Pankration was not included in Homer’s Illiad, but there are still numerous tales of fighters winning, and losing, on the field. There were men noted for their strength, like Polydamus of Skotoussa, who, according to Nigel Crowther, was so tremendously strong that he could stop a moving chariot by grabbing the wheel. There was Sostratos of Sikyon who, in the fourth century B.C.E. won dozens of Pankration events by bending back the fingers of his opponents. And then there was Arrichion of Phigelia, an accomplished fighter who literally died in order to win his match. When his opponent jumped on his back in 564 B.C.E. and applied a choke, Arrichion tried to fight off the apparently sunk-in attack by falling to the ground on top of his opponent. The man released the hold and cried defeat, because in falling, Arrichion had dislocated his opponent’s ankle. But it was too late for the intrepid Arricihion, who was already dead from strangulation. He was named champion posthumously.
Arrichion’s story may be epitome of the concept of karteria, of perseverance in spite of pain or even death. The heavy events were indeed heavy—heavy in size, bloodshed, and risk. But the risk, at the time, may have seemed nominal in light of the reality of war and the brutalities of ancient Greece as a society. Today fighters are grouped according to weight class. There are rounds and rules and referees charged with protecting fighters rather than beating them with a switch. And these are good things. Because fighting sports will always be violent, but they do not have to be barbaric.
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