The evening starts rather quietly.
Situated in a modestly sized gym on the second floor of the Student Recreation Center on the Tempe Campus, students of different creeds and backgrounds practice an ancient martial art several times a week that’s about the same age as several long-dead empires.
Today, over a dozen people arrived at practice to brush up on Pankration (pronounced Pan–crate-tion), a sport that saw its origins in Ancient Greece.
Pankration (which literally translates to “all powers fighting”) was first performed during the Greek Olympic Games of 776 B.C.
Fast forward to January 2013, where the first batch of people in the American Pankration Fighting group wait for their head coach Jeff Funicello, who will teach them new moves for a sport that literally used to be played to the death.
By the end of this particular period, about 15 people show up for instruction. On a regular day the maximum headcount can total 20.
Jeff Funicello soon enters the gym and starts the students off with several simple practice exercises.
First he directs one where the students, on their hand and knees, try to pull each other over one colored section of the room’s wrestling mat. Then they perform a simple stretching exercise.
Both warm-ups obscure the sheer amount of physical exertion put forth at every practice, even on simple counter-maneuvers.
Among the maneuvers Funicello presents to the students is a move where if they time a turn of the head just right, they’ll duck a blow. Other directions include how the usage of both arms can appropriately pin an opponent and finish a match sooner.
Yet, on this evening (and others) the participants are mostly working at half-speed, practicing various simple maneuvers that would be ephemeral in a live fight against an opponent.
The head coach’s gospel stresses intelligent action as opposed to brute force. Funicello says Pankration is akin to a high-speed game of chess where every participant must be a step ahead.
Funicello works various fighting styles into the curriculum when teaching it to students, such as mixed martial arts and kickboxing.
Like many of those who choose to learn Pankration, they share variations of the same story — those familiar with physical activity and those experimenting with the unfamiliar.
One of those in the former category is health and wellness junior James Weinstein, whose proclivity for physical activities pushed him to try Pankration (this was his fourth practice), though he isn’t sure it will ultimately suit him.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is biochemistry major James Cruz, who has a background in orchestra but none in sports. He says after four years of orchestra, he decided on a dramatic change of pace, which awakened deep enjoyment.
“Grappling someone gives you a sense of satisfaction that you can’t get anywhere else,” Cruz says.
Now Cruz is in his second semester of Pankration — and might continue it for the rest of his college career.
For others, Pankration provides an unorthodox method of adjustment to civilian life for former servicemen in the armed forces.
Parks and recreation management junior Luke Ochsenfeld, who served for four years, refers to the continued exhilaration that Pankration provided for him after he was discharged a year and a half earlier.
“It allows for an adrenaline release that’s healthy and good as opposed to going and getting drunk in a bar fight,” Ochsenfeld says.
Afterward Ochsenfeld and another Pankration student, economics major Stephan Spooner, engage in a rather spirited sparring practice session.
Like an early Bond film with Sean Connery — except on a more primal level— limbs contort around the head, in desperate attempts to overpower the other.
Spooner manipulates Ochsenfeld’s posture into a sitting position with his feet planted on the wall matt, back on the floor. Spooner tries to pin his friend. It fails. Ochsenfeld breaks loose.
This back and forth continues for a few more minutes until both are standing, both with one arm hooked around the other’s neck.
With exhausted looks on their faces, they break. It’s time for water.
For the former Marine sniper, a moment like this encapsulates what he receives from Pankration: a burst of adrenaline while having fun with the guys.
“We get a lot of veterans, especially from Special Operations, because they get out of the military and they come to college and they’re missing some sort of an Adrenaline rush and they typically find their way in here,” Funicello says.
Pankration has been around since before the time of Christ; it never made the leap to the silver screen because of its unglamorous presentation.
“A lot of the intricate stuff that they really do isn’t really that exciting to watch,” Funicello says. “Fighting is not pretty, it’s not glamorous. It’s ugly.”
Indeed, the most glamorous part of the evening is when Funicello has the group warm up with a rolling exercise for when an aggressor tries to flip their one of the students onto their back.
When done perfectly, the roll looks like a human rolling stone. Visually, it takes on qualities akin to gymnastics routine.
A successful roll means the students quickly bounce back and provide a counter-maneuver.
As day becomes night, the students start to wear. By around 7 p.m., practice is over and some of the men wrap medical tape around their sore spots.
Weinstein talks about Pankration during a breather on the floor, against the mirrored wall off the mat, after the soreness in his right foot from kickboxing in a recent practice resurfaces.
During his two hours of practice, he built up a good workout and the decent amount of body odor.
For others, the effects of the long period of exertion on the mat manifest themselves in more biological ways: shortness of breath, redness and perspiration.
Some of the people in Funicello’s class might stick with Pankration long enough to compete in some championships, but the coach’s goal for all his pupils remains constant.
“I don’t expect everybody in here to be world-class athletes, [but] if things fall into place here, at least they’ll protect themselves intelligently at all times and put themselves in a position to deliver a meaningful attack,” Funicello says. “That is my job to teach them how to do so.”
And much of tonight’s practice backs up his thesis, a tiny snapshot of this “high-speed game of chess” from earlier. It involves a lot of sweat and the power exertion that facilitates the quick means to an end.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @TaylorFromPhx