We like to think we’ve made a lot of social, scientific, and technological progress throughout the last few centuries, but that’s not always the case. Many studies have shown that our ancestors from various times were smarter, more practical, and tougher than we are. For example, many contemporary historians suggest that an unarmed battle between modern soldiers and the Spartans or Vikings of the past would result in a bloody mess for today's fighters.
When it comes to sports, we also believe our athletes are faster, stronger, and have more endurance than those who came before, but we tend to forget all the things (such as performance-enhancing drugs, advanced equipment, medical advances, and specialized nutrition) that modern athletes have to aid them in becoming the best. However, even under these circumstances, it seems as though certain historical athletes would have demolished the most elite sportsmen we have today. A simple look at the following athletes just might convince you.
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.
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 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 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.