MMA History: How Pankration Champ Arrichion Won Olympic Crown After His Death

The grandfather of modern Mixed Martial Arts, known as Pankration, was created over 2,500 years ago. Until the late 19th century, Pankration was actually an Olympic sport.  While one can find many interesting stories about the early days of Pankration, none can compare to the story of Olympic champion Arrichion of Phigalia.

Philostratus gave the best account of this epic battle from 564 B.C. However, due to the lack of clearness and the vagueness of Philostratus' accounts of the fight, there have been many interpretations of the battle between Arrichion and his unknown opponent.

After reading the interpretations by Robert Brophy, Robert Cantu, Author Fairbanks, H. A. Harris, Michael Poliakoff, Rachel Robinson, and others, there are some facts about the bout, and there are some other theories surrounding the death of Arrochion.

The short and sweet version of the story is Arrichion's opponent had him in a choke hold. While losing consciousnesses, Arrichion reached for his opponent's ankle. Arrichion was able to dislocate the ankle of his opponent, causing him to signal defeat, moments before he died from the damage inflicted by the choke hold. Arrichion's lifeless body was crowned as the Olympic champion and taken back to his hometown of Phigaila as a hero.

Now because of the unclear accounts provided by Philostratus, there are two questions that have yet to be clearly answered—how did Arrichion apply the hold which ultimately lead to his victory? And was his death a direct result of the choke applied by his opponent?

First, let's examine the ankle lock.

While it is unclear which ankle Arrichion attacked, most believed it was the left ankle.  Various scholars have weighed in as to exactly Arrichion applied this maneuver.  You can find the different theories here.

Some question whether Arrichion obtained his victory by ankle lock. There are interpretations that state that he actually won by breaking his opponent's toes. Despite the different theories, most experts who have studied the text acknowledge that his victory came via a foot lock of some sort.

Now to Arrichion's death.

The story is Arrichion's opponent used his forearm to apply the choke which ultimately cause the Olympic champion to die. However, some question this story.

To die by asphyxiation, one would pass out and the person applying the choke hold would have to continue applying the maneuver until the brain lost all blood flow, forcing the brain to shut down after a sustained period without any oxygen.

Scholars point out that the referee overseeing the bout would have noticed Arrichion's limp body and stopped the match before the choke became lethal. But with the lack of information regarding refereeing in Pankration matches that occurred so long ago, nobody can say for sure if the referees were educated enough to notice when a bout needed to be stopped.  

There are claims that Arrichion's opponent broke his neck by either slamming him to the ground or by contorting his neck while they were grappling on the ground.  This seems like a more plausible theory given the amount of time necessary to choke a human to death.

But another interesting theory is that Arrichion died due to sudden cardiac arrest. Nobody knows his age at the time of the bout, so if Arrichion was old, this is a very plausible theory.

No matter how many different interpretations there are of the story, most Greek historians have no doubts that Arrichion won the Olympic crown after his passing. It is truly an interesting and amazing story.

This is a very brief account of the various conclusions that have been deciphered from Philostratus' story of a battle that will never be matched by any other possible happening in MMA.

By Jason Schielke April 11, 2011

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