Bloody Elbow Open Mat: Why Have Sambo Fighters Been so Successful? featuring Reilly Bodycomb

American MMA has recently seen an influx of Russian and Dagestani fighters with Sambo backgrounds, among other arts. Many are finding success quickly in…

By: T.P. Grant | 9 years ago
Bloody Elbow Open Mat: Why Have Sambo Fighters Been so Successful? featuring Reilly Bodycomb
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

American MMA has recently seen an influx of Russian and Dagestani fighters with Sambo backgrounds, among other arts. Many are finding success quickly in the cage, adapting their skills from Sambo and Combat Sambo very quickly. So we posed a simple, if a little broad, question: why have Sambo fighters been so successful? What does Sambo or Combat Sambo give a prospective MMA fighter that other backgrounds do not?

To start off the discussion we asked American Sambo ace Reilly Bodycomb that very question.

One of the U.S.’s premier Sambo practitioners, Reilly has won international Sambo tournaments and represented the United States at the Sambo World Championships in 2008. He is also very active in no gi grappling and has professional MMA experience.

Reilly currently runs a school in New Orleans, Rdojo, and I can speak from personal experience that he is an excellent instructor and that his seminars and videos are well worth their price.

Reilly Bodycomb: Sport Sambo and Combat Sambo are primarily throwing sports. Meaning most of the scoring is from takedowns, similar to Judo. However, attacking the legs with such things as double-leg takedowns, and fireman’s carries are permitted without restrictions unlike judo. Because of this, someone with a competitive background in a Sambo sport would have lots of experience taking others down, and not being taken down. Even though there is no jacket (gi/kurtka) in MMA, the clinch is not dissimilar, as fighters tend to stay tight and upright to avoid knees when working for takedowns. So upper body throws (hip tosses, suplexes, laterals, etc) translate pretty well from Sambo to MMA.

Of course, like any combat sport, much cross training is needed to flesh out the rest of your game to make the transition from Sambo to MMA. The athletes coming from Combat Sambo obviously would have an easier transition in this sense, as striking is a part of that sport.

But to answer your question completely, In my experience, a real mixed martial artist makes stylistic choices that tend to cross the boundaries of being from one ‘style’ or another. If you have competed primarily in Sport Sambo, but have MMA training partners and coaches from a freestyle wrestling background, or BJJ background, then your grappling can not help but be augmented. You start picking the moves that work best for you, and they will be influenced by all of your training partners and coaches.

Iain Kidd: A veteran Sambo fighter and medalist (Vadim Kolganov) trains at the same gym I do, and he and my coach will regularly do full force sparring sessions in headgear with a face cage. I’m not aware of too many MMA gyms that do that, but it strikes me that doing so would give fighters much more practice in throwing punches full force in actual combat situations. From the little Sambo ground game I have learned by proxy, it seems to be not quite as technical as BJJ, but it is much more amenable to using your physical strength, especially in scrambles and reversals/sweeps; again, I didn’t get the impression that training at slow speed was the standard for Sambo training.

I think in MMA we see a lot of fighters who fight in a technical way, but don’t have a lifetime of training everything as hard and fast as possible. I think part of the reason we see a large number of wrestlers who are able to throw huge punches is the same reason Sambo fighters have such success; they don’t have years of training at half or three quarter speed slowing down their instincts in a fight. As an example of this, a technique Vadim teaches involves using your elbow, or forearm, to blast through someone’s guard, with an overhand following it to land on the now exposed head. That’s something that’s basically impossible to practice at anything other than full speed.

Lastly, the fact striking is a part of combat Sambo means the grappling takes that into account, even at a fundamental level. Much of BJJ seems to treat an opponent above you striking as a temporary issue that will go away when you pull off the next technique. From the little I’ve learned, Sambo techniques are always aware of the ability of your opponents fists to do damage. I think this really helps the ground game transition well into MMA.

T.P. Grant: I think Reilly hits one of the big factors on why Sambists are having success in standing grappling. The kurtka forces a slightly more upright posture than seen in Freestyle or American Folk Wrestling that fits MMA clinch grappling very well, but without the restrictions of Judo or Greco-Roman wrestling, which feature similar upright grappling stances. So Sambo fighters have a wide variety of throws, sweeps, takedowns, and trips that are legal in their sport that translate very well to MMA.

Then there are the Combat Sambists, who are learning to grapple while striking. As a result the successful Combat Sambo fighters in MMA tend to have fantastic timing on their strikes to fill grappling transitions. Think when Jose Aldo caught Chad Mendes with a knee just seconds after breaking a rear waist lock and as Mendes when to establish the clinch.That kind of timing is a skill unique to MMA and Combat Sambo, and not something training in wrestling, Jiu Jitsu, or Judo is likely to instill.

Zane Simon: Just going off what I’ve seen it seems that the Russian Sambo culture, and it’s combination of Judo and Karate stylings lend itself as a much more combat ready system and not nearly as dependent on a specific clothing article or rule structure. Obviously there are more “point” oriented competitions and more “fight” oriented competitions, but I would assume that many Sambo practitioners train at least somewhat regularly for both. There’s not really a lot of “combat judo” or “combat” wrestling that I’m aware of. Most other grappling forms have moved to a less fight and more sport oriented culture. Even Jiu Jitsu seems to have slowly moved toward a more point based system (at least if I’m to believe everything that Royce Gracie tells me). Sambo seems to have deep competitive roots in combat sports and as such it seems to place a lot more value on the tools of timing, distance, and a “catch as catch can” mentality. It only makes sense that that would translate well to MMA.

Connor Reubusch: In short, the success of Sambists in MMA comes down to one thing, and that is experience. Despite its differences (points, the jacket, the rules) Combat Sambo is basically amateur MMA. Sambists have the opportunity to compete against other skilled practitioners of their sport in serious, respected tournaments, without the risk of incurring losses on a professional MMA record. The results of having a fully established amateur system are clear–in boxing, we have finely tuned athletes making their professional debuts. In MMA, we have Eastern European fighters with the remarkable ability to take the fight wherever they want it to go, and to hurt their opponents in even the smallest windows of opportunity.

I’m reminded of the blending of offense and defense that marks a truly seasoned boxer. Of all the skills a boxer can learn, the inseparability of offensive and defensive movements seems to take the longest to perfect. Young fighters will switch from one to the other, but for truly skilled veterans, like Bernard Hopkins, there is no difference whatsoever. Defense and offense are both part of the same activity–fighting. In MMA, the blending of defense and offense is still a difficult-to-obtain skill, but the highest goal for most fighters seems to be transitional fighting–the ability to catch the opponent in those brief moments when he is completely unprepared for an attack. Whether it’s grabbing a triangle as he posts to keep from being swept, or blasting him with an uppercut as he stands up from sprawling, transitional fighting is another one of those skills that just requires a depth of experience to do consistently. That experience is something that Sambists have that fighters from other backgrounds do not.

As an aside, Combat Sambo might be the best way to get MMA accepted as an Olympic sport. Rule changes would be worrying, but the value of an established amateur fight system might be worth the risk. We all want to see better fighters, right?

Ben Thapa: I was under the impression that Sambo players were succeeding in elite MMA because of the cherry picking of elite athletes from the large pool of frustrated wrestlers in the former Soviet Union. They get called Sambo players because it’s marketable, not because they actually focused on it and competed successfully in high level Sambo like Fedor, Aleks and Blagoi.

An athlete the caliber of Khabib is going to usually succeed at his or her pursuits until the level of competition exceeds their relatively rough technical ability outside their area of competence. We’ve seen this in Fedor, Ronda, Kevin Jackson, Badr Hari and that one Ranger dude Mark Kerr destroyed.

The difference here today is that Khabib and the others now are enthusiastically cross training and the good athletes will continue to distinguish themselves if brought up right in terms of match making.
It’s not anything more than these are good athletes stymied from going farther in wrestling by the great athletes winning the Darwinian wrestling selection tourneys. To represent Russia on the true world stages gives financial security and only a legendary handful get to do that.

The rest slap on labels and take to Judo or MMA.

T.P. Grant: While I agree with Ben that the level of athlete we are seeing hailing from Russia is much higher than previously, I think to paint them as washed out wrestlers labeled as Sambo fighters is inaccurate. Take Khabib Nurmagomedov, who yes was the son of a Master of Sport in Freestyle Wrestling and a black belt in Judo, but Nurmagomedov only wrestled competitively for 5 years, barely more than a high school career in the states. Nurmagomedov has competed at the higher levels of Combat Sambo and won world championships, so I wouldn’t classify him as a wrestler who threw on a kurtka.

His background of wrestling and judo in addition to Sambo is reflective of the Russian attitude towards grappling, where they tend to learn how to grapple and then compete in different rule sets.

Nathan Wilcox: Two words: Phase Shifting. Combat Sambo teaches athletes to think about how striking can set up grappling opportunities and visa-versey. That’s all there is to it. Plus Russians are tough. Dagestanis are even tougher….and Fedor!

Ben Thapa: We can check with Riordan when the washing out point happens in Russian wrestling, but if Nurmy wrestled for five years and then hopped elsewhere, I suspect it’s because he and his family realized that he wasn’t going to reach the apex of that sport. He’s not Aaron Pico, and he wanted to make his living in the combat sports, so he did Sambo then MMA.

Wrestling is king for short guys over there in a way that only Iowans, Oklahomans and Pennsylvanians really understand. It’s the number one career choice among the combat sports and judo is boring, so we get the pretty good Russian athlete leftovers, who happen to be better than the athletes we have in American and Brazilian MMA.

Why is Jon Jones so good? The answer is really because he’s a better athlete than everybody except Jacare Souza and maybe BJ Penn. The mental sides of the game aren’t nearly as important here. He’s seeing and reacting to the fight at the same rate as everyone else, it’s just that he’s able to implement things much faster, stronger and smoother than other people. That’s what athleticism basically is, and the Sambo guys we’re talking about generally have that.

Kwasi Kwakwa: I’ve been thinking about this for a while actually, and I think the answer is a combo of Connor and Ben.

According to the Russian/Eastern European Judoka I know (London has more than a few) Sambo, Judo and wrestling are trained in similar places by the same people as kids. A result of this in Judo is that guys from those countries fight in a way that is almost gi-agnostic. They work just as well with the pyjamas on or off.

A lot of the people who are good enough to make it internationally in either wrestling or Judo head in that direction because of the money that comes with winning an Olympic medal. A lot of the guys who don’t quite make the upper levels end up going into sambo and combat sambo. Fedor and Blagoi Ivanov were both international level Judoka, Khabib both wrestled and trained in judo. This means that to make it to the world level in combat sambo, you have to be a good enough standup grappler to either get takedowns or stay standing against opponents with years of experience in taking people down while staying upright. Plus, you have to be able to deal with shots at your legs and trips and throws from the clinch.

In addition to the great standup grapplers converting to Combat Sambo, you also have to keep in mind that Russia and eastern Europe also have good amateur boxing programs and a strong representation in kickboxing, full contact karate, san shou/san da and taekwondo. This means lots of high level striking coaches and lots of opponents who can legitimately take your head off if you are a terrible striker.

So… lots of high level strikers and grapplers for competition. Add in lots of experienced coaches and probably dozens to hundreds of fights across multiple competitions to make it to the world level. World class Combat Sambo fighters have to be competent everywhere and have had time to develop their styles before MMA comes calling

Dallas Winston: Gotta agree with Nate and Joe Rogan here. There is no other standalone martial art more akin to MMA than Combat Sambo.

The vast majority of fighters typically excel in one individual martial art and then are forced to undergo an imperative metamorphosis to both tailor their background to MMA and break habits and instincts that have been ingrained in their athletic psyche for around a decade. Fighters who grow up without a particular base and training MMA as a whole, such as Rory MacDonald or Michael McDonald, are rightfully trumpeted for it. Combat Sambo guys are the same except they get more high-level experience and competition compared to a typical fighter working his way up through ammy competition.

On a more detailed scale, I think the biggest advantage is the fusion of striking and grappling. Sub-grapplers can adjust to grueling clinch fights and striking on the mat and wrestlers can adjust to a submission grappling environment fairly well, but the leap toward learning and understanding striking is vast, as it is with strikers learning wrestling/grappling.

Because striking and wrestling/grappling are pretty much polar opposites in MMA, synchronizing them effectively requires adjustments to the very foundations of almost all martial arts: stance, balance, footwork, head movement, strategy, instinct, etc. The Combat Sambo guys not only don’t have to go back and retool their arsenals to accommodate for all that but build that foundation strong right from the get go.

Ben Thapa: I honestly don’t think people really play Combat Sambo all that much. The regular Sambo is played more, but is still not widely adopted, and that’s basically a more leglocks and takedowns focused version of BJJ. The reason why I’m talking about the popularity of sambo is that I don’t believe it has a large talent pool and that the crossover from wrestling is far, far more proven and the fighters we’re talking about here are almost universally those who did wrestling and Sambo (Fedor, Aleks and possibly Blagoi being the exceptions).

The wrestlers in folkstyle and freestyle are also showing to be adept at the transition from standing to ground and the better athletes among them (Kevin Jackson and the other flameouts notwithstanding) are also showing to be great at MMA. It’s the athleticism that’s key, not really the starting base – although the wrestling skillset and attitude sure helps. The good athletes simply get and seize upon more chances to do what they want to do every training session and every match and thus they learn how better to implement their gameplans against better and better opponents.

That’s why when Gustafsson took away the initiative from Jon Jones, he was able to make it a razor close match: Jon Jones doesn’t have the match experience to counter it. He was relying on athletic superiority to win and the Sambo fighters like Khabib, Amagov and Gashimov were and are doing the same. It didn’t work out so well for Gashimov, Amagov similarly took a couple bad losses due to technical/mental slip-ups and Khabib has beaten two very tough, but not elite guys in Healy and Trujillo.

Gashimov and Amagov lost one fight each by goofing up on the ground within the early goings of the first round – the Menjivar armbar and the Oliynyk ezekiel – and that’s a hallmark of a great athlete using the athletic skills instead of the technical skills.

Patrick Wyman: While acknowledging the benefits of Sambo as a system, for all of the reasons mentioned here, I’d argue (along with Ben and Kwasi) that we’re a bit too focused on Sambo itself and not enough on Sambists. Where I part ways is that we aren’t even talking about Russians, per se, but natives of a small region within the Russian Federation that has roughly the population of the US states of Ohio or Georgia.The guys who’ve come into the UFC recently and had success with a Sambo base are nearly all from Dagestan or a neighboring part of the North Caucasus region, where youth participation rates in combat sports – freestyle wrestling, Judo, boxing, kickboxing, and Sambo among them – are some of the highest in the world. This means that Sambo isn’t getting third-tier athletes who didn’t have the physical tools to succeed in a more lucrative or popular sport, as is so often the case with combat sports elsewhere; instead, the absolute best athletes in the region are all going into paths that often lead to Sambo competition. The North Caucasus isn’t a particularly populous region, but getting a high proportion of the very best athletic specimens from a population of ten million or so goes a long way toward enhancing the effectiveness of the art itself. Growing up in a place with regular, high-level competitions that weed out the inferior athletes along with a disproportionate density of excellent coaches in a variety of combat sports background helps to explain the success of the recent wave of imports.

Athletes of this caliber really help to make various techniques sing, but I don’t want to diminish the importance of the skill sets themselves. They’re absolutely essential, and these guys are finely-honed practitioners of a highly diverse system well-suited to the current landscape of MMA. At the same time, however, it’s important that we see them as individual practitioners, and not just as representatives of a particular style.

T.P. Grant:
Again I do not disagree that athleticism is a big factor in the success of a fighter, but I don’t think athleticism negates background. Great athletes make technique sing, but as Pat said being armed with technique is equally as vital, otherwise why seek out elite coaching?

As for talent pool I do think it is rare to find “pure” Sambo fighters, as many of them have experience in either Judo or Wrestling, but I fail to see how that is a strike against them. Russia has a large grappling scene and participation in Sambo is fairly open, so the question remains then what does Sambo provide for these fighters?

Athletes develop habits, favor techniques, build muscle memory, and create comfort zones, and that will normally harken back to what they are most skilled in. When Anthony Pettis is in trouble and needs to win a round he will not be pulling guard to work for submissions, rather he will be on his feet striking because that is where is comfort zone is. Jose Aldo is a feared striker, but when he is tried he begins to revert to his grappling, the first skill he learned, as we have seen in his previous two fights against Lamas and the Korean Zombie when he began shooting late fight takedowns.

We are finally seeing a higher level of athlete using Sambo, and as a result we are seeing that those favored techniques; drilled for years, fine tuned in competition, are quickly adaptable to MMA because much of it is used in Combat Sambo, which in itself is much like MMA.

Well that does it for us, so now what is your take on it? Maybe you’re a long time grappler with thoughts on the matter, a striker who hates that ground stuff, or just an MMA fan with thoughts to share. We want to hear it!

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