Defending the Motherland
Its technical name is “Sambo.” While it’s not incorrect to translate it as “Sombo” or even “Sam,” it is actually an acronym that stands for SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya, meaning “self-defense without weapons” in Russian. Like a diversified mutual fund that draws its strength from investments in a multitude of strong stocks, Sambo was created and developed by blending the best of many martial arts from across the war-torn former Soviet landscape. Many say that Sambo’s early development was based on judo, but this is only partially true. In essence, it is a martial art born from the restlessness of Russia’s varied patchwork of ethnic groups on the steppes of Asia, where life is monotonous and wrestling is a natural way to pass the time between herding, farming and gathering. Many grappling styles were born in this part of the world, including Turvin Kuresh, Yakuts Khapsagay, Chuvash Akatuy, Georgian Chidaoba, Moldavian Trinte, Azeri Kokh , and Uzbek Kurash. It was from this multitude that Sambo found its genesis, and Sambo was then further influenced by the imported styles of savate, Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu, and Greco- Roman wrestling. Like the most successful martial arts that embrace what is useful and discard what is not, Sambo drew the best techniques from this natural database and developed into a style that was meant to improve the combat effectiveness of the Russian military and later its civilian populace.
Sambo is really a tale of three men. The first was Vasili Oshchepkov, who moved to Japan as a teenager and spent six years studying Judo under its founder, Jigoro Kano. Oshchepkov left Judo’s renowned Kodokan in 1917 with his second dan black belt around his waist and the distinction of being the first Russian to ever receive a black belt from Kano.
After a stint in the Red Army that saw him travel covertly through China to learn about the secretive martial art of Wushu, he was called back to Moscow to teach elite Soviet soldiers at the Central Red Army House. Influenced by Kano’s blending of Jiu-Jitsu styles, Oshchepkov took this opportunity to sift through the indigenous tribal wrestling styles of the USSR to develop a new martial art. As with Judo, he believed that the best way to build a skill set was through the free form of randori instead of the static kata. Although it didn’t yet have the name, what Oshchepkov was teaching was, in fact, the basis of Sambo.
A World War I bayonet that found its mark left Viktor Spiridonov with a lame arm that dangled by his side. But that didn’t stop him from traveling the expanse of the USSR investigating how to integrate Jiu-Jitsu into the various ethnic wrestling styles of his native land. His goal was to develop a “soft style” of self defense that could accommodate people like himself who lacked the full use of their bodies. It resulted in an aikido-like martial art form that drew techniques from Jiu-Jitsu, Greco-Roman wrestling, American catch wrestling, non-sport British pugilism, Dutch-Indonesian Silat and many Slavic wrestling styles. In recognition of his work, Spiridonov was one of the first people hired to train Red Army soldiers at a new physical training center for the Soviet secret police (the NKVD), called “Dinamo,” in 1918.
This was a turbulent time in Russia. The country had just completed two bloody revolutions that cast aside 370 years of Tsarist rule to become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). An internal civil war raged between the Bolshevik Red Army and the Allied Anti- Bolshevik White Army that would last five years. By 1923, the Reds had won and Dinamo had brought Oshchepkov and Spiridonov together to collaborate with a team of other experts on a grant from the Soviet government to improve the Red Army’s hand-to-hand combat system. The Dinamo team was ambitious in its quest to evaluate everything and develop a self-defense and combat hand-to-hand system. This reflected the inherent pragmatism of socialism: to do whatever it takes to achieve victory.
In their 1998 comprehensive history, “European Judo is Really Japanese SOMBO?,” Dr. Brett Jacques and Scott Anderson, two of the foremost authorities on the art, describe the Dinamo process: “Each technique for SOMBO was carefully dissected and considered for its merits, and if found acceptable in unarmed combat, refined to reach SOMBO’s ultimate goal: stop an armed or unarmed adversary in the least time possible.”
Spiridonov was the workhorse of Dinamo, who obsessed over developing a universal form of hand-to-hand combat that could be used by all Russians, no matter their occupation. Due to his physical inability, he was forced to rely on efficiency instead of effort, and used his strengths to overcome his weaknesses. Oshchepkov was initially an intermittent advisor to Dinamo, but in 1929 he was invited to work there full-time, and he combined what the team had already learned with realistic force-onforce training and physical education. By 1933, the Dinamo team had amassed a catalogue of techniques that planted the seeds of Sambo, though it still wasn’t called by this name.
Dinamo’s Combat Sambo was based on traditional wrestling supported by western athletic training science and philosophy, but with an orientation toward real-life combat. It included all of the techniques of freestyle and Greco- Roman wrestling, and was based on using and countering the techniques most likely to be encountered on an everyday street or a raging battlefield. It was not meant to be a sport, but its transformation into one was eventual.
Sport Sambo emerged in the 1930s to help soldiers keep physically fit, sharpen their skills in a training environment and ward off boredom. This fighting style became known as Bor’ba Cambo in Russian, and is frequently simplified as “Russian Wrestling” today. It was almost certainly a byproduct of Oshchepkov’s preference for randori over kata, and of Dinamo’s philosophy that the free-flowing environment of open competition was necessary to hone the skills needed to survive in combat. Kata was used in a general sense, but wasn’t as important as randori. When Sambo students studied a hip toss, they only focused on how to execute the move efficiently in order to damage or kill their opponents. They didn’t concern themselves with the technically proper way to execute the move. It was brutal and straightforward, but effective.
Through Oshchepkov, Judo’s influence on Sambo was palpable. As in Judo, throwing an opponent to the ground was a core aspect of the art, but the goal was different. While Judo merely sought to take an opponent off his feet, Sambo sought to throw him in a way that would set up a submission. High crotch throws and pick-up attacks that the Japanese considered barbaric were home field for the Russians. Sambo players stood lower and looked for opportunities to get under an opponent to take him off his feet and to the ground, whereas the Japanese stood straight up. Subsequently, Sport Sambo did not value a throw as much as Judo did, and viewed the end result as more important than the means by which it was achieved.
In his book Judo Masterclass Techniques: Tomoe-Nage (Ippon Books, 1992), Katsuhiki Kashiwazaki told a story of a Sambo fight in which he learned this lesson: “I threw the Russian twice, for what in judo terms would have been ippon (ultimate victory), but in Sambo terms was only four points. In the event, my opponent caught hold of my leg and I lost on a leg lock.”
Pinning an opponent to the ground was not considered a victory because, in a real fight, it would only allow his friends more time to arrive and assist. A pin was merely a passive position that achieved nothing, so the man on top had to be able to transition to a submission or he didn’t truly win.
While Combat Sambo used chokes and strangles extensively, Sport Sambo banned them altogether (a fact which hinders its effectiveness in MMA today— more on that later). In the absence of strangles and chokes, arm locks became the submission of choice and early Sambo pioneers became particularly adept at attacking an unprotected arm.
Like Judo, Sport Sambo was contested in a uniform because it replicated the most likely conditions of a real fight. Few Russians walked around without a shirt, after all, especially in frigid Moscow. Judo’s judogi was designed around the traditional kimono worn by the Japanese, and Sambo’s jacket (called a kurtka) reflected the military tunics of that era’s battlefields. Although ideal for ground fighting, the kurtka inhibited the traditional throws of Judo because it fit tighter and made gripping harder. Therefore, gripping garments in Sambo weren’t as much of a problem as they would have been in Judo, though the Sambist would not pass up the opportunity to wear something looser if it was there. The grabbing clothes worn in Sambo did not completely limit a fighter’s movements. In fact, the art form was purposely developed to employ techniques that take advantage of the longer arms and legs of the average European. Longer arms made penetrating arm attacks and sweeps easier for the average Russian.
THE SAVVY PATRIARCH
The third key figure in the history of Sambo was a member of the Dinamo team who would eventually ensure its survival and be credited as its patriarch. Anatoly Kharlampiev is often called the ”Father of Sambo,“ though this is largely due to the paranoid nature of the Supreme Soviet and Kharlampiev’s shrewdness.
In the mid-1930s the USSR, especially its NKVD secret police, made the Spanish Inquisition look like an inconvenience. Citizens were uprooted from their homes for innocuous infractions perceived to be unpatriotic. The Soviet regime did not want to recognize the influence of Japanese Judo on their new freestyle fighting method, so they eliminated every reference to it. For defending Judo, and for his affiliation with Jigoro Kano, Oshchepkov was falsely labeled a Japanese spy and arrested in September 1937. Later that month, he was executed.
“Sambo would have disappeared at this point, if it weren’t for the political savvy of Anatoly Kharlampiev, who used cunning diplomacy to revise the art,” says U.S. Sambo coach and historical investigator Scott Sonnon. “Kharlampiev redefined the style to be an exclusively Soviet-centric combat system and sport. In 1938, Kharlampiev’s version of history was acknowledged by the All-USSR State Sport Committee, and the fighting system was recognized as his creation based upon Soviet training methodologies and heritage. From this point forward, it would be known as the fighting art of the Motherland. Though it was still called “freestyle wrestling” for a few more years, “Sambo” was officially born on that day.
At this time, it wasn’t a good idea to have a passive population with an expanding and aggressive Nazi Germany in such close proximity, so the Supreme Soviet encouraged its citizens to get physical. Sambo was open to the public, and in 1939 the first individual Sambo championships were held.
In 1946, freestyle wrestling finally earned its prominence when Kharlampiev was installed as the President of the first All-Union Sambo section. Despite this significant event, the art stagnated for many years. A devastating World War that wiped out twenty million Russians, geographic isolation and the social ineptness that characterized the USSR during the Cold War hindered the growth of just about everything and kept Sambo veiled in secrecy. Under Kharlampiev’s leadership, Combat Sambo and Sport Sambo cross-pollinated many of their techniques, but this was akin to inbreeding and didn’t do much to grow the art.
LIFTING THE IRON CURTAIN
Closed off to the world for years, Sambo burst back onto the international scene at the 1962 Essen European Judo Championships, where the Soviet team took third place and provided the tournament’s Absolute Champion. The sudden reemergence of the art had the desired effect of demonstrating Soviet superiority and shaking the foundations of the old Judo guard. The world shuddered at the Soviets’ practice of getting their opponents onto their backs any way they could. For the Soviet fighters, technique wasn’t as important as the result, and their reckless approach to achieving throws put fear into the Judo ranks. “Top champions suddenly became concerned about coming in with a strong forward attack for fear of being unceremoniously dumped backwards,” says Robert van de Walle in his book, Pick-Ups (Judo Masterclass Techniques) (Ippon Books, 1996).
After this initial foray into Judo, Sambo kicked off thirteen years of growth in 1967 with the first international Sambo tournament in Riga, Latvia (still part of the USSR then). Though only the Soviets and three nations under its influence competed, the tournament would grow incrementally over the years. Teams from the UK and Netherlands participated in 1969, and in 1971 Japan overcame its Judo holdouts and fielded its own team.
In 1968, the International Amateur Wrestling Federation (FILA) gave Sambo credibility by adopting it as the third wrestling discipline, alongside freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. Sambo continued to expand in the 1970s, with the first European Championships in Russia in 1972 and the first World Championships in Tehran in 1973.
But 1980 brought Sambo’s growth to a screeching halt. That year, it was an exhibition sport at the Olympic Games in Moscow, but failed to secure a permanent spot in the games. This thinned out the talent pool because it forced many Sambo players to become Judo players in order to pursue their dreams of Olympic gold. As a result, many Sambo techniques have infiltrated European Judo over the last three decades, such as belt throws, single leg picks, double leg picks and crotch lifts.
In the United States, the Cold War certainly inhibited the spread of Sambo, but even without it, the sport had significant obstacles to overcome, namely protective Midwesterners.
“[In America] Sombo has significant competition from other wrestling styles,” says former US Sambo team coach Bruce Gabrielson. “Folkstyle wrestling is practiced in high school and college. It is therefore the most popular U.S. wrestling style, and a significantly smaller number of folkstyle wrestlers learn freestyle for their off-season. Even fewer learn Greco- Roman. With three styles to deal with already, the wrestling pool to learn Sombo is even smaller.”
RUSSIAN TEDDY BEAR
As practical as Sambo is, there’s no denying its peculiar absence from the proving grounds of combat sports— mixed martial arts. The lack of MMA champions with Sambo backgrounds begs the question: Is it really as effective as originally intended? Other than Fedor Emelianenko, there are no Sambo practitioners in MMA’s elite, and only Oleg Taktarov has reached the pinnacle of the sport when he won UFC 6, in 1995.
A pair of theories attempts to explain tis fact. The first is the lack of mainstream acceptance of MMA in Russia is an obstacle to bringing forth more Sambists to the cage and rings of the sport. The second is the peculiar rule set of Sambo competitions. Sambo competitions ban the use of chokes and there is a popular belief that, because of this, Sambist get in the habit of giving up their backs too easily, a habit which is disastrous for a mixed martial artist.
The President of the American Sambo Association, Steven Koepfer disputes this. “ Rules change from event to event and fighters adapt or change for those specific rules,” he says. “Just as Pride(FC) vets who train in the U.S. have to limit knees or U.S. fighters have to limit elbows depending on the event. This doesn’t’ mean that those fighters can’t train on knees or elbows.”
Sambo was originally developed for the battlefield, so the problem could lie in its transition and application to sport fighting. Former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski, who owns a plethora of Sambo accolades, including a silver medal at the World Sambo Championship, thinks there are better arts for the cage.
“It doesn’t really help me,” Arlovski says. “Well, I did do a heel hook on Tim Sylvia to win the UFC heavyweight belt, but besides that I do not use it very often. In my opinion, Sambo is more practical for sporting competitions. For MMA it is more practical to learn no-gi Jiu-Jitsu.”
Part of Arlovski’s skepticism centers on Sambo’s one inherent weakness: The sport bans chokes and strangles. This produces a fighter who isn’t concerned about his opponent’s achieving a rear mount, and who therefore doesn’t learn how to defend against it. It’s Sambo’s Achilles heel and the major factor that limits the style’s applicability to MMA.
The emergence of MMA has diminished the luster of Sambo, but you won’t hear any complaints from the steadfast Russians who promoted it. They’ll tell you it was never meant to be a sport, that competition Sambo is merely a by-product of its superior combat form. It was always destined to prove its mettle on the battlefi elds and back alleys of WWII and the Cold War. It’s an art that will endure because its victories happen away from the lights and crowds, and because its legacy is cemented in the countless lives it’s saved. It’s an art form that will continue to be relevant and efficient, no matter what name you call it.