What Is Sambo?

Sambo is a martial art, a combat sport, and a self-defense system developed in the Soviet Union. The word “sambo” is a Russian acronym for “Self-Defense without Weapons” (SAMoborona Bez Oruzhiya). Sambo integrates the techniques of Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, Aikido, boxing and wrestling. Such a combination of different martial arts into one system yielded a very effective and practical system. Sambo practitioners often take part in cross-discipline competitions.

Due to its origins, sambo from the very beginning possessed a rich arsenal of painful holds and submissions, advanced fighting techniques in standing and ground positions and a tactics to end a fight quickly and successfully. Sambo’s integrative approach proved quite advantageous. Sambo fighters routinely win MMA competitions and usually win competitions in Judo and Jiu-Jitsu.

Sambo is an officially recognised national sport in Russia, just like baseball and football are nationally popularised sports in the United States, and as soccer is in the rest of the world.


History of Sambo

Sambo is a martial art and a self-defense system that was formulated in the Soviet Union in 1920s for hand-to-hand combat of elite troops. It does not have a long history as do some Asian styles, but it takes roots in several martial arts, drawing from many of the older styles.

Sambo is a distillate of a number of martial arts, including Japanese and Chinese martial arts and national martial arts of the people of the USSR (Georgians, Armenians, Mongols, Russians). Compared to traditional martial arts, sambo never says No to new, more effective ideas. With its ever-growing arsenal of techniques adopted from many martial arts and fighting forms, it is one of the most comprehensive self-defense and survival systems in the world. It keeps only what is practical and effective in a quick victory over a possibly armed opponent.

Vasili Oshchepkov, karate and judo trainer of the Russian Army, was one of the founders of Sambo. Oshchepkov wanted his men to be the most proficient against enemies on a battlefield. With a second degree black belt in judo from Jigoro Kano himself (making him one of the very few non-Japanese practitioners to hold such a distinction), Oshchepkov felt that he could develop a superior martial arts style by combining the most effective elements from other styles.

While he worked on refining these techniques, another man by the name of Victor Spiridonov, who had extensive training in wrestling, was also working on selecting what worked and leaving out what did not to revolutionise hand-to-hand combat techniques. Spiridonov’s work was influenced by a bayonet wound that he received during the Russian-Japanese War and that left his left arm lame. As a result, his style was softer. He aimed to utilise opponent’s strength against the opponent himself by redirecting his energy. Anatoly Kharlampiev and I.V. Vasiliev joined Vasili Oshchepkov and Victor Spiridonov in further developing sambo.

In 1938 sambo became the official combat sport of the Soviet Union. In 1981 the International Olympic Committee recognised sambo as an Olympic sport.

Categories of Sambo

Sambo is divided into the following categories:

  • Sports Sambo is somewhat similar to the old Judo, when judokas did not get embarrassed if their legs were touched and many throws were not yet banned. Sports sambo does not allow chokes, but allows leg locks.
  • Freestyle Sambo was set up by the American Sambo Association in 2004 to encourage non-Sambo practitioners to participate in sambo events. Freestyle sambo is very similar to sports sambo, and additionally allows chokes, neck cranks and some other submissions.
  • Combat Sambois the extension of freestyle sambo, allowing striking (punching and kicking) and head-butts. It is a very aggressive system designed to prepare an individual to be effective in any situation. It incorporates all aspects of combative situations: kicking, striking, throwing, grappling, ground-fighting, chokes and joint locks.
  • Military Sambo is the original sambo that was made for the military. It includes techniques for disarming an armed opponent. It includes striking (punching and kicking) and additional painful holds and submissions.
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