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Lethal Hands: 11 Close-Quarters Attacks from the Ancient Greek Art of Pankration

jim arvanitis

Photos by Thomas Sanders

Experts agree that real-world combat takes place most often at close range. In such encounters, the hands are the go-to weapons. No other offensive tool resolves conflict more quickly and with less effort and energy.Hand strikes are also versatile: They can be delivered from virtually any angle, can follow a straight or curved path, and can travel upward or downward. They can be employed while you’re standing and moving about freely or while you’re locked in a clinch. They also work well when you’re on the ground.

For these reasons, most high-risk conflicts are best resolved with the hands, whether they’re used as closed fists or in an open position. By definition, the lead hand is closer to the target, which means it can land more quickly and more economically than the rear hand. Although such blows are not as powerful, with proper body mechanics, you can hit hard enough to finish your foe. That said, being able to use both hands effectively is the name of the game in the real world, which is why it’s paramount in pankration.

Note: All the hand techniques described here have been observed works of art that date from around the fifth century B.C.


Human beings instinctually clench their hands when they’re about to engage in a physical altercation. That’s not necessarily a good thing, however, because the hands contain many small bones (metacarpals), as well as tendons, and they’re easy to injure when a fist comes into contact with a hard target. Punch an attacker in the head, and you’re likely to shatter bones in your hand — and possibly suffer a serious wrist injury, as well. Witness how combat-sports competitors tape their hands to hold the metacarpals together and keep them from splaying on impact. Likewise, they train to keep their wrists in proper alignment when hitting the heavy bag because they know that if they allow them to bend when they hit an opponent, the joints can be sprained or broken.

Because tape and gloves are used in most combat sports that include striking, the closed fist remains a primary striking tool for a variety of targets in the dojo. On the street, however, the closed fist should be used only on soft targets such as the temple, solar plexus, liver and kidneys.


The lead straight features a forward hand delivery and lands vertically with the impact focused on the bottom three knuckles of the fist. Applied at close range, it delivers fullpower penetration — unlike the snapping motion of the boxer’s jab. During execution, your rear heel is raised and your hips twist in the direction of the punch, which puts your body behind the blow and generates the greatest force. The main target for the lead straight is the solar plexus.

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REAR CROSS: One of boxing’s four basic blows, the rear cross lands horizontally after the fist makes a quarter turn near the end of its trajectory. It’s classified as the “heavy artillery,” and in combat sports, it often results in a knockout. Rarely used as a first strike, the rear cross is more of a counter to an opponent’s jab or a way to set up a hook. The cross also can follow a lead-hand strike in a manner that’s similar to boxing’s classic one-two combination. In a street fight, the main target for the rear cross is the solar plexus.


Another potent blow borrowed from boxing is the hook, which entails using the muscles of your torso to swing your bent arm in a horizontal arc. Pivoting on the ball of your lead foot enhances the hook. Done properly, the strike can generate incredible force even when it starts just 6 inches from its target. This is possible because it has the entire weight of your body behind it. Hooks are often used to attack the ribs from close range. They can be launched while you’re moving around or when you’re locked up in a single-collar tie. When aimed at the liver area, the punch is known as a liver shot.


This is a short, compact blow used at close range. Delivering an uppercut from any other distance results in decreased power and increased vulnerability to a counter. It also makes it more likely that you’ll miss your target entirely. On the street, where there’s no such thing as “dirty fighting,” the uppercut is valued because it can inflict serious damage to the groin. Uppercuts usually initiate from your stomach region, making an upward motion that’s enhanced when your slightly bent knees are

straightened on impact. You must stay close to your target to prevent your opponent from detecting the incoming punch and countering.

jim arvanitis pankration


This strike is effected with the bottom of your clenched fist, using either a lateral motion or a downward arc similar to what a carpenter uses when swinging a hammer. It’s often employed against an opponent who’s bent over. The striking hand usually is raised above your shoulder and dropped with the full force of your arm and body. Because it doesn’t involve any compression of the knuckles or metacarpals and doesn’t bend the wrist, it won’t harm the bones in your hands. The typical targets for the hammerfist are the top of the skull, the temples, the nose, the jaw and the neck. The technique is also effective on the ground — for example, when the assailant is pinned under you or scissored between your legs while you’re on your back.


Offensively, an open hand can be used for striking, gouging and tearing. Intended to address serious threats, open-hand strikes work because they use speed and accuracy to target vital points. The following are the primary open-hand techniques taught in pankration.


This is effective when aimed at the eyes or throat. When delivered to the eyes, it has the potential to blind an opponent. Thrusting the fingers into the suprasternal notch of the neck induces choking and/or unconsciousness by blocking and even crushing the windpipe. It does not rely on strength; instead, it uses speed and accuracy. It’s the longest hand attack in the martial arts because the outstretched fingers add 3 to 4 inches of reach compared to the lead jab.

With the finger jab, the objective is to cause discomfort and pain and to render your foe incapable of issuing a follow-up attack. An effective eye strike can temporarily obscure his vision. For this reason, it’s one of the easiest ways for a smaller person to stop a

larger opponent. When executed with maximum speed along an optimal trajectory, the eye jab is capable of causing damage before it can be seen. This reinforces a popular martial arts adage: If an opponent cannot see you, he cannot hurt you or defend himself properly.

When implementing the technique, your fingers should be stacked with your thumb tucked in to form a spear. Your hand should be slightly curved. The blow follows a straight line, and before it makes contact, your hips twist and your lead shoulder extends. This combination of movements enables you to reach the target from farther away, which increases safety. The emphasis is on quickness and precision. Strike suddenly and swiftly, then retract your hand to its original placement. Relaxation is a key ingredient throughout the movement.

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jim arvanitis pankration

The strike should be delivered from within arm’s reach of the opponent. If you’re beyond that distance, use a lunge step to get closer. This entails moving in explosively with your front foot as your rear foot pushes off with the toes. Such specialized footwork enables you to bridge the gap while you add momentum to the blow. Note that using the finger jab is not without risk. Proper conditioning and weapon formation are essential. Unless your hand is slightly curved, it’s easy to hyperextend your fingers, which can lead to sprains, fractures and dislocations. The fingertips also require toughening, which is often accomplished by repeatedly thrusting them into sand or a bag filled with beans. And even with these two considerations in mind, you still might miss the target and impact the head, which can hurt you more than your opponent.

Obviously, the finger jab is not intended for sparring. It’s best practiced on targets that resemble the human head — such as Century’s BOB dummy. However, if you feel the need to hone your skills on a live opponent, wear gloves that allow you to partially extend your fingers to form that curved-hand striking tool and make sure your partner has headgear that prevents contact with the eyes.

jim arvanitis pankration


Like gouging the eyes, ripping the ears is a true close-range battlefield weapon. It takes very little pressure to tear one — remember Mike Tyson’s removal of part of Evander Holyfield’s ear in their epic boxing bout? Even a light slap to the ear can cause acoustic trauma. If an adversary is close enough to punch, then he’s close enough to grab an ear and dish out some serious discomfort.

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This move is more of a conditioned survival reaction than a gross-motor-skill technique. It requires little practice but should be made part of one’s tool kit for those rare circumstances that call for such violence — for example, if you were under a heavier assailant on the ground and your hand movement was so limited that you couldn’t launch a full strike. This is when you would dispense with perfect technical form and the rules of a sporting contest, then use any means necessary to escape.

Tearing at the ears also can set up other infighting attacks with tools like the elbow, knee and head butt. To develop the ear tear, build your hand strength by pinching and lifting weight plates, squeezing sports grips and so on.


This technique has your fingertips folded against the base of your fingers before contact is made with the bottom portion of your palm, where your hand meets your wrist. Your thumb should be “attached” to the side of your hand. This is important because an exposed thumb can result in dislocation.

Your hand is held perpendicular to your wrist so the softer tissue of the inner wrist doesn’t hit the target. The bottom ridge of the palm is a solid striking surface and can do as much damage as a closed fist with far less risk of injury to your hand. The palm smash is thrown in a more relaxed manner than the closed fist. This is because clenching the fist shortens the extensor muscles, which counters the action of the flexor muscles that are activated in punching. The technique can be delivered in a straight line to the nose or chin, upward to the chin, or in an arc to the ear with a cupped hand (much like a hook punch).


This lethal open-hand attack uses the webbing between the thumb and index finger of your lead hand, which is held palm down. The name stems from the fact that the hand has the shape of the letter “C.”

The strike uses the same mechanics as the straight punch, but delivery is more of a thrust. When the windpipe is struck, tracheal collapse can result. During delivery, your hand must be kept rigid. The greatest opportunity to use it comes when your opponent fails to keep his chin down in his ready position.


The ax strike uses the outer edge of the forward hand the way you would use a knife or sword. When executing this technique, your fingers should be together and folded to minimize the potential for breakage. Snapping the forearm outward from the elbow yields a chopping motion that’s perfect for attacking the throat.


In pankration, the open hand is not just for striking. It also can rake the face with the fingers “hooking” the eyes, and it can dig into the eyes with the thumb. It’s effective at close range where extending your arm to generate striking power is impossible.

Functional efficiency has always been a major principle of the battlefield variant of pankration that’s featured here. Defending yourself in any chaotic brawl requires reliable skills that will resolve a struggle as quickly as possible. Developing fast, powerful hand attacks — techniques that use closed fists and open hands — is crucial. Likewise, developing the intuition you need to apply them at the right time and to the right target is essential to success.

A member of the Black Belt Hall of Fame, Jim Arvanitis has written 11 books about pankration. Regarded as the “father of modern pankration,” he’s spent his life rebuilding and systematizing the ancient combat sport of his Greek ancestors. For more information, visit

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