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What is Sambo?

Sambo is a martial art, fighting style, and combat sport originally developed in Russia. Sambo combines the ground fighting and grappling aspects of judo and wrestling, such as throws and submission holds, with the use of standing fighting techniques such as punching, kicking, knee strikes, and elbow strikes. While Sambo was initially developed for the military as a way to end a fight as quickly and efficiently as possible, the fighting style quickly developed into a competitive sport.

Like many martial arts, sambo also has a philosophy that promotes personal development, self-discipline, friendship, and respect. Because studying sambo promotes these values in addition to improving strength, stamina, and endurance, it makes the martial art ideal for both adults and children.

For anyone looking for a well-rounded, well-balanced fighting style and self-defense technique, the Russian art of sambo is ideal.


What does Sambo Mean?

The word “sambo” is an acronym of the Russian words, “SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya,” which is why the word is sometimes seen in all caps as SAMBO. The meaning of sambo is literally, “self-defense without weapons.” The fighting style is often simply referred to as “sambo” for brevity.

Sambo Origin and History

Sambo came into being in the early 20th century as part of the hand-to-hand training regimen created for the Soviet Union’s Red Army. Three men in particular were instrumental in sambo’s creation.

One of the three was Viktor Spiridonov, a World War I veteran with an extensive background in wrestling and martial arts such as Japanese jujutsu. Spiridonov worked with the Red Army as an instructor and trainer at Dynamo, the physical training center for the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (the NKVD). Due to an arm injury sustained in WWI, Spiridonov focused on techniques he could execute, emphasizing movement over strength.

Spiridonov’s goal was to combine the most effective aspects of various wrestling and martial arts styles for use in a new hand-to-hand combat system. The style Spiridonov developed was known as “samoz,” and could be used by weaker or injured practitioners.

While Spiridonov was developing his own style of fighting, a man named Vasili Oshchepkov was also working with the Red Army, developing a new hand-to-hand fighting system. In his youth, Oshchepkov studied judo and trained in Japan at Jigoro Kano’s Kodokan Academy. In 1913, Oshchepkov became the first Russian to earn a black belt and went on to earn his second degree black belt from Kano himself in 1917. Oshchepkov brought his knowledge of judo to Russia, where it was incorporated into the Red Army’s hand-to-hand combat training.

While Spiridonov and Oshchepkov were both instrumental in shaping the new hand-to-hand fighting style, they seldom crossed paths. It was only through the efforts of students and military staff who had trained with both men that a “cross pollination” of techniques took place, resulting in what would eventually become known as sambo.

However, sambo was almost lost before it officially began. In 1937, tensions between the Soviet Union and Japan were increasing. The Soviet Union’s leader, Joseph Stalin, was paranoid about Japanese spies. Consequently, Oshchepkov’s close ties to Japan landed him in a gulag on accusations of being a spy while sambo’s use of Japanese martial art techniques made the fighting style itself suspect in Stalin’s view.

It took the efforts of a third man, Anatoly Kharlampiyev, one of Oshchepkov’s students, to save sambo. Kharlampiyev was able to achieve this through adroit political maneuvering and rewriting sambo’s history by emphasizing the fighting style’s Russian roots in Spiridonov’s samoz. In 1938, sambo was declared the Martial Art of the Motherland by the All-USSR State Sport Committee and became the nation’s official combat sport. Because this would not have happened without Kharlampiyev’s savvy and intervention, Kharlampiyev is officially known as, “the father of sport sambo.”


Anatoly Kharlampiev and Alfred Karashchuk in 1957

Monument to Vasily Oshchepkov on in Vladivostok

Modern Sambo

According to the FIAS, 2016’s World Sambo Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, drew over 500 athletes from 80 countries. While the exact number of people who practice sambo worldwide is not known, International Sambo Federation president Vasily Shestakov was quoted in 2013 as saying over 410,000 in Russia practice the sport.

Types of Sambo

There are several different sambo styles, but the martial art breaks down into two main categories: sport sambo and combat sambo.

  • Sport sambo. Sport sambo is a competitive form of sambo, and is similar to wrestling and judo. Common moves include grappling, takedowns, and leg locks, which are similar to arm bars but are executed using the legs instead.

  • Combat sambo. The phrase, “combat sambo” can be used to refer to the style of sambo used strictly by the military. However, it is also commonly used to refer to a competitive style of sambo that differs from sport sambo in its use of strikes including groin strikes, kicks, punches, head butting, and the use of elbows and knees, in addition to grappling. Combat sambo is similar to modern MMA.


Other types of sambo include beach sambo, which as the name implies, is sport sambo done on the beach; freestyle sambo, which allows choke holds and submissions not allowed in sport sambo; self-defense sambo, which in the spirit of Spiridonov’s samoz, emphasizes using an opponent’s aggression against them; and specialized sambo, which are styles of sambo developed specifically for use by the military and law enforcement.


Notable Figures in Sambo

In addition to those who helped create sambo and who helped increase its popularity, notable sambo practitioners include four-time World Combat Sambo Champion and six-time Russian national Combat Sambo Champion, Fedor Emelianenko, and two-time World Combat Sambo Champion and UFC Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.

In addition to Nurmagomedov’s accomplishments as a fighter, he is well known for his outspoken stance on sambo versus jiu jitsu. A few years ago, he made his feelings quite clear when he famously wore a t-shirt that said, “If sambo was easy, it would be called jiu jitsu.” Additionally he was seen attending a high profile Brazillian Jiu Jitsu academy wearing a poorly tied white belt.

Fedor Emelianenko “The Last Emperor” and three-time World Combat Sambo champion, has used his base of Sambo to dominate his opponents in mixed martial arts. Fedor consistently tops the lists as the best MMA fighter of all time and has spent much of his career competing at the highest levels of the sport in Bellator, Strikeforce, Affliction, Pride and M-1.

Also in 1968, a Russian-born political refugee from then-Czechoslovakia by the name of Boris Timoshin went to the United States. Timoshin had been a sport sambo champion in college, and was interested in teaching sambo and continuing his own training. All the martial arts clubs he approached turned him down, so he went to the New York City YMCA on 23rd Street where he found friendship and a place to teach and train.

Though Timoshin only taught sambo there until 1971, he left an indelible impression and became a legend in the sambo community. Timoshin was the first to teach sambo in the US and is known as, “America’s first sambo coach.”

By the mid-1980s, sambo competitions were becoming popular and in 1985, the sport gained its own organization with the International Sambo Federation (FIAS). However, it wasn’t until 1995 when Oleg Taktarov, a sport sambo competitor with a Russian black belt in judo, won the UFC 6, that sambo truly gained more widespread recognition. Since then, an increasing number of UFC fighters have added sambo techniques to their skill sets.

Dean Lister attributes his top pressure and leg lock heavy game to his years wrestling in high school and competing in Sambo. He was 2 time US National Sambo Champion going on to win 1 National ADCC Gold, 2 World ADCC Golds and 1 Silver in addition to his King of the Cage Championship.

Another notable MMA Sambist was Andrei Arlovski, Former UFC Heavyweight Champion still holding the record for most UFC fights (37) and most UFC Wins (22) at Heavyweight! In 1999 he won the European and World Junior Sambo Championships, following this he took Silver Medals in the adult World Cup and World Championships before becoming the first Master and International Master of Sambo in Belarus.

Unsurprisingly, there are many strong feelings and opinions regarding which fighting style is better, sambo or jiu jitsu, BJJ in particular. While this is largely a matter of opinion, there are some definite differences between the two. For instance, sambo was originally developed for use by the military, while BJJ was developed in the streets.

BJJ emphasizes ground fighting almost entirely, while sambo, especially combat sambo, does much more fighting standing up. Sambo also emphasizes transitions between standing and grappling techniques, which is one reason why sambo is so popular with MMA fighters. Both fighting styles have much to offer, which is why many MMA fighters pick and choose techniques from both disciplines.

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