There’s no denying that Jim Arvanitis is a skilled martial artist. He moves like a 30-year-old both on his feet and on the ground, where he flows from technique to technique with an ease you seldom see outside a high-end grappling school. And there’s no denying that he’s a martial arts historian par excellence. One look at his most recent book, The First Mixed Martial Art: Pankration From Myths to Modern Times, reveals that he’s intimately familiar not only with pankration, the fighting system of his Greek ancestors, but also with the rise of the martial arts in the West.
But neither of those is the reason I admire him. What struck me the first time we met was his honesty. It’s starkly illustrated in the following passage, which was lifted from a yet-to-be-published article he wrote: “In 393, pankration, along with gladiatorial combat and all pagan festivals, were abolished by an edict from the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I. In terms of an Olympic sport, pankration had been practiced for some 1,000 years. While there’s proof that wrestling persisted in Hellenic society after the conclusion of the Olympic Games, little evidence supports that either boxing or pankration continued. It’s safe to assume that pankration vanished for the next two millennia.”
Nick Hines, Jim Arvanitis’ senior student, penned a paragraph that continued the story—and reflected his teacher’s truthful approach to the history of his art: “Although it’s been claimed that various clans in Greece attempted to assemble what remained into a martial art, not until the 20th century was it regenerated into a tangible form and introduced to the martial arts world. Jim Arvanitis … spent years researching the history, modifying the training methodology and codifying pankration into a contemporary form of hybrid fighting.”
Such honesty is rare. In most parts of the world where martial arts developed, you can find masters who claim to teach ancient fighting arts that exhibit techniques that are identical to those of other arts, yet they deny there was any cross-pollination. And here we have Jim Arvanitis, openly admitting that many of the specifics about pankration’s techniques were lost in time and that he had to patch those holes.
“With my continuing research, I noticed ‘voids,’ or areas that necessitated modification,” Jim Arvanitis said. “That’s where the inclusion of modern resources came in. I never intended my revival effort and personal interpretation of the ancient form to be an exact replication. Having been defunct for some 2,000 years, how could it be? Why should it be?”
Which sources did he rely on to fill those voids? Boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling, as well as muay Thai and judo, especially its ne waza (grappling techniques), he says. “I also studied tactical knife fighting with some skillful Greeks and Massad Ayoob for the battlefield component, and Massad Ayoob and I have worked extensively on handgun disarms since 1974.”
Such is the martial art that Jim Arvanitis teaches—through classes and seminars, as well as via video and the printed word. Throughout the years, his message has been essentially the same: The ancient Greeks had their own style of combat, and if you try it, you’ll find that it’s every bit as comprehensive and effective as anything in Asia. He says his goal is to bring credit to his ancestors for their contributions to the martial arts, and he’s doing a fine job of it.
The staff of Black Belt is pleased to induct him into its Hall of Fame as 2009 Instructor of the Year.