Craig Smith
President, World Pankration Federation

   WPF President Craig Smith has never been accused of holding his tongue when he has something to say - regardless of who likes it and who doesn't. In his first interview in over two years, he talks about the evolution of sport pankration, some of the problems of the past, and what it is going to take to put pankration back into the Olympics.

Interview by Jim Bonifacio
Pankration Magazine: First off, it's been a couple of years since we last talked - how's everything going with the WPF?
Craig Smith: Very well. A  friend of mine recently told me that he thought the WPF had reached exactly where it needed to be at this time, and I'd have to agree with that. I couldn't be more pleased with where we are now, but I'm looking forward to where I know we are going in the next couple of years.
PM: A lot of people probably don't know that you were originally associated with another pankration organization before you started the WPF.
Smith: That's true. I was one of the original supporters of the USA Federation of Pankration Athlima and its parent organization, the International Federation of Pankration Athlima. My good friend Bob Boggs was Secretary General of both organizations, and I supported both organizations through my magazine,
. In fact, I originally created Combat Sport, the competition insert of Grandmaster, as a media venue specifically for pankration.
PM: What happened with those organizations, the USAFPA and IFPA?
Smith: They've pretty much dwindled away. One of the things that excited so many people at the time was the possibility of getting pankration back into the Olympics. There were some very high profile names who came on board the pankration movement because of this, and everyone was promoting the idea that we were working toward getting pankration reintroduced into the Olympic Games. Pretty soon, though, many of the organizations' representatives were changing the "working toward" to flatly stating that pankration "will be" in the Olympics in 2004. This was a total misrepresentation.
PM: Were they lying, or were they just getting carried away?
Smith: I'm not going to give grown men the excuse that they "just got carried away". Grown men, particularly leaders in their field, should not be "carried away" by anything. However, at that point, I can't say whether they were lying or not. If they knew that what they were saying was not true, then they were lying. If they did not know that what they were saying was untrue, they were simply wrong. In my opinion, neither is acceptable.
PM: What happened?
Smith: I contacted the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and asked them about pankration's status. They told me that pankration was not going to be an Olympic Sport in 2004, nor had pankration even made application for recognition as an Olympic Sport.
PM: Did you confront the leadership of the pankration organizations about this?
Smith: Yes.
PM: What did they say?
Smith: Not much. Bob Boggs was the only one who was concerned about it. He took the information I gave him, contacted the IOC himself, and confronted the presidents of both the USAFPA and the IFPA about it. He eventually resigned from both organizations.
PM: How about the others in the organizations? What did they think about this?
Smith: They couldn't have cared less. They knew what they were doing, and they didn't want to hear anyone raining on their parade. They continued to claim that pankration was going to be in the 2004 Olympics, and that their organizations were the ones officially recognized by Greece and the IOC to field the national Olympic teams - none of which was true.
PM: That seems crazy. How could they expect to get away with it if the information was already out there disputing their claims? Why would they even try?
Smith: Why they would try is money - membership  and tournament entry fees from athletes who thought they were headed for the Olympics. How could they continue to pull it off? Because people hear what they want to hear, and don't hear what they don't want to hear.  People wanted to believe they were going to the Olympics - therefore, they simply refused to read or believe anything that  challenged or contradicted that dream.
PM: Is that why you started the WPF?
Smith: No, not right away. Naturally, I pulled my support from both the USAFPA and the IFPA, and wrote about it in Grandmaster. But I was very busy with the magazine, and starting another organization was the farthest thing from my mind.
PM: Well, what did make you start the WPF?
Smith: Basically, because nobody else did. The good people - athletes, coaches, representatives, officials, were leaving the USAFPA and the IFPA in droves, but there was no where else for them to go to continue pankration competition. I kept expecting someone to start another organization, and I was ready to support them if they ran it honestly. But no one did. So, finally, I did.
PM: You started the WPF just because no one else did?
Smith: Yeah. Well, I saw all these good people left out in the cold, as it were, and it made me mad. In fact, a friend of mine told me sometime back that every business I've ever started was because I was mad at some situation. I guess that's true.
PM: Well, it seems to be working out.
Smith: Yes, it's working out very well.
PM: Did things go smoothly with the WPF from the beginning?
Smith: (Laughing) Hardly! The first thing I did was bring together all of the people who had left the other organizations and ask them to develop a new set of competition rules that would be unique to the WPF, as I thought some of the rules of the other organization had been a bit silly. Boy, was that a mistake!
PM: How so?
Smith: We had people from every conceivable discipline, and they all wanted things their own way. We had judo guys and karate guys and jujitsu guys and wrestlers and kickboxers - and they all wanted what they were most comfortable with, and didn't want what they weren't
comfortable (read good) at. It was like trying to hitch a bunch of bulls to the same wagon - everyone was pulling, but in different directions, and the wagon was being pulled apart. What we ended up with was a set of rules that didn't please anyone, and about three quarters of the people left and wouldn't compete with us. It was a real auspicious beginning!
PM: What happened?
Smith: Well, we erred on the side of safety with our original rules - and rightfully so, I think. But they didn't really reflect the pankration concept of "all powers"; allowing competitors from disparate disciplines to come together and test their skills against those of other disciplines with whatever skills they possessed - within certain safety guidelines, of course. We've made a number of rules changes over the past two years, and people are pretty happy with them now.
PM: What are some of the rules changes that have made a difference?
Smith: At first, we didn't allow knee strikes on the ground, or elbow strikes at any time. We allow both now, but don't allow either to the head. Also, we did not allow any head contact at the beginning. This put the strikers at a distinct disadvantage. We do allow head contact now, with punches and kicks, but require TOP TEN headgear to ensure athlete safety.
PM: That seems to make a lot more sense.
Smith: I think so. And we've had excellent response, not only in the US, but internationally.
PM: What is the main attraction of pankration?
Smith: Several things, I think. First, it is mixed martial art, which is really the best test of martial ability for those who actually want to fight, rather than dance.
PM: Is that a slam at karate and taekwondo?
Smith: It's not a slam, it's an observation. Go to an average karate or taekwondo tournament, and what do you see? Do you see any fighting? I don't. I see a bunch of  silly, flippy-dippy carrying on that is laughed at by real fighters, both in the ring and on the street. Jim Harrison wrote one of the greatest articles I have ever read about what happened to point karate. I know it's going to be carried on the Grandmaster Magazine On-Line site, and if you could link to that from this interview, the readers here can get one of the best lessons they will ever read on martial competition.
PM: OK, go ahead with what you think the attraction is to pankration.
Smith: Well, as I said, it is a true mixed martial art competition which includes striking, grappling, stand-up and groundfighting, and submission techniques. It is fast-paced, and is the closest we can get to real personal unarmed combat while staying within appropriate bounds of safety in an athletic forum.
   Second, it is an historical event, having been one of the most revered Olympic events for over 1,000 years. It was referred to by the Greek sophist Philostratos as the "Worthiest contest in the Olympiads and the most important preparaton for warriors." So, it has a practical application and an historical aspect that is unparalleled in the martial arts.  I think people, both competitors and spectators, are attracted to both of those aspects, and we're finding that in the increases in both competitors and spectators at our tournaments.
   Also, the nature of pankration, particularly since we have made the most recent rules adjustments, puts the outcome in the hands of the competitors and takes it out of the subjective judgements of judges and referees. The competition speeks for itself, and the spectator is able to enjoy onsand understand the competition without being surprised or disappointed by the application of arcane rules and subjective judgements by referees who  may differ in their rules applications.

PM: This seems a good time to ask, what is the current status of pankration relative to the Olympics?
Smith: In order to make application to the IOC for the inclusion of a new sport, the sport needs to show a history of competition conducted under consistant and appropriate rules, regulations and operational guidelines of an international governing body. The competition must include national and international events involving a minimum of thirty countries. Although pankration has not yet reached this point, the WPF has already made great strides toward this goal. As soon as the requirements have been met, we will make application with the IOC for inclusion of pankration in the Olympic Games.
PM: When do you expect this to occur?
Smith: That's impossible to say with any certainty. Some are hoping for 2008, but I'm not sure that would be the best time. The 2008 Olympics will be held in Beijing. San Shou will be introduced as an element of Wu Shu, and there are currently problems with diplomacy and human rights between China and many other countries. Or it may be 2012.
   I know a lot of people are very anxious to see pankration back in the Olympics, but the proper development of the sport is much more important than when it is re-introduced into the Olympic Games. My personal feeling at this time is that the WPF will push and prepare for 2012.
PM: You're really taking the long-term position on this.
Smith: Yes, I am. One of the problems in the martial arts and combat sports today is that too many people want things too quickly. People get black belts in two years. Amateur boxers and kickboxers want to turn pro after only a few fights. People think they are better prepared than they really are, and when they come up against someone who earned their rank or position the hard way - the right way - they get knocked on the asses and think life's unfair.  The same is true for organizations. It is important to lay a proper foundation and build properly, which usually means to build slowly.
PM: What changes have you seen in pankration over the past few years?
Smith: One is that we have seen pankration go from being dominated by grapplers to being dominated by strikers. Another is that we have seen an increase of intensity in the matches. I think these are related, as the grapplers tend to play a waiting game of strategy whereas strikers have a tendency to be more explosive and aggressive.
PM: That would seem to make grapplers not want to compete in pankration.
Smith: Well, I'm sure that will be true in some cases. But that is unfortunate. I would hope to see grapplers use this new competitive opportunity to develop more complete skills and cross train in the striking disciplines. For the past few years, people have heard and read in many of the popular martial arts magazines and websites about the indominability of grappling, particularly such disciplines as Brazilian Ju-Jitsu. However, pankration has shown that a competitor who relies solely on grappling tends to do poorly against someone who is punching and kicking him. That is not to denigrate any grappling discipline - it is only to say that, just like striking disciplines, grappling is incomplete as a martial discipline, and should be complimented with other skills.
PM: Any other changes you've seen?
Smith: Yes, I think another very interesting change is the kind of competitor we are seeing. Several years ago, we mainly saw competitors who had come out of existing martial arts schools and were wanting to jump on the Olympic bandwagon. Today, we are seeing more and more people wanting to train and compete in pankration for the sake of pankration training and competition itself. In many cases, they have had little to no martial arts training before getting involved in pankration. They are involved for the sport - not the glitz and glory. Those who do come from a martial arts background come from good, tough schools with high standards and traditional expectations.
PM: How do these new pankratiasts stack up against the previous ones.
Smith: To put it bluntly, they kick their asses. To put it more properly, they bring a quality of ability and character to the ring that, to be honest, I did not see two years ago.
PM: In what way?
Smith: Two years ago, a good number of pankration competitors were coming out of martial arts schools or grappling gyms that concentrated primarily on a single dimension of training. Many didn't compete in competition outside their own school or organization, and many didn't compete in contact striking competition at all. As a result, there was a whole lot of arrogance walking around. Today, those who compete in pankration train in a variety of skills and compete regularly in full competition. This gives them experience and an appreciation for the skills of other competitors, which is the antidote for arrogance.
   Also, we're seeing more female competitors, college competitors, and competitors in their twenties and thirties who are business or professional people. I'd say that this is unique to pankration - at least as far as I know.
PM: You mentioned college competitors. The WPF has chartered a couple of college pankration clubs, hasn't it?
Smith: Only one so far, the University of Missouri Pankration Club in Columbia, Missouri. But we have a college program now in place, and I'm sure a number of other college clubs will be chartered soon.
PM: Do you see this as being an area of growth for pankration and the WPF?
Smith: I sure do. Colleges and universities are excellent venues for pankration. There is a large pool of potential competitors, training facilities are easily accessed, and pankration gives club and team members the opportunity to travel and compete in tournaments nationwide, even internationally, as part of an exciting movement in the combat arts.
PM: What about female competitors? A lot has been made recently of the increase in women's boxing, but pankration seems like kind of an extreme competition for many women to be interested in.
Smith: I'd say that women are one of our fastest growing competitor groups - and I'd have to say this surprised me a bit at first. But many women appreciate the multi-dimensional aspects of pankration, and are attacted to the opportunity to step outside some of the restrictions society has placed on them. They enjoy the learning, the training and the competition. Many were not encouraged, or even allowed, to engage in organized physical contact sports when they were younger, and they're finding that pankration gives them an excellent opportunity to express and test themselves physically in a way they have never been able to before.
PM: What do you anticipate for pankration over the next few years?
Smith: Well, that's a seemingly simple question that calls for a rather multi-faceted answer. The obvious, of course, is that I think we will see a tremendous growth in pankration over the next few years, both in the United States and internationally. Secondly, I think we will see the emergence of a new kind of martial athlete - a true pankratiast, who studies, trains and competes in pankration as a primary endeavor rather than an adendum to another martial art or sport. Put together, these first two things will begin to position pankration once again as the ultimate combat sport, with its practitioners recognized as the elite of martial athletes throughout the world. Also, we will begin to see a growing spectator base. Pankration is a great spectator sport, and we are already seeing the number of spectators growing at each tournament as pankration becomes more well known.
   As a result of this, I believe we will see an evolution of a pankration "culture", where the concepts of honor and integrity are combined with  physical and mental abilities in a true pankratiast. The athlete will then not only be the participant of the sport and the recipient of its rewards - but also the guardian of its principles.
PM: Thank seems like a lot to hope for.
Smith: It's easy to expect the least, or worst, of people - and athletics in recent years have in many cases satisfied that expectation of their least or worst. But people will either rise to the standards set  for them or fall to the levels allowed them. Too many athletes, coaches and fans of the major sports over the past years have forgiven improper behavior in the interest of money, celebrity or the "good of the sport." That's too bad, because it denigrates not only the people involved, but the sport as a whole.
   My interest is in building a sport that holds its participants to high sandards of both performance and behavior. The WPF doesn't abide such behaviors as taunting, fits of temper, or any other behavior that is deemed unsportsmanlike. This acknowledges the athlete as a person who possesses appropriate humility and self control, and as one who may be held up as an example to others who may wish to pursue the training of a pankratiast.
   My experience has been that the most effective fighters and competitors are usually the most polite, respectful and thoughtful. There is both cause and effect there. And young competitors should be able to look to the older practitioners of their sport as examples, both in ability and behavior.
PM: That sounds like a lot to expect.
Smith: Yep. We expect a lot.
PM: Well, thank you for your time. We're looking forward to covering some great events in the future with the WPF.
Smith: My pleasure.