ARABIAN GULF – Hercules used an ancient form of mixed martial arts (MMA) to subdue the Nemean Lion, and Theseus used it to overpower the minotaur in the labyrinth. These two heroes of Greek mythology inspired modern MMA by combining the ancient discipline Pankration with traditional combat sports, boxing and wrestling. Greek Olympic Games introduced Pankration in 648 BC. There were no time limits, no weight classes and the only rules were no biting and eye gouging.
Herculean Sailors aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) began a structured system in order to develop and learn evolved Pankration, using the open mat in the hangar bay for MMA-style combat sports.
“We do wrestling and jiu jitsu, with a little bit of striking every now and then, every night, except Fridays, during open mat, 7:30-9:30 p.m,” said Chief Cryptological Technician (collection) Stephen Zakarauskas.
A full-contact sport, MMA combines various disciplines of martial arts, wrestling and other combat sports that permit striking and grappling while standing or on the ground.
“We try to match people up that are either of equal ability or [match] beginners with someone that has experience so they can train with someone that knows how far to go and how hard to push,” said Zakarauskas.
This method fosters a learning environment to ensure safety comes first. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are educational sessions, geared toward teaching new moves and new people.
“I have never wrestled before the Navy. I have only been going to open mat like a month and half,” said Seaman Ariana Mclain. “My favorite part is when I am stronger than the guys, when I win against them.”
The informal group dominating the open mat is not an official team but they provide interested crew members an opportunity to work together to develop their skills.
“I grew up wrestling. I got into Brazilian jiu jitsu probably about eight or nine years ago, from there I did a little bit of Muay Thai and just basic MMA,” said Zakarauskas.
Zakarauskas has years of experience in combat sports. He wrestled throughout high school and later practiced more intricate techniques that fuel his lessons.
“For us in MMA and jiu jitsu there is no better cardio,” said Zakarauskas. “It is full-body endurance, employing flexibility and strength. You push your body harder and much further past your own abilities every time you step up.”
The goal in combat sports is to subdue and overpower your opponent, not to hurt them.
“I have actually been more hurt playing Nerf basketball than I ever have in MMA,” said Zakarauskas. “I broke my ankle playing Nerf basketball. In MMA its bumps and bruises, cuts and scrapes – that’s the worst of it. Especially on the ship, we are really careful. We look out for each other to make sure we don’t go off the mat and we tap to submissions very early. We have also outlawed all leg locks. Leg locks are especially dangerous because you don’t know it’s too late until something already pops. So we are very safe onboard.”
Partners are not always matched by size or experience so active communication is necessary to create an environment of mutual development.
“Onboard the ship, it is challenging to find people your size to work with,” said Zakarauskas. “And then the heat. The heat is by far the most challenging. You are soaked with sweat and completely zapped 10 minutes into it. It makes everything more difficult to do, as opposed to being on shore in a gym.”
The environment of competition and collaboration make the time spent sparring beneficial.
Mclain said everything becomes very simple during a sparring match. Focusing on the fight blocks all typical distracters, such as the fact that you are a girl, 40 pounds lighter, or inexperienced.
“We have a ton of ship’s company, people from the air wing, some Marines and a couple guys that come down three or four times a week,” said Zakarauskas. “It’s the people that stick with it. You see them get so much better throughout deployment. Like, the girl from Deck who started choking out guys within three weeks. That’s kind of cool.”
The Pankration tradition of full body combat continues with a new generation of warriors. Look for your shipmates in San Diego tournaments upon our return home.
By Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jennifer Case USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) Public Affairs
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