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A History and Style Guide of Russian Sambo

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Maybe you've heard of Fedor Emelianenko, widely considered to be one of the greatest MMA fighters in history. What's his martial arts background? Russian Sambo. Then there's Oleg Taktarov, a Russian fighter that won the UFC 6 tournament way back when. What was Taktarov's martial arts style? That's right, you guessed it, Russian Sambo. Fact is, we could list several outstanding and influential Sambo fighters if we wanted to. So maybe there's something to this whole Sambo thing?

You're darned right there is.

Russian Sambo is a martial arts style and self-defense system that was formulated in the former Soviet Union during the early 1900's. In that sense, it does not have as long a history as some of the Asian styles. That said, Sambo, which is sometimes referred to as Sombo, has roots in several different martial arts types, drawing from many of the older styles.

The History of Russian Sambo

Sambo was meant to be a melding of all of the different martial arts styles available to come up with the most efficient one yet. Living in what amounts to a bridge between Europe and Asia, the Russian people were certainly introduced to a variety of martial arts styles via contact with the Japanese, Vikings, Tatars, Mongols, and more. The combination of what worked from these styles served as the building blocks to what is now referred to as Russian Sambo.

Vasili Oshchepkov, the Karate and Judo trainer for Russia's elite Red Army, was one of the founders of Sambo. Like any trainer worth their salt, Oshchepkov wanted his men to be the most proficient of all in martial arts techniques. With a second degree black belt in judo from Jigoro Kano himself- making him one of the rare non-Japanese to hold such a distinction at the time- Oshchepkov felt that he could work to formulate a superior martial arts style by adding what worked from judo to what worked from the Russian native wrestling styles, karate, and more. While he worked on finding these techniques, another man by the name of Victor Spiridonov, who had extensive training in Greco-Roman and other forms of wrestling, was also working on taking what worked and leaving out what didn't to revolutionize hand-to-hand combat techniques. Interestingly, Spiridonov's work was no doubt influenced by the fact that he received a bayonet wound during the Russo-Japanese War that left his left arm lame. Thus, the style he worked toward was softer in nature. In other words, rather than meeting power with power he hoped to truly utilize an adversary's strength against them by deflecting their aggression in a direction that they did not want it to go.

In 1918, Vladimir Lenin created Vseobuch or General Military Training to train the Red Army under the leadership of K. Voroshilov. Voroshilov then created the NKVD physical training center Dinamo and brought together several qualified instructors. Along with this, Spiridonov was one of the first wrestling and self-defense instructors hired at Dinamo.

In 1923, Oschepkov and Spiridonov collaborated to improve upon the Red Army's hand to hand combat system. Anatoly Kharlampiev and I.V. Vasiliev, both of whom had studied martial arts around the world extensively, joined in this collaboration. A decade later, the techniques they brought to the table and combined served as the outline for the style that would eventually become known as Sambo.

Given his political connections and the fact that he had the ability to stick with the formulation of the art through the early stages into the time when it was named, Kharlampiev is often referred to as the father of Sambo. Along with this, he is the one that truly campaigned for Sambo to become the official combat sport of the Soviet Union, which became a reality in 1938. However, there is evidence to suggest that Spiridonov was the first to actually use the word Sambo to describe the martial arts system that they had all contributed to. Sambo actually translates to "self-defense without weapons."

When the techniques of Sambo were finally catalogued and perfected, they were taught and used by the Soviet police, military, and more; though each was changed to meet the needs of the particular group using it.

In 1981 the International Olympic Committee came to recognize Sambo as an Olympic sport.

Substyles of Sambo

Several offshoots of Sambo have emerged since the art was first formulated. However, there are truly only five that are recognized by the public at large. These are:

  • Combat Sambo: Combat Sambo was made for the military. Thus, it includes weapons usage and disarming techniques. Unlike many of the other styles of Sambo, Combat Sambo also includes a significant portion of striking and grappling.
  • Freestyle Sambo: Freestyle Sambo was set up by the American Sambo Association in 2004 to encourage non-Sambo practitioners to participate in Sambo events (practitioners of judo and jujitsu). Freestyle Sambo events allow the use of choke holds and other submissions that are not permitted in Sport Sambo.
  • Self-Defense Sambo: Self-Defense Sambo is about defending oneself. Along with this, it teaches practitioners how to defend against weapons and more. Many of the methods taught involve using an opponent's aggression against them, which is similar to jujitsu and aikido. Along with this, Spiridonov's influence is strong here.
  • Special Sambo: Special Sambo was developed for Army Special Forces and rapid response law formations. It is really only a specialized version of Sambo, designed for the particular unit it is being used by. In that sense, Special Sambo is a lot like Combat Sambo with specific aims, depending on the group.
  • Sport Sambo: Sport Sambo is a lot like judo in that takedowns and takedown defense are crucial to winning. The rules of competition allow all types of leg locks.

Characteristics of Sambo

Sambo practitioners are known for three things: takedowns that combine wrestling and judo maneuvers, ground control skills, and leg locks. Depending on the style of Sambo, striking may also be taught, such as in the case of Combat Sambo. However, it is primarily a grappling art that focuses on takedowns and submissions.

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