5 Ancient Greek Stories that Paint the Origin of Combat Sports

5 Ancient Greek Stories that Paint the Origin of Combat Sports

Combat sports are as old as civilization and probably much older than that. The first depictions of boxing and wrestling come from the cradle of civilization. In the Iraqi museum in Baghdad is a piece of pottery, from nearly 3000 BC depicting boxing and wrestling matches. The two sports keep popping up across the mediterainian sea. From Egyptians, to the Minoans, Greek and Trojan alike shared a love of combat sports and their art reflected it.

Boxing was included in the Iliad, one of the earliest pieces of written Greek culture that depicts the story of the Trojan war. Boxing matches were held at the funeral of Achilles’ friend and confidant, Patroclus. 

The first true tales and true champions in human history come from the Olympic games. In 688 BC the first Olympic boxing tournament was held, the first recorded champions in human history were crowned with an olive wreath. Many of the stories we’re about to describe were taken from inscriptions of statues, some of which still stand at Olympia.

Onomastos sets the bar

The first champion of Olympic boxing was a tough act to follow. Onomastos was more than just the champion, he was the first “A-side” in boxing history. Onomastos won the first 4 Olympic boxing tournaments. There isn’t any historical record of the rules of that first tournament. But we know that after he wins it, he was asked by the Olympic officials to create a new rule set which remains essentially unchanged for more than a thousand years. He came back in 684 BC to repeat as champion. Then he comes back to three-peat. Sets the record for Olympic wins in boxing, never to be broken, with his 4th win in 672BC.

For 16 of the most formative years of Greek boxing, the creator of the sport wasn’t even from mainland Greece. Onomastos was from the city of Izmir in modern Turkey. His fame was MASSIVE. It was estimated the Olympic grounds could accommodate 40,000 spectators at an event. This was in a time where the 7th century Greek world had a total estimated population of 700,000. Considering his 4 wins it’s possible that up to 10% of the population of the Greek world had gone to see him fight in his lifetime. He was a superstar in his time. So much so that his name literally translates to the word “famous” in English.

The rules Onomastos created were brutal and basic. No rounds, no weight classes and no clock. Fights went on as long as they had to. There were rules against eye gouging and biting. They wore hand wraps made from a 14 foot length of Ox hide. Though these “gloves” would evolve to become more intricate and violent as time passes. Because it was a fight to the finish, ground and pound was completely acceptable after a knockdown. Fighters could give up by raising a fist in the air. Their equivalent to a tap.

There was also a ritual called Climax. This was used to settle fights that were going on too long or if darkness was setting in. Which was a mutual agreement between fighters to trade undefended punches. Turn by turn, until somebody thought better of it, or stopped thinking altogether. Death in boxing at this time was fairly common. Common enough to create one of the gangster rules you’ll find in any sport in human history.

If a boxer died as a result of injuries from the fight, the dead fighter was recorded as the winner of the contest. There are 2 dead Olympic boxing champions. Boxing wasn’t the only sport with a champion from beyond the grave. 

To The Death

Long before the days of the Gracie clan, the ancients were cranking arm bars and guillotines. Pankration was essentially ancient MMA. The word translates to “All powers” and  pretty much anything goes, save for biting and eye gouging of course. From head kicks to heel hooks the pankration fighters of ancient Greece would be no strangers to MMA. These guys would have looked right at home under full PRIDE rules.

Arrichion was a 2 time Olympic pankration champion. In 564BC the Champ entered a 3rd Olympic tournament in 564BC. He was widely expected to win given his reputation and 2 previous victories. He makes it to the final.

Arrichion found himself in a bad spot. His opponent had him in a deep choke. While Arrichon was pulling at the choking arm, struggling for breath. The experienced champion noticed a flaw in his opponent's positioning. He’d crossed his ankles with the hooks in. Arrichion drapes his leg over the crossed ankle and slams down with all the power his leg can muster.. 

His opponent's ankle snaps under the force. His opponent screams in pain and wrenches with all his might on Arricion’s neck out of reflexive horror at the break. His opponent then lifts his arm in submission. As the referees pull the entangled fighters apart. Arrichion doesn’t move a muscle, our champion died on the spot. Arrichion may be the only human in history with a legitimate submission win while actually dead..

Just like boxing and wrestling, pankration was an Olympic event held in high esteem. Also worth noting that in the ancient Greek world was cross training all these disciplines in the same gyms. Every city state worthy of that title had a tax funded “palaestra” or public gym. Each city funded their Olympic teams and paid for the day to day living expenses of their athletes. For the most part training has not changed as massively as you’d think. 

For most of Greek history these sports along with wrestling were grouped together as the “Heavy” sports.This could refer to the fact that in general the combat athletes were MUCH larger than the rest of the Olympians in general. A runner or chariot racer has no need to be a mountain of muscle. But a boxer or wrestler fighting without weight classes would see the need to bulk up as much as possible.

Either way, boxers, wrestlers and pankration fighters were doing more than going to the same gyms. A lot of these guys were entering multiple Olympic events, and on rare occasions you’d see a double champion in more than one discipline. In fact the longest standing training folktales that still exist today stem from one such double champ.

Roots of the oldest myth

Kleitomachos of Thebes was the most dominant combat athlete of his time. In 216 BC he won the Olympic tournament in Pankration. In the 4 years between the Olympics, Kleitomachos went on a tear through all 3 heavy sports. Though the Olympics were by far the largest and most prestigious of the athletic festivals, Kleitomachos punched,tapped, or pinned everything in his path in the years between the games. There were 3 smaller festivals than the Olympics that created the sort of “Pro ranks'' of the ancient Greeks. Kleitomachos was sweeping all of them.

In 212 BC he’s dead set on winning all 3 events at the biggest stage in Olympia. Kleitomachos had  trouble with the boxers first. In his home turf of Pankration he found it fairly easy to repeat and win fairly handily. It was wrestling that saw our hero fall short. Kleitomachos was understandably fatigued after a week that probably saw him fight over a dozen times. Even still our hero won both boxing and pankration tournaments, and he attributed it to one quirk pretty rarely found in ancient Greece.

Kleitomachos was completely celibate. A pretty much unheard of choice in the world of our rather slutty ancestors. It was more than that though. He was allegedly made really uncomfortable by any swearing or vulgarity and would leave a room rather than listen to somebody curse. Many attributed his success in sports to his prudishness. So when you hear Mickey tell Rocky Balboa “women weaken legs” you’ve probably got Kleitomachos to thank for it.

Milo is a savage

Milo of Croton might be the most badass wrestler in human history. He won a preposterous 6 Olympic titles. Which a bit of simple math indicates this man was the best in his world for a full 24 years. He dominated the smaller festivals as well winning multiple times at The Isthmian and Pythian games. Milo took his training seriously—came up with one of the most unusual training regimes of his time.

He would go out to the country and buy a new born calf from a farmer. Every morning Milo picks up the calf in his arms and walks him up to the top of a nearby hill. Some accounts say he only put the beast down to eat, sleep and things that would make Kleitomachos uncomfortable. Every day that calf grew a little heavier. Milo would carry him, either up the hill or, around as he went about his business. Until the calf got so big Milo now has to throw him over his shoulder to pick him up. Soon Milo is carrying a full on bull up a hill..

Eventually Milo would have to admit to himself that the calf had gotten too heavy to carry. At that point he would slaughter and butcher the animal. Until the next morning Milo would make his way out to the country again. To quite literally pick up his food. He put all that beef to use too. This was a process that took months to years to complete.

Milo had the mind game down to a science. It was said before every match he’d drink raw bull blood or eat raw beef to intimidate his opponents before matches. He grew to mythic status in his own time. According to Herodotus, stories of Milo’s fame and name had reached as far as King Darius of Persia. Milo directly led his countrymen into battle on multiple occasions. When he was captured by Persian forces, Darius demanded Milo be brought to him. Though technically a slave he treated the wrestling legend with great dignity and respect.

After a short time Milo made a request of the king to see his homeland of Croton again. Darius gave him the OK. Most likely never expecting to see him. Milo predictably slipped his guards. Darius didn’t bother to send people after him.

He dies failing a feat of strength. Milo was attempting to tear a tree stump in half he found in the woods. He works his fingers deep into a crack in the stump. He tries with all he has, but even Milo’s considerable might wasn’t enough to pull the stump apart. It also wasn’t enough to free his fingers. With nowhere to go and no help on the way, even Milo couldn’t save himself. Milo’s body was found in the forest, devoured by a pack of wolves.

One punch man

Glaukos was the son of a farmer, helping his old man till the rocky Greek soil for planting that season. The bronze plow they used to sow their fields was thick and heavy enough to go through just about anything. Anything except the giant boulder it smashed into. It bent the metal back and rendered the plow totally useless. It was a disaster. They were poor and time was always ticking on the season. They had neither time nor the money for this repair.

Glaukos looked over the bent back bronze, hunched over, he smashed it with a right hand. Nothing happens. His father goes from worried to horrified as his son throws another right. Then another. And again, until after about a dozen blows, the metal starts to give way beneath his heavy hand. The plow slowly bends back into its proper shape. His father looked on in silence as his young son had discovered the talent that would see his name survive for all of history. Glaukos hit really, really hard.

His father immediately began his training and found a way to get Glaukos to the games. Glaukos was a strong farm boy with a mean right hand, but he lacked the training of more seasoned fighters. While Glaukos rode his gifts through the tournament he was taking a beating from veteran boxers as the rounds went on. The back to back tournament format did him no favors. Every fight he took a beating and every fight his durability and power saved him.

By the tournament final he’s an absolute mess. He’s cut and bleeding. He’s played heavy bag to a series of much more skilled and experienced boxers. As he’s absorbing another beating, through the blood and cheers of the spectators he hears his father. The advice his old man yelled was “The plow touch son, the plow touch” at which point Glaukos starches his opponent on a single right hand. He might be the least trained of any Olympic champion in history. But because of the great equalizer, glaukos went from an unknown farm boy from the south of Greece, to being buried on a private island which was then named after him.

Final thoughts

Fighting, either on the battlefield, or in the ring, has always been one of the surest roads to social mobility throughout the world. From Royce Gracie and Mike Tyson to Onomastos and Glaukos. If you can fight you can go anywhere. Somebody will know what to do with you. And if you can really fight,  somebody might be thinking your name in a few hundred, or even a few thousand years time.

Thanks for reading. 

Until the next one,

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Pausanius: Descriptions of Greece, book 6