On the mat, the two opponents are instructed by a referee to salute one another, a martial arts formality. But when the fighting begins, they engage in something vastly more fierce than modern-day karate or tae kwon do.
For one, there are head shots -- brutal, rocking punches that sound particularly nasty against the headgear. There are kicks, too. And wrestling. And dangerous submission holds. And pretty much anything else two guys might do to each other in an alley fight, short of biting or pulverizing one another's groin space.
From the moment the referee shouts, "Start!" Hoff is in trouble. First he gets tackled, which is not a good thing. He lies on his back and receives blow after blow to his head. The muscle man straddles Hoff's chest, slams his fists into his headgear and then, in a flash, locks Hoff's right arm at the elbow and wrist and maneuvers into a perfect submission move from which Hoff can't escape without injury. The referee awards fifteen points, and the two begin again at center mat.
Matt Hoff's next few minutes go like this: He's tackled; he gets up, then he's tackled again; he's on his back staring straight into his opponent's fist, which is headed Hoff's way, quickly; after a few punches, he struggles to his feet, only to get a kick in the stomach; a knee lands squarely on his face. He's getting his ass kicked.
But as the two break and return to center mat time and again, a pattern emerges: Hoff moves more quickly; his opponent takes longer and longer. After another takedown leads them out of bounds, the muscle man looks like he's the one taking a beating. This time, when the referee instructs them to start again, Hoff pounces. He jabs a few times, then tackles his opponent and drives him to the mat, where he delivers a few head shots of his own. His supporters, standing and seated in metal folding chairs at the side of the mat, come alive: "Take 'im!" "Keep 'im down!" "Attaboy!" "Yeah!"
When the two fighters cross the out-of-bounds line, Hoff again collects himself faster than his opponent. At the next start, the muscle man scores a takedown, which Hoff almost immediately reverses. Again they move out of bounds, and this time the muscle man rises as if he's been stirred from a long, sedated sleep. He puts his hands on his knees, then on top of his head before bending over again and putting them back on his knees. Hoff, meanwhile, leaps back to center mat.
At the next start, Hoff takes down his man and works into position to "choke him out." The idea is to get his opponent into a headlock that will shut off blood to the brain. Hoff squeezes his biceps under his opponent's chin, and after a few seconds, the muscle man taps the mat, signaling for a break. As Hoff jumps to his feet, his exhausted opponent can barely get up. When he does rise, he limps a bit to the left, stops, then tells a referee that he's had enough. He withdraws.
Off the mat, Hoff, high from the win, praises the superiority of this recently unearthed sport called pankration ("all strengths" in Greek) over other martial arts. "I'm for anything that's more realistic," Hoff says. "Pankration is still controlled, but the less rules, the less control they have on you."
To call pankration a throwback sport would be the understatement of no less than two millennia. By the time the ancient Greek sport first reached the Olympics, in 648 B.C., it had already undergone changes to make its violent battles less lethal. For example, there was more biting. ³In the original pankration," says one expert and modern-day instructor, "it was not uncommon for a guy to bite off another guy's finger."
Pankration, asleep for nearly 2,000 years, has awakened in a strange place. Greece remains its heartland, but the sport's headquarters has shifted westward to the less-than-antiquated grounds of Overland Park, Kansas.
The World Pankration Federation's headquarters shares an office with the martial arts magazine Grandmaster -- in the Overland Park home of a former police officer named Craig Smith.
Smith is an imposing figure, the sort of athletic man who can stand up straight and make his chest appear four-dimensional. And his size isn't all volume, either. His serious, straight and alert presence hints at his seven-year career with the Kansas City, Missouri, police department's special investigations unit. For several years he has taught self-defense techniques, including a Celtic martial arts system called Sli Beatha (pronounced shlee-bay-ha).
In 1999, Smith started Grandmaster, a straight-talking, tabloid-sized martial arts monthly. Smith's hard-boiled column is a regular feature. "I've made a lot of people mad," he says. "But that's fine."
Now, along with his seminars, his magazine and his day job as a Kansas City Star distribution representative, Smith runs the WPF, an organization the International Olympic Committee considers the leader in pankration and the push to make it a future medal event.
When the sport originally reached the Olympics 2,650 years ago, it immediately became one of the premiere games. It was immortalized on vases, friezes, sculptures and wall art depicting bare-skinned men punching, kicking and throwing each other around, not always adhering to the rules in the process. (Groin-kicking and biting were favorite violations.)
But it's still a long road back to the Olympics. Right now, Smith is concentrating on making the sport grow. The latest addition is a class solely for those interested in pankration. On a recent Saturday afternoon, five students, four young men and one young woman, look on as Smith, decked in all-black workout clothes, teaches them to kick, trip and punch. Then he shows them how to put the three together in a sequence.
The class moves fast out of necessity. On April 21 at Total Martial Arts in Overland Park, at least two of these students will compete in their first pankration fight. One of them, 25-year-old Dusty Fuller of Olathe, brings with him only a wrestling background and a brush with tae kwon do, which he quit after his first day when the instructor placed him with a bunch of eight-year-olds. He likes pankration, he says, because "it gives you the opportunity to do what you know."
As the class moves on, Smith leaves out certain skills commonly taught in martial arts classes, such as how to fall properly. He makes sure to let his students know they're skipping it. Why? Because it's not practical. It's of little use. What matters more in a fight: how to avoid falling or how to land nicely?
Typical Smith. A few years back, he watched a police martial arts instructor teach hand-to-hand combat and requested a personal lesson. To start, the instructor asked Smith to grab his wrist.
"Why?" Smith asked. "The last time someone grabbed me by the wrist was probably my mother pulling me out of a store when I was a little kid. In all my years in law enforcement, nobody ever tried to grab my wrist."
"But what if someone tried to keep you from drawing your weapon?" the instructor replied.
"Then things have gone way past the 'Let's do a tricky wrist roll so we don't hurt him' stage. A grab to his throat, a knee to his groin, a kick to his knee and a slam dunk to the asphalt is in order at this point," Smith said.
Such moves are some of the first self-defense techniques Smith teaches in his Sli Beatha classes. They're too brutal even for pankration competitions, at least if pankration is to survive lawsuits. Still, pankration allows a fighter to use a substantial part of his or her repertoire. It also allows those in the martial arts to find out exactly what their belt ranks mean -- whether a black belt is really a sign of toughness or just a fashion statement.
The martial arts schools in America have gone sissy. How else to put it? Entire tournaments are held without so much as the lightest contact -- they're shadow-boxing matches with an east-Asian accent. Fancy-patched instructors sell self-defense snake-oil, techniques that look good in a mirror or during a demonstration but become useless on the streets. Black belts are pandemic. There are nine-year-olds with black belts. Nine-year-olds!
Guys such as Smith, guys such as former kick-boxing champion Bob Boggs of Olathe, guys such as gritty Kansas City legend Jim Harrison, have a name for these schools: "belt factories." Students pay their money and put in their time. Then it's a steady parade of colorful waistwear: white belt, yellow belt, orange belt, green belt, purple belt, brown belt, black belt.
In an April 2000 column for Grandmaster, Harrison sums up the problem: "Twenty or thirty years ago, these same black belts could not have made a yellow belt in most dojos [martial arts schools]. Black belt was an elite rarity. Now that martial arts has become a business rather than an endeavor, the attitude and, especially, the requirements, have been diluted remarkably."
A common villain is Hollywood. With each movie that featured the martial arts, for each Karate Kid, for each installment of the Jean-Claude Van Damme cartoon, interest in the martial arts, particularly among young people, increased.
Though parents would shell out money for their kids' fixations, they weren't always keen on additional medical costs. As a result, many schools softened and pulled their punches. The empowerment angle was played up. Yes, karate would teach your child self-defense, but more important, your child would become a better person. Better grades. Better attitude. Better organization. Happiness.
Consumers, it turns out, like happiness. The number of schools multiplied. It is estimated that more than 100,000 martial arts schools operate in the United States. The Kansas City yellow pages lists more than sixty in the metro area. Some people in the business believe no U.S. city has more dojos per capita.
As the business of martial arts began to go soft, it got dirty. Because instructors essentially must sell themselves -- their expertise and backgrounds -- to sell their schools, various honorary awards surfaced. Many were little more than scams. Bob Boggs receives as many as ten letters each year from organizations offering to induct him into their halls of fame. This March, one arrived from Fayetteville, Arkansas, a form letter with Boggs' name scrawled in blue ink on a blank line.
"Congratulations on your nomination into the United States Martial Arts 2002 Hall of Fame! The USMA Hall of Fame Director and Selection Committee personally approved your nomination," reads the letter. "Your Hall of Fame induction fee of $200 is due by April 25th, 2002. Fee includes dinner, entertainment and your induction award. The cost for each guest is $50, including children."
But the worst part might be the martial arts tournaments, a major sore spot because of erratic officiating, home-dojo bias and what many feel are pansy-ass prohibitions on landing a punch. In many tournaments, even slight contact can cost fighters points.
"What we have nowadays are a bunch of pajama dancers who like to dress up, wear fancy colored belts and dance around," Smith says.
It was not always this way.
The good old days Smith cites weren't during the time of Hercules but during the age of Aquarius, when former Kansas Citian Jim Harrison helped popularize full-contact, bare-knuckled fights that hardly resembled an ancient art form.
As a sixteen-year-old in St. Louis, Harrison got into a fight with an older, bigger kid who, after beating him nearly to dust, reached a finger into Harrison's face and pulled out his left eyeball. When the pounding stopped, Harrison popped it back in.
Thus hardened, Harrison responded to a later assault by biting off the attacker's finger. He chomped it at the first joint, choked on it and had to reach down his throat to retrieve it. The guy snagged his severed digit and headed to the hospital, but as Harrison notes in his pulpy autobiography, "those were the days before they knew how to recycle limbs."
Another time, as an undercover cop in a nasty part of St. Louis, Harrison kicked a knife-wielding billiard player so hard in the crotch that the blow ruptured the guy's scrotum and broke his pelvis. Happiness.
In 1964, Harrison opened the first of his Kansas City karate dojos. His autobiography, serialized in 1988 by the magazine Fighter, features stories of violence, gore and near-death experiences, all written in bite-sized vignettes with titles such as "A New Face in Hell for Breakfast" and "Chop Suey-cide." Coupled with Harrison's tell-it-like-it-is reputation, the tales have brought him icon status, particularly in Kansas City, where some of his former students reside and teach.
The stories haven't stopped, even with Harrison in his sixties and living in Montana. His program continues to be some of the most intense around, earning graduates T-shirts that read "I Survived the Jim Harrison Seminar." Some say he challenged Steven Seagal to a fight not long ago.
But what made Harrison a legend was his 1960s ascension to the American martial arts pantheon by competing in a run of brutal karate tournaments now referred to as the "blood-and-guts era." To score a point, says one local instructor, fighters had to draw blood. In one story, Harrison's battle was so fierce that the winner was determined by who required fewer stitches.
Things went downhill after the blood-and-guts era. In the 1970s, Bruce Lee popularized kung fu like no one before him. In 1984, The Karate Kid turned thousands of children into little Ralph Macchios.
By the mid-1990s, frustration with martial arts competition forced some people to look for a panacea. They found it in pankration.
The sport first arrived in the United States with a wild-haired Greek-American named Jim Arvanitis, who reportedly traveled to different dojos and challenged fighters of various disciplines. Arvanitis would beat them using a full range of stand-up and ground techniques. "He's the Bruce Lee of pankration," says Steve Crawford of Kansas City's American Combat Jujitsu. "Whereas Bruce Lee was the first to teach his system [outside China], Arvanitis is kind of like that with Greece."
Although the resurrected sport earned Arvanitis a 1973 cover story in Black Belt magazine, a major movement didn't start until the mid-1990s, when an international organization formed in Greece and set up an American affiliate.
For athletes and instructors, the draw was the opportunity to test martial arts training in a full-speed, full-contact forum. "You learn all of this to save your life," Crawford says. "But if you don't practice it for real, you're never going to know if it works."
"You can come to pankration, and you can punch, you can kick, you can knee, you can flip, you can throw, you can do joint submissions," Craig Smith says. "You can do all those things and show how effective your training is."
But until this past January, that wasn't exactly the case. World Pankration Federation events, and all other pankration contests for that matter, were restricted by a rule that barred head shots. As Smith hunted for suitable headgear for his athletes, the fights remained heavily slanted. Simply put, there are two types of pankratiasts: those who want to fight standing up and those who want to take the fight to the floor. For those who fight standing up -- such as boxers and kick-boxers -- head strikes are an important part of strategy.
Smith, for one, does not advocate ground fighting. His reasoning is based, as are most of his self-defense credos, on his own fighting experiences as a cop. Ask him about ground techniques, and Smith will point to the floor. "There's the ground," he says. "That's where you're going to die. That's where people lose. You don't want to be on the ground. Man, you want to get back up. On the street, 100 percent of losers end up on the ground."
Grapplers argue that most street fights -- as many as 90 percent, if you believe an oft-quoted and perhaps mythical Los Angeles Police Department study -- end up on the ground anyway. As an instructor of jujitsu, a discipline that specializes in ground techniques and submission moves, Crawford believes his fighters should be able to fight both on their feet and on their backs. That philosophy might dominate the sport, and Crawford's influence can't be overestimated: He has sent dozens of fighters to pankration tournaments.
Though the head-shot rule ostensibly gives punchers an edge over his grapplers, Crawford says that's precisely why he steers his students toward the WPF. "This, outside of a cage fight, is going to be as realistic as you can get," Crawford says. "Outside the fear factor in a real street fight, it's very realistic."
That realism doesn't translate into anything pretty. Shadow kicks that probably look good in a mirror during practice land awkwardly in competition -- which is not to say they don't have an effect. Likewise, not every takedown is a perfect hip toss, but that hardly matters when one fighter topples another. In the first match of the Midwest Open, one fighter quickly positioned himself above his opponent and began launching punch after punch to the faceplate of his headgear. The fighter on the bottom could do little but try to block the blows with his arms and wait for his man to tire. The refs stood by and awarded a point for each strike. There was no beauty in the entire exchange except the unquestionable message underscored by each head punch: The man on top could just as well be winning a street brawl.
"Somebody once told me the purpose of learning martial arts is so you don't have to fight," Smith says. "That's one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard. Practicing running would be better if that were true. Martial arts is something that you can use when you need it."
But there are rules to the realism. In fact, Smith's first move as WPF president was to set regulations for tournament fighting. So he summoned instructors with various martial arts backgrounds and asked them to establish the WPF's system. "And that was probably the worst mistake I ever made," he says. "Everybody wanted to do what they were good at and didn't want to do what they weren't good at. I started off with a unified organization and ended up with fragmentation."
If some people soured on the WPF early, the outspoken Smith didn't mind. His aim wasn't to cater to any specific martial art, he says, but to make WPF competitions as pure as possible. In time, general rules materialized. Fights would take place on a wrestling mat within a square boundary 28 to 33 feet across. A five-minute limit was set. Uniforms had to include white karate jackets, athletic cups, mouthpieces and fingerless grappling gloves. A scoring system awarded anywhere from one to fifteen points, with a 25-point mercy rule.
The list of illegal behaviors, though lengthy, included only enough measures to ensure the safety and future reproductive capability of competitors. In general: no biting, gouging, fish-hooking, pinching, clawing, scratching; no grabbing of the throat, neck or genitals; no striking of any joint; and no compressing or hyperextending of the neck or spine.
Smith named fellow Kansas Citian and judo black belt Steve Kinser director of officials, a position the WPF president considered highly important given the poor reputation of officiating at many martial arts tournaments. He wanted pankration to set a different example. As a result, WPF referees must not only complete a seminar and shadow certified referees but also wear slacks and ties to all competitions. The idea is that an official should be a figure of respect. Fighters who don't respect the officials don't respect the sport and probably don't respect their opponents. Sportsmanship declines. The sport suffers.
The WPF formed after controversy arose very early in pankration's modern-day resurrection.
Arvanitis got things moving in the United States, but the first group to really push the pankration movement worldwide, the International Federation of Pankration Athlima, formed in Greece in the late 1990s.
In 1998, the group asked an Illinois man named John Townsley to serve as president of a new American affiliate. Townsley recruited Olathe's Bob Boggs to run the U.S.A. Federation of Pankration Athlima as secretary general. Before long, the international group warmed to Boggs and asked him to serve the same role for the global organization. Even before the WPF got started, Johnson County had become a major international hub for pankration.
But Boggs didn't last long in the big seat. From the beginning, USAFPA officials promised that pankration would make its poetically perfect return to the Olympics in 2004, to be held in the games' birthplace of Athens, Greece. The claim was untrue.
Boggs threw in the towel in the summer of 1999, when he learned President John Townsley had announced, once again, that competitors could potentially be Olympiads in 2004.
"I finally had enough of hearing that," he says. "So I resigned."
Later that year, Boggs looked across his desk at the steely-eyed publisher of Grandmaster Magazine, who did not want to see pankration languish because of the USAFPA leadership. Smith asked Boggs to start a new organization.
Boggs said no, but offered to consult with Smith if he accepted the task himself.
"I didn't want to do it," Smith says. "I had too much to do as it was. Essentially, I ended up starting it because no one else would." As it turned out, many enthusiasts were dissatisfied with the USAFPA, he says.
For more than two years, Smith and Boggs have tried to explain that pankration will not be included in the 2004 games. They maintain that claims to the contrary exploit athletes who invest time and money hoping to become an Olympiad.
The USAFPA's Web site, meanwhile, calls rival organizations "imitators" and insists that it is the sport's "only source of reliable information." (John Townsley did not return phone calls for this story.)
Earlier this month, International Olympic Committee officials stated in an e-mail to the Pitch that pankration has not been recognized and will not be in the Athens games. The letter acknowledges that a grassroots movement is underway to add the sport to future Olympics games and adds that "at the international level, it is the World Pankration Federation that is leading the way."
A half hour after his first-round victory at the WPF Midwest Open, Matt Hoff has to fight again. He stands at the side of the mat and listens to some last-minute advice. His coach tells him to look for that one big shot, possibly right under the chin with the palm of his hand, a "palm heel." Hoff nods from within his headgear and moves toward the center of the mat. He looks confident.
His opponent this time is one of four fighters who made the more-than-eight-hour trek from Nashville for their first brush with the WPF. The team is coached by a rough-looking dude named Butch Hill, who watches from a mat-side chair. Were Butch Hill a smiling man, he'd have much to grin about so far; his Nashville fighters are stealing the show.
At the north end of the mat stands the stoic Craig Smith, packed into a dark pinstripe suit and holding a video camera in his right hand, quietly taping each match for review later. Through almost the duration of the tournament, he stands still with the camera held to his face and his left hand in his pocket.
The fight begins poorly for Hoff once again. First he takes a front kick that backs him up and opens him to a few punches and knee shots to the face. His opponent then throws him to the ground, where he proceeds to pummel Hoff with his elbow before segueing into a 15-point arm bar. The fight starts almost precisely like Hoff's first.
After the referees reset the fighters, Hoff again absorbs a punishing barrage: a punch, a solid front kick to the chin followed by another punch that leaves him visibly woozy and sets him up for more knees to the skull, which, fortunately, knock him out of bounds.
As the opponents face off again, Hoff is already dangerously close to an automatic 25-point loss. He takes even more knees to the head until he's pushed back out of bounds. When the refs stop to check with the scorer's table, they find that Hoff has lost because of the point rule. The fight lasted less than two minutes.
Minutes after the match, Hoff is in good spirits, though still a bit shaken by some of the blows he took. "This guy was a really good striker," he says. "He's from Tennessee, and he's been at it for two and a half years. He's really drilled in punching and kicking. This guy annihilated me. I saw stars. Literally."
Butch Hill looks pleased. The Nashville coach resembles so perfectly the working-class tough guy -- weathered, muscular, goateed and quietly dangerous, like the fuse on a stick of dynamite -- that it almost seems as if he's been cast in a movie no one else knows is being filmed. Yet he talks quietly and politely, and when the day is finished and his four fighters have taken the all-around tournament trophy, which is actually a nice certificate, Hill speaks appreciatively of the tournament. "The sportsmanship was great," he says. "Officiating was top-notch. We're definitely going to support this organization. We like it."
Craig Smith, the pinstriped patriarch of the WPF, roams the mat with camera in hand. At the closing ceremony, he stands before the day's competitors, thanks them for competing and congratulates them for their good sportsmanship. Then he salutes them, and they salute back, right fist over left shoulder, and the WPF inches a little further along in its push to become the safest, most competitive, best organized, best officiated, most realistic amateur ass-kicking sport in all the world.