Russian Combat Sambo

What is Russian Combat Sambo and is it really effective?

Sambo is a highly effective martial art that traces its history back to the early years of the Soviet Union. Created as a fusion of multiple martial arts and driven by the principle of only teaching and retaining effective techniques, Sambo has enjoyed great popularity in the former Soviet Union states. Most recently Sambo has come to the attention of martial arts enthusiasts in the west following the success off its fighters in mixed martial arts competition.

History and Founding

In comparison to the ancient martial arts Sambo’s origins are relatively recent. Founded in the 1920’s in the Soviet Union it was taught to members of the Red Army as a hand to hand combat system. In similar fashion to the founding of Krav Maga, Sambo was founded on the principle of taking the most effective techniques from other martial arts rather than developing its own techniques.

The development of this fighting style can be attributed to two principle combat instructors to the Red Army, Viktor Spiridonov and Vasili Oshchepkov. Although they never formally worked together on creating Sambo both brought influence from their respective backgrounds. Spiridonov was well versed in a number of different wrestling styles including catch and Greco-Roman as well as Japanese Ju-Jitsu. Oshchepkov was a black belt in Judo which he gained under the tutelage of Kanō Jigorō the founder of Judo.

After all his efforts life didn’t turn out too well for Oshchepkov as he became a victim of the great purge, dying in prison having been accused of spying on behalf of Japan. This didn’t slow down the progression of Sambo though as it become officially recognised as a sport in the Soviet Union in 1938 which opened new avenues for Sambo to progress.

Style of fighting

Sambo is often broken down into sub-categories to recognise its different applications and training styles.

Combat Sambo/Military Sambo – This style of Sambo most closely reflects it origins as a martial art taught to military personnel for hand to hand combat situations. It teaches how to counteract an armed or unarmed attacker. It is taught to the military, police and security services.

Sport Sambo – As the name suggests this branch of Sambo is the organised sporting arm of Sambo. Competitors engage in a wrestling styled combat where the focus is primarily on throwing, submitting or pinning an opponent. There is a point scoring system in place to determine a winner when total victory is not achieved.

Combat Sambo – This variant of Sambo is more like MMA competition as it allows competitors to utilise strikes as well as the tradition takedowns, pins and submissions. Competitors will often wear hand protection as well as shin and head protection. It remains different from the style of Sambo taught to military personnel as there are no weapons involved and it is a combative sport.

How does Sambo work

Alright so we have touched upon a couple of these ideas so far but how exactly does Sambo work. Well as you may have guessed from the martial arts it has taken influence from Sambo is about utilising takedowns, strong ground work and submissions to defeat an opponent. These principles are equally applicable to Combat Sambo as they are to the sporting variants.

Many of the takedown techniques that are used by Sambo fighters are recognisable to those who have trained Wrestling or Judo. You will see a good variety of techniques being utilised but old favourites of the traditional martial arts such as the double leg and the hip toss are routinely used in Sambo.

In many ways the ground work of Sambo has similarities to that practiced in Judo. The focus in Sambo is about getting to the submission as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is similar to Judo as Judokas have to work very quickly for there submissions or run the risk of being stood back up, so the ground work in both arts tends to be explosive.

One element of Sambo that separates it from a lot of martial arts being practiced today is the importance it places on leg locks. This is a particular area of strength for Sambo fighters as the art places great emphasis on attacking the arms and legs of an opponent. Whilst in BJJ the leg lock game has been quickly expanding in recent times it still hasn’t caught up with Sambo for which leg locks have been a key attacking option since its inception.

The clothing

Generally, Sambo is practiced in a Kurtka this is a jacket that closely resembles a Judo or Jiu-Jitsu Gi. In competition the competitors wear either blue or red Kurtka to differentiate between them as is common practice in many martial arts. Wrestling style shorts and shoes of a matching colour complete the uniform. There is no belt grading system in Sambo, so all competitors wear a belt that matches the colour of the Kurtka.


One of the great things about Sambo is the opportunities to compete, especially if you live in the former Soviet Union. Sambo competitions are organised across the region providing lots of opportunities to test techniques in a live setting. In Sambo competitions are classified by weight and age, as there is no grading system competitors with varying years of experience will face off against each other.

The Fédération Internationale de Sambo is the pre-eminent body which over sees Sambo competition. There rules for competition are simple to follow as points are scored for throwing, pinning and submitting an opponent. In Sambo competition chokes are not permitted so submissions focus on attacking joints.

Victory is categorised in one of the following ways;

Total victory – This is a victory that occurs before the allotted time for a bout has expired. It can be achieved in a number of different ways;

  1. Total throw (from a standing position the attacker throws the defender onto their back whilst remaining in the standing position)
  2. Submission or painful hold (when the defended yields to the attacker verbally or by tapping)
  3. Great superiority (12 points and over in difference)
  4. Opponent can no longer continue (e.g injury)
  5. Opponents disqualification for breaking the rules

Victory by superiority – This is the most convincing form of victory at the end of the scheduled fight time. To win by superiority the winner must have a margin of victory of between 8 to 11 points. This is awarded fewer leader board points than a win inside the scheduled fight time.

Victory on points – Whilst still a win this is a lower classification of a points win. It is awarded where the margin of victory is between 1 and 7 points. In tournament competition the victor will receive fewer leader board points than if they had won by superiority.

Technical Victory – As you might suspect this is the most complicated form of victory and is designed to determine a winner if both contestants are equal on points at the end of the bout.

Victory on Warnings – If no points are scored in a contest it is possible to win if the opponent has received a warning from the referee for infringement of the rules.

Elimination of opponent for passivity – As with most martial arts timidity is only tolerated to a small extend. If an opponent repeatedly refuses to engage then victory is secured by this method. The winner receives the same number of leader board points as if he had won by total victory!

Elimination or disqualification of both – In this scenario both contestants effectively loose the contest. This maybe because they both acted to passively or due to disqualification of both competitors.

As has already been alluded too there is a points system in play. Points are scored in the following ways;

4 Points;

  • a throw from the standing position where the opponent falls on the back, but the attacker also falls to the ground with him
  • a throw from the standing position where the attacker remains on their feet and the opponent falls on his side
  • for a 20 second hold down

2 points;

  • a throw from standing position where the opponent falls on his side, but the attacker falls to the ground
  • a throw from standing position where the opponent falls on the chest, stomach, buttocks, waist or shoulder and the attacker remains standing
  • a throw when the opponent, who was on his knees or hands before the throw, falls on the back and the attacker remains standing
  • for over 10 second incomplete hold down
  • for the second warning declared to his opponent

1 point;

  • a throw from Standing position when the opponent falls on his chest, stomach, buttocks, waist or shoulder but the attacker also falls to the ground
  • a throw when the opponent, who was on his knees or hands is thrown onto their back and is followed to the ground by the attacker
  • a throw when the opponent, who was on his knees or hands before the throw, falls on his side and the attacker does not follow them to the ground
  • for the first warning declared to his opponent

Leg lock game

Leg locks are a huge part of the submission game in Sambo and they have been since its inception, although not all Sport Sambo fighters will have a strong leg lock game most will. This is partly driven by the rules which result in fighters being stood back up quickly if there isn’t any action on the ground. When facing an opponent’s guard attacking the legs can provide an opportunity to secure a submission victory in rapid fashion.

In Sambo the transitions into submissions from a throw are more fluid than in BJJ for example. This means a Sambo fighter may throw an opponent with the intention of immediately following up with a submission.

The shoes that are worn in Sambo make gripping the foot easier for the attacker to hold the submission and thus harder for the defender to pull away. This means leg locks in Sambo have a higher percentage chance of being finished than grappling styles that are bare foot.

Sambo in MMA

There have been many successful MMA fighters that have a background in Sambo. Here are three examples fighters who have competed at the highest level in both;

Fedor Emelianenko – A World Combat Sambo Champion (4 times) and Russian National Combat Sambo Champion (6 times) Emelianenko has achieved incredible success at the top of world Sambo. At one point he was widely considered to be the best heavy weight MMA fighter in the world having held the PRIDE Heavyweight World Championship. Sambo and MMAHe has finished more of his MMA fights by submission than any other method.

Andrei Arlovski – A former Junior World Sport Sambo Champion and a silver medallist in the World Sambo Championship and World Sambo Cup, Arlovski has also competed at the top of MMA for over two decades. In this time, he has held the UFC Heavyweight World Championship. During his MMA career he has focused more on his stand up striking which means he has less than a handful of wins by submission in a 40+ fight career.

Khabib Nurmagomedov – A World Combat Sambo Champion (2 times) and Russian National Combat Sambo Champion he has a strong Sambo back ground. Having climbed to the top of the UFC to claim a championship Nurmagomedov has relied on his grappling background to dominate opponents by taking them down and controlling them on the ground. He has been quoted a number of times talking about the effectiveness of Sambo and how he believes it is superior to BJJ.

Is Sambo street effective

Combat Sambo should be an effective martial art to use in a self-defence situation. As Sambo is taught to the military to be used in hand to hand combat situations the techniques must be effective. Whilst no martial art can be perfect in its application to self-defence situations; the range of scenarios and techniques taught in Sambo mean that an experienced practitioner should be able to handle the situation.

Sport Sambo is slightly different as it doesn’t have the same focus on protecting from attack as well as attempting to neutralise a threat. However, against an untrained opponent it would be expected that a trained Sambo practitioner would walker away better than their attacker.

Future growth in the west

In the western hemisphere Sambo has struggled to take on the dominance of Judo and Wrestling as the most popular grappling styles. Whilst BJJ has really been able to take off thanks to the early days of the UFC, Sambo has not been able to capture the grappling market as effectively.East West and Sambo

In Russia many of there martial artists are grounded in a variety of grappling styles as it is not uncommon to see martial artists view Sambo, Judo or Wrestling as complimentary arts. Whilst cross training has been increasing in the west there are a limited number of people teaching Sambo, making it much harder to access than other grappling styles. This situation has not been helped by the east west divide that has existed for most of Sambo’s history, making it less likely good instructors will move to other parts of the world to teach.

What is Sambo

In short Sambo could be generally defined as being the following;

  • A martial art founded in the former Soviet Union by compiling the most effective techniques from other martial arts
  • Originally taught to the military and security services Sambo is also practiced as a sport
  • Most Sambo practitioners have a very strong leg lock game
  • Has provide a good basis for successful MMA fighters some of whom have become world champions
  • A good self-defence option as it was originally designed as a military hand to hand combat system

And finally, is Sambo effective, well its still taught to military personnel and has been practiced by top MMA fighters. On this evidence alone its easy to say Sambo is a highly effective martial art when utilised correctly. The live training and active competition circuit mean practitioners have ample opportunity to test there skills at full tilt, which is always an important factor in ensuring a martial art remains effective.