Rebirth of Modern Pankration: The Origins of MMA, Part Three

Jad SemaanSenior Analyst IJune 28, 2008

Picking up where my last article on the history of MMA left off (part two can be found here:, 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).


Jim Arvanitis may not be a household name, but his work in the field of martial arts is legendary. A Greek-American from New England who began his training in the martial arts at the tender age of 8 (in the 1950’s), Arvanitis proclaimed that his mission in life was to revive the style of no-holds-barred combat practiced by his ancestors, while adding to it any new techniques that he found to be of value.


Arvanitis commenced his training with Greco-Roman wrestling, Western-style boxing and French Savate. He also trained in Eastern martial arts, including Muay Thai and Judo. Yet he found traditional martial arts such as Karate to be lacking in practical value, and hindered with numerous forms and rituals that were not helpful in single combat against a real-life proponent.


Arvanitis was extremely dedicated to his quest to resuscitate pankration, and researched all that he could about ancient Greek history and warfare. He realized that to become a truly feared combatant, one had to be versed both in striking and grappling techniques, and this meant being able to finish a fight both on the feet as well as on the ground.


Taking what he perceived as useful from every style that he knew, and utilizing techniques from the ancient sources as a blue-print, Arvanitis created in 1968 a style that he labeled Mu Tau pankration (a Greek acronym for “Martial Truth”).


In 1973, while in his twenties, Arvanitis was featured on the cover of Black Belt magazine. He had impressed the editors so much with his skills that they immediately decided to write an article about him, and that piece became the first exposure point of pankration to modern audiences.


Arvanitis would go on to showcase his abilities and martial arts philosophy through many other outlets, including television appearances, books, and instructional videos. His efforts led to an increase in world-wide awareness of the pankration style of combat, and all of this was still two decades before the UFC had gotten underway.


He faced much hardship, criticism, and ridicule for his efforts, as other fighters and the media still favoured traditional Eastern martial arts, but persevered as one of the earliest martial artists to start cross-training in various styles. Arvanitis eventually opened his own school, known as the Spartan Academy of Modern Pankration.


Arvanitis went on to give public seminars and private lessons as he traveled across the country promoting his art. He has trained body guards, actors, SWAT members, film makers, and prepared ground troops for hand-to-hand combat in the Persian Gulf War.


He has also competed in various official tournaments and non-sanctioned events with outstanding results, proving the efficacy of pankration and his holistic approach to combat. He trains rigorously every day to improve his skills and perfect his style.


Arvanitis highly emphasized conditioning and diet, and employed a variety of methods to increase functional strength and power. He incorporated combat elements from various arts into his all-encompassing style (such as using Thai elbows instead of traditional pankration elbows for attacking).


He went on to receive numerous accolades and has been inducted into several Halls of Fame, proving that he is worthy of the moniker, “The Father of Modern Pankration.” Today, Arvanitis works on promoting the art of pankration all over the world, and even tried to get it sanctioned for the 2004 Olympics in Greece (though his bid failed).


Arvanitis is very proud of his Greek heritage, and is a firm believer of the theory that Eastern martial arts developed as a result of the dissemination of pankration throughout the Asian subcontinent by the conquests of Alexander the Great (though historians fiercely argue about this theory and the true origins of Asian martial arts). Yet Arvanitis set the benchmark for others to follow, which takes us to another Greek innovator, Aris Makris.



Aris Makris: The Popularizer


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.