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Useful Notes / Sambo

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From Russia with locks.

"If sambo was easy, it would be called jiu-jitsu."
Khabib Nurmagomedov

Sambo (acronym for an expression translated as "unarmed self-defense") is a Russian martial art and combat sport. It is a direct offshoot of Judo mixed with several Eurasian wrestling styles, and as such, it is based around throwing the opponent to the ground and/or lock him with wicked joint locks and chokes, combined with minor striking. It was originally created as a military hand-to-hand style in the vein of Krav Maga, but very unlike the latter, it has adapted very successfully to sports competition, being a semi-popular fixture of Professional Wrestling and Mixed Martial Arts.

Practitioners of the sports are sometimes called sambists, but it is not usual because that is also how practitioners of samba are called. Equipment in sambo consists of shorts, a loose jacket named kurtka and wrestling shoes, as well as a number of protective gear pieces depending on the kind and level of competition.


The whole thing was the brainchild of two military hand-to-hand experts: Vasili Oshchepkov, an apprentice to Jigoro Kano and judo teacher for the Red Army, and Viktor Spiridonov, an expert in many forms of traditional wrestling who developed an interest in Japanese concepts due to a crippling war wound. Independently from each other, they started elaborating their own versions of a grappling style that would contain all what they knew and could find out about wrecking people. Added to the efforts of avid sportsman Anatoly Kharlampiyev, a disciple to Oshchepkov who had the political connections to get it done, what is known today as sambo took a recognizable form in 1938, becoming the official fighting style of all of Russia and its native badasses. Ironically, and because this was USSR, Oshchepkov ended up accused of being a Japanese spy and executed after being arrested by a squad of his own trainees; he was posthumously declared innocent many years later, but by then it's not like he cared anymore.


In the sports aspect, despite looking more like judo without pants than wrestling, sambo was recognized as a wrestling style by Fédération Internationale des Luttes Associées in 1968, after which it spread to the whole world. It actually seemed on the way to be an Olympic discipline for a while, but politics intruded again in its way, and due to the 1980 Olympic boycott that rose after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, sambo stayed firmly out of the Olympics, which many people regard as a good thing overall seeing what happened to judo and its infamous Olympic rule changes. Also, being still technically a hybrid of judo and wrestling mixed with striking, sambo also helped to make the Russian fighting scene a closed-knit circuit, with many wrestlers, judokas and even boxers and kickboxers often cross-train with each other in a regular basis; most sambists in Russia also compete as judokas or wrestlers, and vice versa.

As happened with Catch Wrestling, sambo became surprisingly popular in Japan, where it was introduced mostly by Russian-Japanese master Victor Koga. He taught its techniques to legendary pro wrestler Satoru Sayama, who introduced them in the style of Japanese pro wrestling named "shoot-style" and contributed to shape it as a fighting style full of leglocks and spectacular wrestling. Another shoot-stylist, Akira Maeda, traveled to Russia and recruited a bunch of sambo champions for his RINGS promotion, a pro wrestling circuit that evolved over time into mixed martial arts, also creating the first Russian MMA camp in the process. Therefore, just like shoot-style used to be the usual background of Japanese fighters, sambo is nowadays the background and main fighting style of most MMA fighters from the former Soviet Republics, as opposed to the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that dominates the sports everywhere else. Fedor Emelianenko and Khabib Nurmagomedov are good examples.

In competition, sambo is divided in several styles.

  • Sport sambo or sambo wrestling: it is fought with little to no protections. It is primarily a submission wrestling competition where most throws, takedowns and locks are allowed, with the notable exception of chokeholds, neck cranks and heel hooks. Sambists can win by submitting the opponent or by scoring points, which are earned through throws and pins (the cleaner a throw is, the more points you will receive, and a picture perfect throw leads to total victory). Closing guard is considered a form of stalling and thus more or less forbidden. It is fought over a circular wrestling mat.
  • Combat sambo (popularly known as commando sambo in Japan): essentially vale tudo with armors and quick-draw rules. Its competitors fight with gloves, helmets and shin protections, which comes in handy for a ruleset that effectively allows throws, submissions and strikes. Unusually for a combat sport, combat sambo is perfectly fine with headbutts, soccer kicks and even low blows; the only real techniques it forbids are pulling guard and sitting on the mat, as it is usually done in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, as well as wrist locks.
  • Freestyle sambo: an American ruleset created in 2004. It could be described as sport sambo with less grappling restrictions, allowing all the three submissions described above.
  • ARB: a weird style invented in the 1970s by the Soviet Airborne Troops. While some of its practitioners will deny any relation to sambo, it is very clearly an offshoot of combat sambo, with the main differences being a tatami instead of a wrestling mat, judogis instead of the usual attire, and grappling being limited beyond throwing. Instead, its rules favor striking, making it vaguely similar to Karate and Taekwondo.

Appearances in media

Anime and Manga

  • The High School Exciting Story: Tough manga features some practitioners of sambo based on real life wrestlers.
  • Kengan Omega features Tokumichi Tokuno'o (or Nitoku), a Brilliant, but Lazy Japanese fighter who learned and mastered sambo at 20 when he went to study literature in Russia. Despite being one of the best fighters in the world and could have a fortune by fighting in the Kengan tournaments, he is a Starving Artist, as he only fights for the bare minimum money to continue writing and publishing his books (which were all flops).


  • Nikolai from Undisputed II: Last Man Standing is all but stated to be a former sambist. Sambo is also implied to be among Yuri Boyka's martial arts.
  • The incredibly grappling-rich John Wick series stars an eponymous character played by Keanu Reeves whose main fighting style is a combination of sambo grappling and Center Axis Relock shooting. Throughout the movies, he disposes of innumerable mooks with a combination of Gun Fu and grappling moves, and at one point in the first movie gets to take part in a full-fledged grapplefest with a Dark Action Girl. The third film reveals that he's a Belarusian sambist.
  • In the third Never Back Down film, a Russian PRIDE veteran is brought to train Brody in sambo leglocks. Only that he's actually a mole sent to cripple him.

Live-Action TV

  • Jason Chambers and Bill Duff of Human Weapon traveled to Russia to train in various styles of sambo, with their trip culminating in Bill going up against a fighter handpicked by MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko.

Video Games

  • Tekken features Sergei Dragunov as a Spetsnaz agent and combat sambo practitioner investigating the events of the games in Japan. His fighting style is a rushdown powerhouse with a lot of throws, strikes and takedowns.

Professional Wrestling

  • The Japanese Universal Wrestling Federation and its many derivatives had many sambo fighters doing pro wrestling for them, starting with renowned Dutch champion Chris Dolman. Its outshoot Fighting Netork RINGS had entire teams of those, with names like Volk Han and Andrei Kopylov standing out in its Russian branch.
  • New Japan Pro-Wrestling mainstay Hiroshi Hase learned sambo in the USSR and used several of its moves. His trainee, Kendo Kashin, got a lot of his moveset from the same place.
  • The late Fumihiro "Sambo" Asako was a sambist turned wrestler in FMW.
  • Goldberg had some sambo influence on his moveset, including some rolling leglocks he learned in tapes.
  • Tom Howard, an American wrestler with a sambo background, made usage of his sweeps and leglocks in Ultimate Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling ZERO1.
  • Kaientai Dojo junior Makoto Oshi also had a background in sambo, and uses its suplexes in the ring. He even used to go under the name of Sambo Oishi.
  • Boris Alexiev, the old shooter gimmick of Santino Marella, was billed as a practitioner of sambo (and several other styles).
  • After he was moved to WWECW, Vladimir Kozlov started wearing red robes and gear reflecting his real life sambo background, although he used little actual sambo in his wrestling style.

Western Animation

  • In the The Clone Wars, the clones' hand-to-hand fighting style was patterned after sambo, including the signature Victor Koga Roll entry.