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Rebirth of Modern Pankration: The Origins of MMA
Picking up where my last article on the history of MMA left off (part two can be found here:http://bleacherreport.com/articles/30004-roman-gladiator-games-the-origins-of-mma-part-two), this piece and the one after it chronicle the resurgence of modern pankration by a select few pioneering individuals. Their achievements were instrumental to the creation and popularity of mixed martial arts as we know it.
Three pivotal figures involved in this process: Jim Arvanitis (pictured), Aris Makris, and Bruce Lee. This article discusses what the first two brought to the table as they sought to develop the most complete and effective fighting system possible; in tandem with their goal of reviving the lost Greek art of pankration.
The fourth part in my series (I changed it from four to five articles) analyzes the contributions of Bruce Lee and his quest to create an efficient and practical form of combat. His martial arts philosophy and unique Jeet Kune Do “style” will be examined in relation to current MMA and its core principles. Lee’s merit as a martial artist, actor, and advocate of cross-training methods is also a focus of my research.
The fifth and final article examines the innovations of the Gracie family, including their adaptation of judo into a more refined and ground-based style, and the role of vale tudo matches in Brazil as a precursor to modern MMA competition. The birth of promotions that preceded the UFC (such as Shooto and Pancrase) will also be profiled.
The Father of Modern Pankration: Jim Arvanitis
Current MMA is a modified form of the pankration that the ancient Greeks practiced (the first article of this series explores this point more fully). Thus it is fitting that the man responsible for the resurgence of modern pankration would be Greek in every sense of the word (he also claims a Spartan heritage).
..which takes us to another Greek innovator, Aris Makris.
Following on the heels of Arvanitis’ success, Aris Makris would take the exposure of pankration to a truly global level. An advocate of practicality and tradition, Makris emphasized the purpose behind the invention of pankration in ancient Greece: battlefield combat. In other words, pankration is an art of war.
Makris’ goal was to return pankration to its combat-specific roots, and eliminate the bucket-load of theatricality and impracticality that was filling up contemporary pankration schools. He opened the Spartan Pankration Academy of Canada in 1985 in Laval, Quebec.
Citing Bruce Lee as one of his idols, and having a working-relationship with Jim Arvanitis, Makris would turn his academy into one of the few authentic pankration dojos in the world. At his school, there is a very keen emphasis on being adept in all facets of combat, and the lives of ancient Greek masters are closely studied in order to understand the finer aspects of being a warrior.
Makris contends that pankration is a way of life, a philosophy, an ethical code of conduct, and not just a style that simply borrows the best techniques from others. He believes in nurturing the harmony between striking and grappling, and that one must understand the human body and its capabilities in order to become a complete fighter.
Makris, now in his forties, works with pankration organizations to set up global tournaments that promote the sport. He is a member of the International Federation of Pankration Athlima, which is a worldwide governing body of the sport (similar to FIFA for soccer).
Pankration competitions today have slightly different rules than MMA, but are increasing in popularity due to the efforts of individuals such as Makris and organizations like the IFPA. The sport is popular among amateur enthusiasts from Greece and other European countries, while Makris’ school in Canada is still the top place to study this ancient art in all its authenticity.
Arvanitis would stake his claim to fame by using a holistic approach and integrating a variety of combat-oriented training methods to improve the fighting abilities of his students. Makris is highly-sought after by law enforcement agencies and Special Forces units for these reasons.
He spent 30 years researching and perfecting the art of pankration, and the fruit of his labour is chronicled in the History Channel’s Human Weapon series, “Pankration: The Original Martial Art.” Makris’ emphasis on the combat elements of his style rapidly gained him worldwide recognition as the foremost popularizer of pankration, and as a worthy counterpart to Jim Arvanitis.
Through the efforts of both these men, pankration has enjoyed a global renaissance, and awareness of this millennia-old sport is reaching new heights every day. With organizations such as the IFPA setting up competitions for aspiring athletes, it is possible that the next great MMA fighter may come from a pankration background.
Arvanitis and Makris also have positive comments regarding the UFC and MMA. They believe that our sport can indeed be a proving ground for effective techniques and tactics, though they concede that the limitations of the rules make an MMA fight much different than a street fight.
However, Makris and Arvanitis give credit to MMA as an emerging sport, and note that it’s really just a modified form of the pankration practiced by the ancient Greeks, which they worked their entire lives to revive. And both of them commend the athletic prowess and combat capabilities of current MMA fighters. Perhaps their children will one day step into the cage to show us what they’ve learned?
Look out for part four of this series which details another modern pioneer of the “all powers” approach: Bruce Lee.
Caputo's Spartan Academy in Cape Girardeau teaches a number of martial arts techniques, but they're all rooted in an ancient fighting discipline called pankration.
By 8 on a Tuesday evening, the windows are already fogged from body heat as inside fighters spar and grapple loosely in preparation for the night's workout.
"Spartans! On the line!" Culver barks. "On the line. Let's go!"
He joins the fighters in high-knee jogging, long jumps and other assorted calisthenics to get the blood pumping as Caputo explains why they've been drawn to pankration.
"[Mixed martial arts] is really not a new concept," he says. "Despite all the pop culture that surrounds it, it really dates back to before Christ."
He explains that, while most combat disciplines are predicated on certain restrictions -- thou shalt not hit below the belt in boxing -- pankration is unique for its lack of off-limits moves.
"It was one of the original Olympic sports," Caputo says. "And back then, everything but biting and eye-gouging was fair game. That includes shots to the groin, small-joint manipulation, lots of things."
For classes such as Tuesday's, however, Caputo and Culver focus on more orthodox skills. The kinds of things an MMA fighter would actually be able to use.
"It's the root foundation of all martial arts," Caputo says. "The name in Greek actually means 'all-powers' or 'all-skills.'"
But it's one of the more obscure disciplines. It's lesser-known than muay thai or jujitsu, to say nothing of the MMA advertising juggernaut.
It took Caputo five years of email correspondence before he was able to persuade pankration master Aris Makris to visit and teach him and Culver how to be instructors.
"Jake, when was Aris here?" Caputo asks."June," he answers, mid-jog, prying out his mouth guard. "The sixth through the ninth."
Evidently, those four days were pretty significant for Caputo and Culver.
"That 52-year-old man with a bad back kicked my rear end with little effort," Culver explains, stepping out of warm-ups. Standing well over six feet tall, Culver isn't threatened by many 52-year-olds, but Makris, he explained, is legendary.
"He's a two-time martial arts hall of fame inductee. Blindingly fast and brutally effective."
Makris now lives in Canada, teaching high-level pankration certification seminars, and, Culver points out, Caputo's Spartan Academy is the only Makris-sanctioned facility in Missouri.
"OK, let's make this a little more kinetic, shall we?" Caputo tells the class, strapping on a pair of boxing pads. As he runs them through a dodge-and-counterattack drill, Culver points out the main difference between pankration and MMA.
"I've been a part of several MMA teams over the years, and what I've noticed is that in pankration, there's no hesitation between positions," he says. "An MMA-trained fighter, maybe they go against the cage during a fight. There's a hesitation before they throw a knee or whatever. In pankration, you learn how to respond without that hesitation."
The bottom line in pankration is to subdue an opponent as expeditiously as possible, Culver explains over the flat smacking of punch combinations.
It lends itself well to self-defense, which Culver and Caputo also teach. Culver takes the lead as Caputo explains the differences between sporting and combative pankration.
"You can learn jujitsu or something where you can subdue someone on the ground, but in the real world, there's broken glass in the alley. If someone pulls you down, you need to understand striking as well."
And in real-world self-defense, all bets are off, which means pankration's head-butting, finger-breaking and low blows become lifesaving techniques.
While there are already several women who train with them, Culver and his wife, Caitlin, are designing a course specifically for women's self-defense.
"Do not weave a hook, gentlemen!" Culver warns. "You will get hit. Simple as that."
"Yeah, it's a full-contact thing sometimes," Caputo says. "But what it comes down to is a superior, all-encompassing martial science discipline."