MMA Fan’s Guide to Grappling: Sambo

The guide to the grappling styles used by MMA fighters continues with a grappling system that is growing in popularity and could help produce…

By: T.P. Grant | 10 years ago
MMA Fan’s Guide to Grappling: Sambo
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

The guide to the grappling styles used by MMA fighters continues with a grappling system that is growing in popularity and could help produce several of the next generation of stars in MMA. Sambo is a Russian grappling system that was developed by their military and is now practiced in two sport forms. Sport Sambo is a grappling only event, while Combat Sambo is very similar to amateur mixed martial arts where striking and grappling are mixed together.

Bellator has been dipping heavily into Russian fighters with Sambo backgrounds. The largest and most prestigious Sambo academy in Russia, Sambo 70, has recently added a full MMA program, so the Russians are coming to MMA.

Brief History: Sambo’s development is credited to up to three men to a variety of degrees. Viktor Spiridonov was a World War I combat veteran with a background in international wrestling styles, both Greco-Roman and Freestyle, and Russian Steppe folk style wrestling traditions. Spiridonov is credited with creating a self-defense art known as Samoz in 1937.

Another is Vasili Oshchepkov, who grew up on Sakhalin Island which became occupied by Japan after the Russo-Japanese War, and as a teenager, he had shown enough talent at a local judo club to be selected to train at Jigoro Kano’s Kodokan Academy. Oshchepkov brought his knowledge of Kano’s Kodokan Judo back to Russia during the late 1920s and 1930s. He also taught at the Dynamo club, were Spiridonov’s system was being taught. Both men were recruited to help create a new unarmed combat system for the Red army, which would later be called Samooborona Bez Oruzhiya, which literally translates as “self-defense without weapons.” It was shortened to the acronym Sambo.

But Oshchepkov was caught up in the Russian military purges for his ties to Japan shortly before war with that nation broke out. One of Oshchepkov’s students, Anatoly Kharlampiyev, saved the art from the dust bin of history and managed to get Sambo declared as the Martial Art of the Motherland, and making it the nation’s official combat sport.

For more on the history of Sambo, complete with videos, check out the more expansive piece on Sambo’s roots in MMA Origins: Russian Revolution.

Summary of Rules: There are three major rule sets for Sambo: Sport Sambo, Combat Sambo, and American Freestyle Sambo. The common ground between the three is that the rules create a very open forum for competition, especially for takedowns and throwing techniques. Both Sport Sambo and Freestyle Sambo are grappling-only events, in which matches are scored with points and won with points or submission. Points are awarded for throws and once a match, a fighter can be awarded points for a pin. In Sport Sambo, a match can also be won by a throw where the thrower remains standing. (Link) Also in Sport Sambo, only armlocks and straight leg locks are legal; no chokes, twisting leg locks, like the heel hook, or neck cranks are allowed. Also closing the guard is illegal in Sport Sambo as it is considered stalling. Freestyle Sambo is much more open when it comes to submissions, allowing chokes, and more leg locks and neck attacks. Neither allows standing submissions.

Combat Sambo allows striking, both standing on the ground, and the scoring is very similar to Sport Sambo. Striking is not awarded any points, but a knockdown due to strikes is counted as a throw. In all three, ground time is limited, but fighters are given more than a few scant seconds to work on the mat.

Strengths: The biggest strength of a fighter coming from a Sambo background would be their takedown game. Sambo puts a great emphasis on stranding grappling and is so open when it comes to rules that Sambists tend to have a large tool box when it comes to getting fights to the ground. The Sambo jacket, called a kurtka, helps create a grappling style that is somewhat ideal for transferring to MMA. The jacket grips cause grappling to be more upright than Freestyle wrestling, which transfer well to the upright clinch in MMA. The lack of restrictive rules, as in Judo or in Greco-Roman Wrestling, allowed Sambists to attack the whole body and forced them to learn to defend their legs as well as their upper body. (Gif) (Gif) (Gif) (Gif)

Another very strong suit of Sambo is submission grappling. Sambists are excellent at attacking submissions because all three Sambo rule sets encourage aggressive grappling once on the ground. Sambists are famous for their leg lock attacks, but they are much more skilled than just being leg lockers. The most common submissions in competitive Sambo are armlocks. (Gif) Many of these submissions come in transition, either in the immediate aftermath of a takedown or during a scramble. (Gif) The ability to be offensive in transitions is often how high level grapplers catch each other in submissions and is a valuable skill in MMA.

When it comes to the actual submissions, Sambists are dangerous joint lockers, and many excel at leg lock attacks. Some Sambo schools delve as deeply into leg locks as they do takedowns and the Sambo leg knot (Pic) is an excellent finishing position. When it comes to grappling off their backs, some Sambo fighters have excellent guards, and because the close guard is illegal in Sambo they developed fluid and aggressive open guards.

Another thing in Sambo’s favor is despite there not really having many no gi competitions, there is still quite of kurtka-less training in the Sambo world, allowing many fighters to adapt their games to the no-gi environment of MMA rather easily. Combat Sambo fighters are also very ready to transition to MMA as they are basically already fighting a form of MMA with grappling being mixed with punches, kicks and knee strikes and understanding how they can be combined with grappling. (Gif)

Weaknesses: First it is important to remember the Sambo doesn’t have a belt system, and the competitions are very open, so not all fighters with “Sambo experience” are highly trained Sambists. There is a great deal of cross over between Sambo and Judo, so some Sport Sambo players are Judoka looking to get away from the highly restrictive Olympic rules. Also in Combat Sambo, there are some fighters that are more strikers than grapplers, but that is rarer than it is in MMA as the scoring of Combat Sambo heavily favors grappling.

Some Sambists can struggle in MMA when they get involved in prolonged ground battles. Some Sambists are very good ground grapplers. Others can be ready for a short period of aggression on the ground, but can be out grappled in prolonged positional grappling encounters. Often the sign of a Sambist who is prepared for such a battle are the ones who can use their guard effectively, as grappling from one’s back is used in Sambo but not practiced heavily by all.

Also the lack of chokes in some Sambo competitions can cause Samists being less technical with chokes, but there is so much cross over with Judo the vast majority do train chokes to varying degrees.

Finally Combat Sambo striking is very good for mixing grappling and striking together, but can be power shot heavy and little less refined than a fighter with a pure striking background.

All in all, Sambo is one of the grappling styles most ready to cross over to MMA and despite the low numbers of Sambo fighters in MMA, it has produced championship level fighters in the sport since the inception of MMA.

Notable Practitioners both in and out of MMA (Click for Highlights): Fedor Emelianenko, Oleg Taktarov, Andrei Arlovski, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Blagoy Ivanov, Vitaly Minakov, Igor Kurinnoy, Stephen Koepfer, Reilly Bodycomb, Igor Zinoviev

Video of Grappling Art:

2011 Sambo Worlds Final, an example of a Sport Sambo

Vincent Beurrier vs David Juliano: Freestyle Sambo Superfight

World Combat Sambo Championship Highlights, Minsk 2012

Rolled Up Episode 35 – Fear the Reaper with Stephen Koepfer (via Budovideosdotcom)

Special Thanks to the President of the American Sambo Association, Mr. Stephen Koepfer. Follow this man on twitter. Not only is he the driving force behind Sambo in the United States, the head coach of New York Combat Sambo, he is also the founder of Coalition to Legalize MMA in New York. He recently helped produce a documentary about the battle over MMA in New York which is on Hulu.

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