Sambo (also called Sombo in the US and sometimes written in all-caps) is a modern martial art, combat sport and self-defense system developed in the former Soviet Union, and recognized as an official sport by the USSR All-Union Sports Committee in 1938, presented by Anatoly Kharlampiev.

The word Sambo is an acronym of САМозащита Без Оружия (SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya) meaning “self-defense without a weapon” in Russian.

Sambo has its roots in traditional folk styles of wrestling such as Armenian Koch, Georgian Chidaoba, Moldovan Trîntǎ, Uzbek Kurash, Mongolian Khapsagay and Azerbaijani Gulesh (wrestling style).

In 1980, Sambo was a demonstration sport at the Olympic Games in Moscow, Russia. However, due to boycotts, it failed to bring sufficient numbers for continued inclusion as a participatory game.

There is no single, universally recognized founder of Sambo. However, Anatoly Kharlampiev is often officially recognized as the founder of Sport Sambo. Two other primary authors of Sambo were Vasili Oshchepkov (who died during the political purges of 1937 for refusing to deny his education in Japanese Judo under Judo founder, Jigoro Kano), and Viktor Spiridonov, who originally developed Sambo as a soft, aikido-like system since he was maimed during the first world war. Sambo is entirely a Russian martial art developed from other techniques.

Versions of Sambo: Although it was originally a single system, there are now four generally recognized versions of Sambo:

  • Sport Sambo (Borba Sambo) is stylistically similar to amateur wrestling or Judo. The competition is similar to Judo, but with some differences in rules, protocol, and uniform. For example, in contrast with Judo, Sambo allows all types of leg locks, while not allowing chokeholds.
  • Self-defense Sambo, which is similar to Aikijutsu, jujutsu or Aikido, and is based on self-defense application, such as defending against attacks by both armed and unarmed attackers. Many practitioners consider Self-Defense Sambo as part of Combat Sambo and not a system unto itself.
  • Combat Sambo (Russian: Боевое Самбо, Boyevoye Sambo). Utilized and developed for the military, this is arguably the root of Sambo as it is now known, and includes practice with weapons and disarming techniques. Competition in combat sambo resembles older forms of judo and modern mixed martial arts, including extensive forms of striking and grappling. The first FIAS World Sambo Championships were held in 2001.
  • Special Sambo – developed for Army Special Forces and Rapid Reaction Police (Militsija) teams and other law enforcement formations. The “Special Sambo” version differ from team to team due to different tasks and aims, however the base of any special system developed in that field is of course Sambo. The term “Special Sambo” is a relatively new term which refers to specialized versions of combat sambo.
  • Freestyle Sambo – Uniquely American Set of competitive sambo rules created by the American Sambo Association (ASA) in 2004. These rules differ from traditional sport sambo in that they allow choke holds and other submissions from combat sambo that are not permitted in sport sambo. Freestyle Sambo, like all sambo, focuses on throwing skill and fast ground work. No strikes are permitted in Freestyle Sambo. The ASA created this rule set in order to encourage non-sambo practitioners from judo and jujutsu to participate in sambo events.

Uniform and Ranking: A Sambo practitioner normally wears either a red or blue jacket kurtka, a belt and shorts of the same color, and sambovki (Sambo shoes). The Sambo uniform does not reflect rank or competitive rating. Sport rules require an athlete to have both red and blue sets to visually distinguish competitiors on the mat.

In Russia, a competitive rating system is used rather than belt colors like judo and jiujitsu to demonstrate rank, though some schools around the world now institute belt colors as well. The system is called Unified Sports Classification System of the USSR with the highest athletic distinction known as the Distinguished Masters of Sport in Sambo.

Examination requirements vary depending on country, age group and of course the rating aspired to. The examination itself includes competitive accomplishment as well as technical demonstration of knowledge. Higher level exams must be supervised by independent judges from a national Sambo association. For a rating to be recognised it must be registered with the national Sambo organization.

History of Sambo: The founders of Sambo sifted deliberately through all of the world’s martial arts available to them to augment their military’s hand-to-hand combat system. One of these men, Vasili Oschepkov, taught judo and karate to elite Red Army forces at the Central Red Army House. He had earned his nidan (second degree black belt out of then five) from judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano, and used some of the founder’s philosophy in formulating the early development of the new Russian art.

Sambo was in part born of native Russian and other regional styles of grappling and combative wrestling, bolstered with the most useful and adaptable concepts and techniques from the rest of the world.

As the buffer between Europe and Asia, Russia had more than ample opportunities to sift through the martial skills of various invaders. Earlier Russians had experienced threats from the Vikings in the west and the Tatars and Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde from Mongolia in the east. The regional, native combat systems included in Sambo’s genesis are Tuvan Khuresh, Yakuts khapsagai, Chuvash akatuy, Georgian chidaoba, Moldavian trinta, Armenian kokh, and Uzbek Kurash to name a few.

The foreign influences included various styles of European Wrestling styles, Japanese jujutsu, and other martial arts of the day plus the classical Olympic sports of boxing, Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling. Sambo even derived lunging and parrying techniques from Italian scherma fencing.

Sambo’s early development stemmed from the independent efforts of Oschepkov and another Russian, Victor Spiridonov, to integrate the techniques of judo into native wrestling styles. Spiridonov’s background involved indigenous styles of Russian martial art. His “soft-style” was based on the fact that he received a bayonet wound during the Russo-Japanese war which left his left arm lame. Both Oschepkov and Spiridonov hoped that the Russian styles could be improved by an infusion of the techniques distilled from jujutsu by Jigoro Kano into his new style of jacket wrestling. Contrary to common lore, Oschepkov and Spiridonov did not cooperate on the development of their hand-to-hand systems. Rather, their independent notions of Hand-to-hand combat merged through cross training between students and formulative efforts by their students and military staff. While Oschepkov and Spiridonov did have occasion to collaborate, their efforts were not completely united.

In 1918, Lenin created Vseobuch (Vseobshchee voennoye obuchienie or General Military Training) under the leadership of N.I. Podovoyskiy to train the Red Army. The task of developing and organizing Russian military hand-to-hand combat training fell to K. Voroshilov, who in turn, created the NKVD physical training center, “Dinamo.”

Spiridonov was a combat veteran of World War I, and one of the first wrestling and self-defense instructors hired for Dinamo. His background included Greco-Roman wrestling, Free style wrestling, many Slavic wrestling styles, and Japanese JiuJitsu. As a “combatives investigator” for Dinamo, he traveled to Mongolia and China to observe their native fighting styles.

In 1923, Oschepkov and Spiridinov collaborated (independently) with a team of other experts on a grant from the Soviet government to improve the Red Army’s hand-to-hand combat system. Spiridonov had envisioned integrating all of the world’s fighting systems into one comprehensive style that could adapt to any threat. Oschepkov had observed Kano’s distillation of Tenjin Shin’yo Ryu jujutsu and Kito Ryu jujutsu into judo, and he had developed the insight required to evaluate and integrate combative techniques into a new system. Their development team was supplemented by Anatoly Kharlampiev and I.V. Vasiliev who also traveled the globe to study the native fighting arts of the world. Ten years in the making, their catalogue of techniques was instrumental in formulating the early framework of the art to be eventually referred to as Sambo. Here, Oschepkov and Spiridonov’s improvements in Russian wrestling slipped into the military’s hand-to-hand-combat system.

Kharlampiev is often called the father of Sambo. This may be largely semantics since only he had the longevity and political connections to remain with the art while the new system was named “Sambo”. However, Kharlampiev’s political maneuvering is single-handedly responsible for the USSR Committee of Sport accepting Sambo as the official combat sport of the Soviet Union in 1938 – decidedly the “birth” of Sambo. So, more accurately, Kharlampiev could be considered the father of “sport” Sambo.

Spiridonov was the first to actually begin referring to the new system as one of the “S” variations cited above. He eventually developed a softer, more “aikido-like” system called Samoz that could be used by smaller, weaker practitioners or even wounded soldiers and secret agents. Spiridonov’s inspiration to develop Samoz stemmed from his injury that he suffered that greatly restricted his ability to practice Sambo or wrestling. Refined versions of Sambo are still used today or fused with specific Sambo applications to meet the needs of Russian commandos today.

Each technique for Sambo was carefully dissected and considered for its merits, and if found acceptable in unarmed combat, refined to reach Sambo’s ultimate goal: stop an armed or unarmed adversary in the least time possible. Thus, the best techniques of jujutsu and its cousin, Judo, entered the Sambo repertoire. When the techniques were perfected, they were woven into Sambo applications for personal self-defense, police, crowd control, border guards, secret police, dignitary protection, psychiatric hospital staff, military, and commandos.

Today: According to the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA), Sambo is one of the four main forms of amateur competitive wrestling practiced internationally today. FILA accepted Sambo as the 3rd style of international wrestling in 1968 until the Sambo community formed its own organization Federation International Amateur Sambo (FIAS) in 1985. In 1993, FIAS split into two organizations. Both organizations used the same name and logo.

The two groups were often referred to as FIAS “East” (under Russian Control) and FIAS “West” (under US and Western European Control). This split mirrored the last days of cold war politics of the time as well as the recent break-up of the Soviet Union. In 2005, FILA reached an agreement with FIAS “West” and reassumed sanctioning over sport sambo. At present FILA sanctions international competition in the style as does FIAS (formerly FIAS “East”). Both organizations conduct separate world championships and other international events. However, only FIAS sanctions and conducts Combat Sambo competition.

Sambo practitioners:

  • Andrei Arlovski former UFC heavyweight champion. He was also the Junior World Sambo Champion.
  • Lance Campbell Sport Sombo World Champion. One of only eight grapplers selected to compete in the Ultimate Submission Showdown.
  • Fedor Emelianenko, World Combat Sambo Champion and Russian Combat Sambo Champion. He is widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound mixed martial arts fighter and is the current heavyweight champion in PRIDE Fighting Championships in Japan.
  • Aleksander Emelianenko, Fedor’s brother, is a two-time Russian national Sambo champion, and two-time world Sambo champion in the absolute divisions.
  • James Chico Hernandez, The First Sambo Champion to be featured on a box of Wheaties Energy Crunch. He is a World Cup Vice-Champion, US National Sambo Champion and British Sambo medallist.
  • Scott Sonnon, Distinguished Master of Sports in Sambo, nominated as the “Pioneer of American Sambo”, World Sambo Games Vice-Champion, USA Grand National and Pan-American Sambo Champion, and USA National Sambo Team Coach. .
  • Oleg Taktarov UFC 6 Champion, UFC ’95 Ultimate Ultimate Tournament finalist, and actor.
  • Igor Yakimov, world Judo champion, as well a world sport sambo champion and a medallist at the Combat Sambo world championships.
  • Sergei Kharitonov a PRIDE Fighting Championship competitor
  • Ansar Chalangov, a mixed martial arts competitor who has appeared in two fights in UFC’s welterweight division.
  • Megumi Fujii, a Currently undefeated female MMA fighter. She is known as the ‘Princess of Sambo’.