Milo of Croton
To understand the greatness of Milo of Croton, one has to take note that he remains to this day - nearly 2,600 years after his reign - the most decorated Olympic wrestler, with seven victories at seven different Olympic games. He won the boy’s wrestling tournament in 540 BC at the 60th Olympics, and went on to win the men’s competition a record six times from the 61st through the 66th Olympiad. He had an estimated 1,200 wins and one loss over age 45, while the modern record held by the greatest wrestler of our day - Aleksandr Karelin - is 887 wins and two losses.
Milo's size and physique were described as out of this world, and his strength and technique perfect, which led many people to believe he was the son of Zeus. Ancient sources report that he would show off his strength by holding his arm out, fingers outstretched, with no man able to bend even his pinky finger. Another source claims that during his prime he carried a four-year-old cow on his back to the Olympic stadium and sacrificed it to Zeus with his bare hands.
Diagoras of Rhodes
Arguably the most decorated and famous boxer of antiquity, ancient Greek historians described Diagoras as a huge man who moved like a teenager and had extremely fast hands. He won twice at the Olympics, in true dominant fashion, and never tasted defeat according to the available historical records. He was extremely impressive not only for his size but also for his unique boxing technique. They called him Euthymachos ("straight fighting") because he never ducked or sidestepped a blow, but used his chin and body as a shield. Even though his footwork and speed was one of kind, he preferred to please his fans by going toe-to-toe with his opponents... well, for as long as they could last (think GGG x 5).
His three sons and two grandsons went on to win six Olympic laurel crowns in boxing, wrestling, and pankration (similar to ultimate fighting), making the Diagoras family the most successful in the history of Olympic combat sports to this day. Two of his nephews also went on to be boxing champions. Legend has it Diagoras died of joy over his success and the success of his descendents. Eat that, Gracie and Klitschko families!
Chionis of Sparta
Chionis of Sparta was an athletically gifted runner with long arms and legs - often described as the fastest runner in antiquity - who went on to win three consecutive titles in both the diaulos and the stadion (two different foot races) in 664, 660, and 656 BC. However, these six victories are not his real claim to fame. Chionis was described as an even better jumper than a runner, but unfortunately, there were no jumping competitions at the ancient Olympics.
Historical records suggest that at the 656 BC games, Chionis jumped a then-record of 7.05 meters. In other words, Chionis could have won with that 2,600-year-old jump at the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896, which would also place him among the top eight at a further ten Olympics, up to and including the 1952 games in Helsinki. If you’re still not impressed, there’s more to his amazing athleticism.
Chionis was an even better triple jumper, capable of jumping as far as 15.85 meters. Although the rules of such jumps are not really clear and some historians have suggested that jumpers only needed two jumps instead of three, such a record under modern rules would have still won Chionis the modern Olympic title right up to the 1952 games as well. What is more, according to sources, jumpers back then could have jumped that far running only a third of the distance modern jumpers need to run in order to jump, barefoot and on rough, rocky course.
Theagenes of Thasos
Theagenes of Thasos is possibly the fighter with the most recorded victories in all combat sports. Often described as an extremely strong, muscular, and tall man, Theagenes won two Olympic laurel crowns, in boxing in 480 BC and pankration in 476 BC. He competed for 22 years in every major combat competition of his time (boxing, pankration, wrestling), winning various titles all across the ancient world. According to Greek historian Pausanias, he won an estimated 1,400 fights; about 1,200 more victories than Willie Pep, who, with 229 wins, is considered the winningest boxer of our day.
Polydamas of Skotoussa
Polydamas was the pankration champion at the Olympics in 408 BC, where he dominated his opponents with the kind of ease that had never been seen before. He has been described as an incredibly strong and big man whose size and power were unmatched, while one of his nonathletic achievements included the brutal killing of a wild lion with his bare hands in an attempt to imitate the mythical Heracles. His unique achievements made him popular all over the known world and King Darius of Persia, impressed by the stories he had heard, sent his men with gifts to invite him to Persia, where he organized similar combat events. Polydamas accepted the invitation and when he arrived, Darius picked the three best wrestlers to fight him. After a short fight, Polydamas killed two and the third ran away.
Tragically, he became a victim of his own immense strength when he tried to stop the roof of a cave from falling in. His friends fled and reached safety, but Polydamas didn’t make it out alive.
Leonidas of Rhodes
At the 2016 Olympics, Michael Phelps broke an Olympic record that was over 2,000 years old by surpassing the 12 individual titles won by Leonidas of Rhodes. But who was Leonidas? He was the most decorated ancient Olympian and one of the most famous runners of antiquity whose unique achievement seems unbreakable even by today's standards when it comes to track and field. For four consecutive Olympiads (164–152 BC), he won the three major races of the time - the stadion, the diaulos, and the armor race - for a total of 12 medals in individual events.
Phelps may have broken his record, but let’s keep in mind that the most decorated Olympian of the modern Games had the luxury of taking part in five individual events in order to break the record, while Leonidas only had three. As for a track and field athlete of our times? Usain Bolt has only six gold medals in individual events, exactly half of Leo’s victories.
Iccus of Taranto
Iccus of Taranto was the champion of the pentathlon at the 70th Games (470 BC), and he is widely considered to be the father of modern gymnastics, calisthenics, and sports nutrition. He became widely famous for the way he prepared himself physically and mentally before competing according to ethical-religious Pythagorean concepts by abstaining from sex and eating a very healthy diet. The Greek historian Pausanias called him the best gymnast he ever saw, and he received great praise from the philosopher Plato as well. Since gymnastics was not included in the ancient Olympics, Iccus lost interest and became a teacher of healthy lifestyles and a trainer of gymnasts instead.
Xenophon of Corinth
Xenophon of Corinth was a unique breed of athlete who would put most contemporary track and field athletes to shame. At the 79th Olympiad (464 BC) he won both the individual footrace (stadion) as well as the pentathlon. What’s even more amazing is that it took him no more than several hours to win six different competitions. How many modern athletes do you think could have won two different track races, the javelin throw, the discus throw, the long jump, and a wrestling tournament in less than 24 hours?
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