Nothing New Under the Sun: Mixed Martial Arts Bears Striking Resemblance to Ancient Greek Pankration

June 19, 2010 by  
Filed under MMA

A lot can change in 2,650 years. Apparently, though, when it comes to sports, everything old is new again. At least when it comes to the sport that boasts the fastest-growing popularity in the U.S. today: Mixed Martial Arts.

But whether you call it Mixed Martial Arts or Ultimate Fighting, this sport is far from modern. Combining Greco-Roman wrestling with a variety of martial arts techniques, the sport closely resembles the free-form ancient Greek competitive sport of pankration.

Dating back to 648 B.C., when it was introduced into the Olympics, the sport of pankration was bound by two rules: no eye gouging and no biting. Sounds like the rules my Kindergarten teacher established. Beyond that, though, anything was fair game in this competition, whose name comes from two Greek words: pan, meaning “all”; and kratos, meaning “powers.”

With individual matches often lasting hours (and sometimes resulting in the death of one or both combatants), the game quickly became the most popular Olympic sport.

Its popularity declined at the time of the rise of the Roman Empire, when other combat sports began taking precedence. In the modern Western World, boxing and wrestling grew in popularity while in the East, traditional martial arts flourished.

Flash forward to the 1900s. Twenty-one-year-old Brazilian Carlos Gracie, who was trained in judo by renowned Japanese champion Mitsuyo Maeda, began teaching his four brothers the art as it was taught to him. In 1925, Carlos and younger brother Helio moved to Rio de Janeiro, where they opened a jiu-jitsu studio and instituted the “Gracie Challenge,” taking on all who wished to compete against them. Begun as a means of drawing attention to their newly opened academy, the Gracie Challenge drew fighters in disciplines ranging from karate and other martial arts to boxing, capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian fighting form) and even wrestling.

Prospective fighters – and hordes of spectators – began to flock to these matches; before long, they were drawing such enormous crowds, the matches had to be held in the largest Brazilian soccer arenas. Eventually, the sport (known as vale-tudo, the Portuguese term for “anything goes”) had grown to become the second most popular sport in Brazil, right behind soccer (a status that is still maintained today).

From 1935 to 1951, 135-pound Helio Gracie fought and defeated in excess of 1,000 competitors in this unarmed combat form; many of his opponents outweighed him by more than 100 pounds.

In 1993, MMA took on a new dimension with the institution of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, based on Brazilian vale-tudo (which California salesman Art Davie learned from Helio’s son Rorito in the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu school two years earlier).

Derided as “human cockfighting,” the no-holds-barred fighting style was often said to be more brutality than sporting competition. Today, MMA and UFC are growing in popularity, with UFC expanding beyond its early pay-per-view audiences and gaining greater exposure on regular U.S. and Canadian cable television.

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Connecticut-based author Rita M. Reali writes SEO-enhanced web content, press releases and informational articles on a wide variety of topics ranging from sports & fitness to the joys of playing the ukulele. She is also a content editor and proofreader. Contact her at ritathewordsmith@gmail.com.