25 Most Intense Sports of the Ancient World

Posted by , Updated on March 24, 2024

It’s reasonable to claim that most individuals in this era would find it hard to stomach the incredibly intense sports from the ancient world. While we have our own significantly challenging sports today, folks in the past were not known to hold back. Indeed, many modern sports can trace their origins back to some games on this list. Obviously, in the present time, participating in a soccer game doesn’t usually result in death, and the majority of these activities would be promptly outlawed (hence the caution not to attempt these at home). However, having an awareness of our history remains valuable. Here are the 25 Most Intense Sports of the Ancient World.




While today we have MMA, the Greeks had something known as Pankration. The goal of this bloody, one-on-one, anything-goes fist fight was to bring your opponent as close to death without actually killing them. If you did happen to accidentally kill them, then you would automatically forfeit the match and the dead fighter was instantly declared the victor.


Fisherman’s Joust


Imagine two groups of guys each hopping into their boats, rowing out into the Nile, and proceeding to beat the crap out of each other with their oars. Like the Roman gladiatorial games, this often took place in front of the Pharaoh, and often the bloody mess would entice crocodiles and hippos to enter the fray.




It’s hard to say whether this ancient death match was worse for the slaves or the animals recruited to fight them. In fact, the Romans were so intrigued with pitting humans against animals that on the inauguration of the colloseum over 9,000 beasts were killed. Very often, however, the humans met a similar fate.


Chariot Races

chariot races

Although NASCAR certainly has its dangers, chariot racing was little more than a death match with a finish line. In fact, it was almost impossible to win without being seriously injured, and the life expectancy of most racers was incredibly low.


Nguni Stick Fighting

stick fighting

One of the few sports on this list that is actually still practiced today, the name of this game just about sums things up. The Zulus would essentially beat the crap out of each other with sticks. Although people seldom died, the participants would often walk away with numerous scars that they would wear like badges of honor.


Gladiatorial Games


If you’ve seen Russel Crowe in the Gladiator, then you know how blood thirsty the crowd in the Colosseum could be. Often the organizers of these games would come up with new and unusual ways for the gladiators to kill themselves, one of which we’ll see in a moment.


Papa Holua


It seems as though Hawaii has always been know for surfing. While today it mostly involves waves, in the past, ancient Hawaiians used mountains. In fact, the name of this pastime means “slide into the pit.” For thousands of years, the islanders would essentially “surf” down the side of volcanos. However, the sport was stopped for being dangerous. Recently, there have been several attempts to revive it.




Once again taking place in the colosseum, the name of this event roughly translates to “naval warfare.” The Romans would fill the arena with water, add a bunch of war ships and recreate famous naval battles. It has been said that the spectacle was so violent that by the end of it, the unsunken ships seemed as though they had been painted red.




Although modern soccer has plenty of shin kicking and ankle twisting, its ancient Greek predecessor was just downright brutal. In fact, sources indicate that even spectators would often emerge with broken bones and injuries.




Played by Native Americans, this game wasn’t nearly as violent as the others, although losers were sometimes known to commit suicide. The game itself was relatively simple and involved rolling a large stone across the ground as participants threw spears at it.




Although there wasn’t a ridiculously high mortality rate, knocking your opponent off of his horse using a 10 foot pole definitely qualifies as hardcore.




One of the oldest bloodsports (any activity that involves pitting animals against one another) in the world, cockfighting typically meant having two specially bred birds fight one another with specially designed barbs on their feet.


Pelota Purepecha


What was essentially field hockey for pyromananiacs, this ancient mesoamerican game used a flaming puck. Recenlty, it has actually started making a comeback as the Mexican government is pushing to revive its ancient past times.


Dog Fighting


Like cockfighting, dog fighting dates back thousands of years and has roots in Ancient Rome as well as China. These days, however, it is illegal in most developed countries.


Shin Kicking

shin kicking

Consisting of two people kicking each other in the shins, this simple sport has been practiced in England for hundreds of years. Although it’s not lethal, having someone repeatedly bash you in your shins can definitely be considered hardcore.


Camel Jumping

camel jumping

Practiced in antiquity by men of the Zaraniq tribe in Yemen, this ancient sport has just recently started making a comeback with participants trying to jump over as many camels as they possibly can.



love ducks

The official sport of Argentina, Pato was originally played with a live duck, although after many government interventions, participants now use a ball instead. With players on horseback it’s something of a cross between polo and basketball, the objective being to the get the ball to its own side. These days its not nearly as violent as it use to be.




If you can imagine trying to wrestle seven people while holding your breath, then you can get a feeling for what Kabaddi is all about. As one of the oldest sports in Southern Asia, Kabaddi is essentially a giant wrestling match between two teams. The twist, however, is that only one member of each team can cross into the other team’s territory at a time and while doing so he or she must refrain from breathing.


Basque Pelota


Closely related to Tennis, this very old game has sometimes been referred to as the “fastest sport in the world.” Ball speeds could reach up to 200 mph.




One of the few bloodsports that are still actively sanctioned by modern western governments, this man vs. beast showdown can trace its routes all the way back to ancient Rome.


Muy Thai

muay thai

Although today it is practiced around the world, this lethal martial art was born on the ancient battlefields of what is today known as Thailand. Commonly referred to as the “Art of Eight Limbs,” practitioners use not just their feet and hands but their elbows and knees as well.




The national sport of Afghanistan, this game involves a number of mounted players fighting over the carcass of a headless goat after which each player tries to pitch it across a goal line.


Spartan Games


Spartans hated sports. They thought sports were for sissies. In fact, Tyrtaios, the great Spartan war poet, wrote about how unimpressive athletic achievement was. According to him, “a man is not good in warfare unless he dares look upon bloody slaughter.” To a Spartan if you aren’t good in warfare, then you aren’t worth the air you breathe. For this reason, most of the Spartan “competitions” were mindbogglingly brutal.


Viking Skin Pulling

viking bonfire

Essentially one big game of tug-of-war, the Vikings preferred using animal skin over rope and playing over a huge fire pit. Usually, the winners would walk away with the spoils of the town they had just plundered, which often included rape-rights to the women. As you may have guessed, the losers become intimately acquainted with the fire pit.



chichen itza

Although this sport is still popular in parts of Central America, the original game created by the Mayans is hands down probably the most insane sport in all of human history. Something like basketball, the players would bounce the balls off their hips and attempt to the get the ball through a hoop attached to the wall. The crazy part was that often the balls were constructed out of human skulls. And in case you were wondering where they got the skulls from, stick around until the end of the match. Let’s just say the losers make a donation…

Photo: Featured Image - wikimedia commons (Public Domain), 1. Kåre Thor Olsen, Chichén Itzá Goal, CC BY-SA 3.0 , 2. Red Rose Exile, Viking Ship bonfire, Skinningrove 2009, CC BY-SA 2.0 , 3. john antoni, Spartan helmet 2 British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0 , 4. Peretz Partensky from San Francisco, USA, Buzkashi (5458895276), CC BY-SA 2.0 , 5. Kru Tony Moore, Muay Thai, CC BY-SA 3.0 , 6. Elisato, Frank Evans (bullfighter), CC BY-SA 3.0 , 7. Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, 2013 Basque Pelota World Cup - Frontenis - France vs Spain 25, CC BY-SA 4.0 , 8. Avinashsatamraju, Kabaddi Game play(2273574), CC BY-SA 4.0 , 9. MaxPixel.net (Public Domain), 10. MaxPixel.net (Public Domain), 11. David Stowell, Shin kicking at the Olimpicks, CC BY-SA 2.0 , 12. Pixabay.com (Public Domain), 13. MILENIO, Tab-zona-09, CC BY-SA 3.0 , 14. Amshudhagar, COCK FIGHT, CC BY-SA 3.0 , 15. Peter Trimming, Jousting at Hever Castle, Kent (5) - geograph.org.uk - 1453366, CC BY-SA 2.0 , 16. WikipediaCommons.com (Public Domain), 17. WikipediaCommons.com (Public Domain), 18. WikipediaCommons.com (Public Domain), 19. W Nowicki, Modern papa holua, CC BY 3.0 , 20. WikipediaCommons.com (Public Domain), 21. WikipediaCommons.com (Public Domain), 22. WikipediaCommons.com (Public Domain), 23. Ad Meskens, Sousse mosaic venatio, CC BY-SA 3.0 , 24. WikipediaCommons.com (Public Domain), 25. Квайтуджим, Pankration, CC BY-SA 4.0