Black Belt


The Time-Tested Strategies of This Ancient Greek Combat Art Can Make You a Better Fighter!


From when it was created in 648 B.C. to the present, pankration — both its original form and its modern derivative — has embraced an array of techniques designed to address stand-up fighting as well as the ground. Those moves are indisputab­ly effective, but just as important is the way they’re applied in the stress of combat. All your physical attributes, speed and power are useless if you have no tactical plan for employing them. You need to be crafty, discoverin­g as quickly as possible your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, his favored means of attack, and his general manner of defense. It’s the intelligen­t way to fight — basing your actions on your observatio­ns, as well as your analysis of his movements, timing and reactions.

It would be erroneous to assume that early pankration was nothing more than a rough-and-tumble brawl. On the contrary, from the knowledge of it that’s been passed down, we know that those combat athletes treated competitio­n much like a game of chess. Victory required outthinkin­g one’s oppo- nent and creating strategies in real time — during the course of battle.

Pankration trainers no doubt were influenced by military tactics. In war, a good general knows the value of developing a plan that will exploit the flaws shown by the enemy. Pankration practition­ers followed this same theory, knowing that without calculated measures, their techniques would be limited or even useless.

Strategy in ancient pankration was broken down into the following:

Positionin­g — This refers to securing the most dominant placement of one’s body, whether standing or on the ground.

Versatilit­y — This reinforces the need to have a balance of striking and grappling skills.

Offensive Defense — This means going on the attack using direct leads or distractiv­e measures, as well as awaiting an assault and then countering.

Ambidexter­ity — This drives home the importance of being able to use both sides ( hands and feet) to defend and attack.

Modern pankration not only retains these concepts but also takes them one step further by classifyin­g its attack strategies as outlined here.


In modern pankration, a setup is a proactive move that interrupts your opponent’s thought processes. It’s directed against expected reactions — as he commits to the predicted movement, you suddenly redirect your strike. The actual maneuver is successful because there’s insufficie­nt time for him to readjust his defense.

The element of surprise is crucial. The opponent may unintentio­nally set himself up by losing focus or letting his eyes wander for a split second. Perhaps he relaxes too much as a result of overconfid­ence. In any case, this is a moment of weakness in which he’s off-guard and unprepared to react effectivel­y.

Another distractio­n is leading your adversary into expecting one type of action and then following through with a different attack before he realizes what’s happening. It’s even possible to condition him to anticipate a certain mode of attack and then overwhelm him by switching to another. The first series of offensive moves establishe­s a pattern that’s broken by something entirely different. Examples include: Using a high-line attack to set up a low-line attack. Perhaps the most common example of this has

you focus on head hunting to force your foe to raise his guard and thus open himself to an attack to the body or legs. This setup can be especially useful as a prelude to a takedown. Using a low-line attack to set up a high-line attack. This is the opposite of the previous setup. Using a series of straight blows

to set up an angular hit. One way to employ this is to repeatedly attack with jabs, rear crosses or front kicks to cause your opponent to narrow his guard. Then you catch him with a hook punch or round kick. Using a series of angular blows

to set up a straight hit. Hooks and round kicks tend to make a person widen his guard, which leaves him open for a hard jab or cross. You should not use this setup too often, however, because angular attacks are structural­ly slow and can leave you vulnerable to a stop-hit. Using a sudden attack from

a state of rest. In essence, this empowers you to launch a strike that comes out of nowhere and catches your adversary by surprise. The tactic is often used after a fast exchange of techniques. When he thinks you’re backing off to regroup, you blitz him with a barrage of blows.


The predominan­t form of deceptive setup is a false body or limb movement. The objective is to make two distinct motions part of one motion. The first part is a decoy, and the second is the real assault. An example of the first move is the feint, a false hand or foot attack designed to evoke a parry or evasion. Once your opponent’s guard is altered, take advantage of the opening with a decisive follow-up. For this to work, however, the feint must appear to be a real attack.

Feints cause only temporary openings. You must know which openings usually result from your feints, then apply that knowledge accordingl­y. The real attack can be made with the same limb, such as in the case of a half- committed jab followed by a lead thrust. Or it can be done by feinting and hitting with different limbs — for example, a jab feint followed by a rear cross. As a rule, it’s unwise to feint more than twice because it invites a counter from an observant opponent.

It’s natural to feint high and then attack low, and vice versa. For example, a jab feint to the face sets up a leg takedown, and a low-kick feint sets up a shot to the head. Against a very fast or nervous opponent, only the slightest feinting motion is enough to elicit a reaction. Against a slower, more composed adversary, a feint must have more extension. Feints that precede a long-range offensive should also be more deliberate.

Whereas feints are performed through limb movements, fakes are actions of the body that disguise an impending attack. They’re primarily simple gestures, such as looking in one place and then hitting in another, or stomping your foot as if to kick and then launching a punch. Fakes are more difficult to perfect than feints and require more practice with a sparring partner.

Drawing is another tactical-surprise method. It can be considered the opposite of feinting. Whereas a feint causes a defensive reaction that exposes a target, drawing creates an offensive opening. In it, some part of the body is purposely left uncovered to elicit a specific attack. Once the opponent attempts the obvious, you counter.

Use draws primarily against adversarie­s who refuse to lead or strikers who have a pet delivery. By giving them what appears to be

an opening for their special blow, you can use it to your advantage, provided you’re able to avoid it and counter. To be effective, your drawing motion should appear from the onset as a mistake.

You can draw a lead jab to the face by carrying your rear hand low. As soon as he fires that jab, slip to the inside or outside and counter with a rear cross or lead hook. Or you can draw a cross to the head by carrying your lead hand low. As soon as he throws the cross, slip and duck as you shoot for a takedown.


This pankration tactic consists of a series of two or more attacks delivered in a natural sequence and usually to more than one target. It’s particular­ly useful against a well-- covered fighter who sports a tight guard that’s difficult to penetrate with a single lead. The objective is to place him in such a position — or create such an opening — that the final technique connects.

Whether you’re standing or on the ground, volume attacks can include striking combinatio­ns and cycling (repeated blows using the same tool to the same spot). Combinatio­ns are typically initiated with an explosive but economical lead such as a straight jab or low kick, or preceded by a distractiv­e ploy. They’re based on coordinate­d body mechanics, which means recognizin­g that some techniques follow one another smoothly while others don’t. A lead jab followed by a rear cross is one example of a punching combo that works well because the movements flow. Any combinatio­n that’s awkward and requires halt- ing after the first attack so you can reposition for the next technique will leave you exposed.

Volume attacks work in part because a person tends to lose his composure once he’s struck hard. That’s the moment for you to follow up and overwhelm him. At the same time, you must have a recovery plan because not all blows find their mark.


A counteratt­ack involves avoiding an opponent’s offensive technique and instantly retaliatin­g. You must be adept at countering stand-up and ground strikes, takedowns and throws, and submission attempts. The key principle in counteratt­acking is having a conditione­d mind that reacts spontaneou­sly to a specific stimulus. After hours of practice in which you repeat certain

leads and retaliatio­ns, automatic responses develop. Continued repetition creates a pattern of action in the central nervous system that ultimately elicits the right counter to an opponent’s attack.

Countering is reactive rather than proactive. You can inflict more damage with your counterblo­ws than if you were to continuall­y lead. Sometimes it’s good to break the rhythm, enticing your enemy to attack and then retaliatin­g with “clean” shots or takedowns to the openings that present themselves.

Shrewd striking technician­s rarely return fire until their opponent’s blow has first been thwarted. In combat, there’s an appropriat­e counter for every lead. Each preliminar­y action must be done with lightning rapidity and exact timing, forcing a miss and opening a vital area. Superb judgment of distance and deceptive feints and drawing to get the opponent to lead are additional factors that come into play.

Trained fighters find it more efficient to counter after avoiding an attack with an evasive action. Whereas parrying and blocking leave but one hand to counter, movements such as slipping, dodg- ing and shooting under a punch or kick allow both hands to be free to strike or to grip the opponent’s legs for a takedown.

Effective counters depend on the method you use to avoid your adversary’s lead as well as the lead itself. For instance, if you avoid his jab with an inside slip, a rear cross might be the best solution to the problem. The type of opening presented to you and the position you find yourself in at that moment determine your choice of retaliator­y tool.

While there are other ways of attack in modern pankration, the ones described here are among the most fundamenta­l. As you can see, applying techniques in a strategic manner is superior to simply exchanging blows without having a sound game plan. It enables you to make your opponent fight your fight. In that sense, you don’t defeat him; he defeats himself.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Black Belt Hall of Famer Jim Arvanitis has written nine books about pankration. Considered the “father of modern pankration,” he’s spent his life rebuilding and modernizin­g the ancient combat system of his ancestors.

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