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Sambo: Very Effective Russian Martial Art Explained

Image Credit: via Wikimedia Commons

Sambo is a national sport in Russia that is also popular all across the former Soviet republics. But this martial art is unfamiliar to many people outside of Russia and it’s not due to being inferior to other arts. Sambo is actually a very effective martial art.

Even though Sambo has been around since the 1920s, it wasn’t receiving much attention from the public until Sambo trained fighters started winning major fights in MMA. Sambo, in some way, resembles modern MMA fighting. It stands for a unique mixture of the best techniques from different martial arts like judo, jujutsu, and various styles of wrestling. 

When you understand the origin of Sambo and how it evolved, you will understand more clearly why this art is so effective as I will explain to you in this article.

The History of Sambo 

In the 1920s, Russian military needed a new combat system which would improve fighting abilities of their servicemen. They selected Vasili Oshchepkov and Viktor Spiridonov, both skilled martial artists, to come up with a new fighting system. 

Viktor was a skilled wrestler and an expert in Japanese jujutsu while Vasili was one of the first foreigners to learn Judo under Kano Jigoro. Their vision was to mix most effective martial arts of that time into one style of fighting. 

By mixing grappling and striking techniques together, they came up with a fighting system that prepares a person for any fighting scenario. This was a very innovative approach for that time and we would have to wait around six decades to see the birth of similar fighting style called Mixed Martial Arts(MMA). 

The final result of their work was a self-defense system that originated from Judo, catch-wrestling, Jujutsu, and others. They took only the best techniques from each of these arts so that a person could learn only the most effective techniques.

According to world-class Sambo coach Bruno SCHMITT, who educated us, the Russians called this new system “Combat Sambo Spetznas.” The word “Sambo” translates to “self-defense without weapons.”


Sambo became a part of the Russian military combat training three years later in 1923. And with the help of Anatoly Kharlampiyev, who had strong political contacts, Sambo got accepted by the USSR Committee of Sport’s in 1938.

Three Types Of Sambo

There are two major forms of Sambo called “Sport Sambo” and “Combat Sambo”. The third form is called “Freestyle Sambo.” The following paragraphs explain all three forms in depth:

Sport Sambo

This form has a lot in common with catch wrestling and Judo. Events include only grappling without striking and the emphasis is on throws, pins, and submissions. Unlike in Judo, fighters can use leg locks and there are less grip restrictions. But on the other side, they are not allowed to use chokeholds during the fights

Sports Sambo competition

Combat Sambo

The original form of Sambo was created in the 1920s for Russian military self-defense. This new self-defense system was first called “Combat Sambo Spetznas.”

Combat Sambo Spetznas is a hybrid mixture of striking and grappling martial arts put into one fighting style. This form was designed and used by the military. It is very similar to Krav Maga, with lethal techniques to defeat their opponents by any means possible, who may be armed or unarmed. 

Fighters can use punches, elbows, kicks, and knees, as well as painful groin strikes, headbutts, and soccer kicks. It’s a complete self-defense system that teaches you to fight both standing and on the ground. And once the fight goes to the ground, Sambo teaches how to apply various grappling techniques.

In 1990, the French redesigned the Sambo by eliminating all deadly techniques. This safer form was developed to allow Sambo practitioners to test their combat skills in sporting competitions without using deadly techniques. The French named this safer version of sambo “Sambo Global,” which looks very similar to modern-day MMA fighting.

However, when the USSR regime ended in 1991, the Russians changed the name of “Sambo Global” to “Combat Sambo.” At the same time, the Russians changed the name of their Sambo from “Combat Sambo Spetsnaz” to “Combat Sambo” by dropping “Spetsnaz.”

Therefore, “Combat Sambo” has two different forms. The first form is the French version, which was created for sporting events. The second form is the self-defense version of the Russian military, with all the deadly techniques.

There are two major sambo federations as well. (The following information has been provided to us by Sambo coach Bruno SCHMITT.)

“The World Combat Sambo Federation,” based in Russia, is where many Russian military people compete without head and shin guards. This federation promotes rules that are similar to those in professional MMA fights. This is the federation where former UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov won his World Combat Sambo championship.

Khabib Nurmagomedov is competing under the World Combat Sambo Federation

The second Combat Sambo Federation is called the “FIAS Federation.” FIAS adopts a different set of rules in their competitions than the World Combat Sambo Federation. Their rules require Combat Sambo competitors to wear head and shin guards when they compete. And competitors have limited time to ground and pound their opponent before the referee resets the fight.

Combat Sambo competition under the FIAS Federation

Freestyle Sambo

In 2004, the American Sambo Association (ASA) founded freestyle Sambo version that was similar to the Russian “Sport Sambo” as the focus was on throws and fast groundwork. Yet, freestyle allows all of the submissions that are were not allowed in Sport Sambo like chokeholds. ASA created this type of Sambo to attract non Sambo practitioners from judo and jujutsu to participate in Sambo events. However, the ASA’s version of Sambo shut down after 12 years and around 35 events and is no longer allowed in Sport Sambo.

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Required Uniform/Gears In Sambo

In all forms of Sambo, fighters must wear the following gear:

  • Cotton Jacked known as “Kurtka” or “Sambovka”
  • Wrestling shorts
  • Shoes
  • Head gear (just in Combat Sambo)
  • Shin guards (just in Combat Sambo)
  • Open finger gloves (just in Combat Sambo)

Is Sambo Good For Self-Defense?

Sambo is one of the best martial arts one can learn for self-defense. It is one of the rare fighting systems that will teach you how to fight wherever the fight takes place. Unlike some other arts, Sambo is not one dimensional and it covers all elements of fighting similar to MMA does. Here are some of the crucial skills you will learn in Sambo that you can apply in street fighting:

  • Powerful Judo throws and sweeps
  • Wrestling takedowns
  • Various chokes and joint locks

Having strong grappling skills and knowing how to take a person down gives you a big advantage in street fighting. You see, every person can throw a punch but not many people know how to defend against takedowns or fight on the ground. Taking the attacker down gives you space to either run away or secure a dominant position from which you can apply submissions. 

Combat Sambo training also teaches you how to use punches, kicks, elbows and knees to do damage. This form even includes “dirty” techniques like groin strikes one can use for self-defense. Not many other fighting systems will teach you how to use or defend against illegal tactics. 

What Are The Differences Between Sambo And MMA?

At first, Sambo and MMA may look similar on paper. But, they differ a lot when it comes to rules, the way fighters compete or the uniform they are wearing. 

  • Sambo fighters compete on wrestling mats while MMA fighters compete in a steel cage or a boxing ring. 
  • Sport Sambo fighters must wear either red or blue cotton jacket, wrestling shorts and shoes. MMA fighters, however, wear just a shorts and a pair of 4-oz gloves. 
  • Sambo matches last five minutes. This is much less than in MMA where matches last 3 rounds with 5 minutes each or 5×5-minute rounds if there is a title on the line. 
  • The action is Sambo is really fast as fighters don’t have to keep their energy for later rounds. MMA is a bit slower since fighters need to be more tactical and give their best not to gas out quickly. 
  • Like in MMA, combat sambo fighters can fight both standing and on the ground. But, they don’t get any points for landing strikes unless they score a knockdown. The emphasis is on grappling and top control. Fighters win the most points when they score a takedown, control the opponent on the bottom or attack via submission. This is not a case in MMA as their judges evenly score both striking and grappling aspects. 

Even though these two fighting styles differ in many aspects, Sambo is often seen as a really good base for MMA. Sambo fighters in MMA are a though matchup for anyone because they are all-round and can fight any type of fight. Whether it’s striking on the feet or grappling on the mats, they can do it all. 

What Is The Difference Between Sambo And Judo?

Sambo emerges from Judo and these two arts have a lot in common. But, Sambo also consist of techniques from other fighting styles like wrestling and jujutsu. And unlike in judo, Sambo fighters can use strikes to do damage while Judo is based on grappling only. 

Sambo fighters use a lot of Judo throws and joint locks but not all of them. When it comes to chokeholds, Sport Sambo fighters are not allowed to use them while Combat Sambo fighters can. And both forms allow leg locks that Judo forbids. 

Further, fighters don’t use just judo techniques to score takedowns. No, they also learn how to execute various Greco Roman and catch wrestling takedowns you won’t learn in Judo. So set against Judo, it’s fair to say Sambo is a more rounded art.

What Are The Differences Between Sambo And BJJ?

BJJ is a grappling based martial art that doesn’t include any striking at all. The point is to use throws to take the rival to the ground where you can submit them with chokes and joint locks.

Sambo, on the other side, comes from Judo and has two forms. First one is Combat Sambo which is a mix of striking and grappling martial arts put into one style of fighting. The second one is Sport Sambo which is very close to BJJ because it is also a grappling art that doesn’t include any striking. 

For the sake of our argument, let’s compare Sport Sambo with BJJ:

  • In BJJ gi competition, fighters wear a gi jacket, pants, and belts around their waist. Sambo fighters wear a similar cotton jacket, wrestling shorts, and shoes. 
  • BJJ focuses on securing a dominant position over the opponent and submitting them. Sambo fighters are not allowed to pull guard and the action is much faster. Sambo’s emphasis is on scoring powerful takedowns and establishing top control. 
  • BJJ fighters can use various chokeholds that are not allowed in Sport Sambo. 
  • Matches in BJJ last from 2-10 minutes depending on the experience of the fighters while Sambo matches last 5 minutes each.

Who Are The Best Sambo Fighters In MMA?

In MMA, there have been many great fighters who had a strong background in Sambo. And some of them we listed below were even UFC champions and one of the best in the history of the sport.

Fedor Emelianenko 

Fedor is the former PRIDE FC champion whom people often see as the greatest heavyweight fighter in the history of the sport. Even though this stays open for a debate, no-one can deny Fedor was the most dominant one. He is, perhaps, an ideal example of how useful Sambo is for MMA. 

Image Credit: Thaifighter911 via Wikimedia Commons

Before shifting to MMA, Fedor was a skilled Sambo fighter. He even competed in Sambo tournaments while fighting in pro MMA matches at the same time. Here are some of his notable Sambo achievements:

  • Four time World Champion 
  • One time European Champion
  • Six time Russian Champion

Khabib Nurmagomedov

Khabib is one of the greatest UFC champions who has a really strong background in Sambo. He is a grappling wizard who uses a lot of Sambo techniques while fighting in MMA. Looking at his style, you can see he is a master in clinch control. He also very good at using trips, throws, and his ground and pound are the best in the business. These are all techniques he learned training Sambo as a child. 

Khabib grew up in the rough setting of Dagestan. He spent his childhood training Judo and Sambo under the supervision of his main coach and father, Abdulmanap. He also took part in many amateur competitions and was a Sambo World Champion on two occasions (2009; 2010).