What Makes Sambo So Dominant

Table of Contents

The Russian martial art of sambo has taken the martial arts world by storm and for good reason as many top MMA fighters and champions come from a sambo background, fighters like Khabib Nurmagomedov, Fedor Emilianenko, Andre Arlovski, Oleg Taktarov, Islam Makhachev, Alexander Emelianenko and many more are using sambo to dominate the competition in the cage and ring.

Sambo is an extremely effective martial art that is a complete martial art as well, it’s techniques can easily be added to other grappling arts and you should seriously consider learning some sambo as it can only increase the total effectiveness of your personal grappling style.

How Was Sambo Created?

Sambo in Russian stands for samozashchita bez oruzhiya which literally translates to ‘self defense without weapons’. It was originally created for the battlefield to be used by the Red Army against its enemies in the case a soldier lost their weapon and needed to defend themselves.

The founders of sambo are Viktor Spiridonov and Vasili Oshchepkov (Oshchepkov had spent several years in Japan studying Judo under Jigoro Kano) and were tasked with creating this highly effective Russian martial art.

Russian Sambo Stamp
Russian Sambo Stamp

The founders both came from very heavy martial arts backgrounds and made a new hybrid martial art that was a compilation of wrestling styles of the Soviet Union and martial arts such as Judo, Jujutsu, Freestyle Wrestling, Greco-Roman Wrestling, Catch Wrestling. In essence the Sambo created by Oshchepkov and Spiridonov was a fusion of Judo, Japanese jujutsu, Karate, Turkic folkstyle wrestling styles and modern wrestling.

It should be noted that during his time in Japan, Oshchepkov recognized Kano’s mixing of several martial arts to create Judo which definitely had an impact on his understanding on what martial arts and techniques would be best to combine together.

There was yet another key figure in the development of Sambo, Anatoly Kharlampiyev who would be considered the father of modern sambo. Kharlampiyev spent a decade travelling the world and studying martial arts and wrestling styles to create the framework for sport sambo.

Why Does Sambo Have so Many Leg Locks

Sambo has an abnormal amount of leg locks and this was for good reason. Sambo originally being for the military was developed with an interesting military strategy which was that if you could badly injure an enemy soldier so they would not be able to move, it would take military manpower to help move the injured soldier for medical treatment, generally another 2 soldiers would be needed to move the injured soldier. This created the opportunity to tie up the other army’s resources more effectively and in essence turn what was a simple means of self defence to a method of tiring an enemy army’s resources.

As decades passed there were more and more leg locks and knee bars being developed by sambo. It should be noted that heel hooks and toe holds are not allowed in any FIAS Sambo competition (FIAS is the world body for Sambo) yet it is not uncommon to see Samboists being extremely proficient in these leglocks as well.

Sambo Leg Lock Battle
Sambo Leg Lock Battle

Why is Sambo so Effective?

Sambo is an extremely effective fighting system, we have seen this in many a MMA competition where Sambo practitioners often dominate their opponents in devastating fashion.

So why is the art of sambo wrestling so effective, well it comes down to these reasons:

Sambo Allows All Grips and Takedowns

Samboists wear a heavy jacket called a Kurtka, it is similar to a judo gi but has 2 main differences that should be noted. The first is the kurtka has loops to place your belt in, this helps with gaining proper leverage in gripping the belt for throws (which are common in sambo). The second is heavy seams on the shoulder with what looks like a piece of the collar to grab on.

These 2 differences already open up many more grips and thus many more ways to takedown an opponent.

Sambo also allows the attacking of the legs in a throw, much like what you see in freestyle wrestling, samboists can shoot for a double and single leg as well as create opportunities off their upper body grip on the kurtka in order to open the legs for a takedown.

Sambo throw fight
2 Sambo Fighters

Another amazing speciality of sambo is the fact that due to it’s being influenced by many folkstyle jacket and belt wrestling styles, there are many unorthodox grips that are not seen in other arts, some of the are specific grips on the opponents belt and even reaching over the opponent’s shoulder to grab their back or belt to initiate the throw and takedown (called the Georgian grip).

Sambo practitioners generally have an edge in MMA grappling, especially when it comes to takedowns for the fact that because they use a kurtka yet are allowed all takedowns and throws, their stance is generally higher than wrestlers for example. This means that implementing proper striking techniques mixed with takedown techniques is much smoother as the stance is more or less the same height.

A Different Type of Ippon in Sambo

Unlike Judo, Sambo does not have an ippon similar to Judo. Sambo has something called a “Total Victory” which a Samboist can only get it if they remain on their feet after the throw, this means they can’t fall on the opponent or roll through the throw if they want to end the match with one move. Another method to attain a total victory is to score 8-0 or higher in a match, which equivilates to Judo’s technical ippon.

The goal of any sambo match is to either win by points, total victory, submission or in the case of combat sambo – the knockout.

Sambo Medalist
Tariel Abbasov Sambo

Due to this type of Sambo total victory, the fights end up with more scrambling involved as well as much better overall understanding of the transition between the throw and the ground fight. This creates an incredibly fast paced match with non-stop action as the worry of giving up an ippon is much less prevalent than it is in Judo as well as a fighter can always scramble out of a bad position should the throw not be a total victory throw.

Sambo And The Transition Between Combat Ranges

If there is one factor that has made Sambo the dangerous art that it is, it would be the fact that due to the fact that all ranges of a fight are within a sambo match (especially combat sambo) and the fact the samboist has the ability to grab the kurtka at any time makes them truly master not only the ranges of combat but the transition between ranges.

A great example is if you take combat sambo’s striking in comparison to a striking art like muay thai, combat sambo is fully allowed to grab and hold the opponent without the threat of the referee breaking the fighters apart, this enables a huge amount of experience to be gained in both dirty boxing and truly fighting for the throw in a striking environment (which has direct benefits to MMA).

In terms of the grappling aspect, due to the fact that opponents can quickly attack both highline and lowline takedowns off of the kurtka and the ability to scramble off of a takedown, you will find that a huge amount of victories come from the samboist who takes advantage of the transition between standing and the ground as well as from ground back to standing.

Take all this experience in full range combat and place it into MMA and you get a highly formidable opponent.

Leg Locks and Arm Locks, No Choke and No Closed Guard

Sambo Arm Lock
Sambo Arm Lock

One of the elements that Sambo has that enables it to be fast paced is the fact that there is no real use of the closed guard as it can be used to pin, the closed guard was not allowed in Sambo until recently, so it is not common to see it being used. While there are drawbacks to the absence of the closed guard there are also benefits such as the development of scrambling skills, the development of faster submissions and the ability to attack the legs for leg locks in a much easier fashion.

Another prohibited technique in sport sambo is the choke although the choke is allowed in combat and freestyle sambo and widely used. It is important to understand that submissions in sambo are very fast and there is not much stalling as seen with other grappling arts such as BJJ.

Ultimately these rules produce athletic attributes which can be seen in the way sambo fighters play the submission game on the ground, which is fast and no nonsense with high percentage submissions.

Combat Sambo

Long before MMA there was combat sambo, the original MMA and a very fast, explosive, technical and highly competitive version of sambo that is very effective for combat.

Combat Sambo Match
Combat Sambo

In combat sambo, fighters wear little gloves, the kurtka (one fighter wears blue and one fighter wears red), head gear and protective shin guards. The opponents can strike in any manner, headbutts are allowed and fights can often be very action packed. Combat sambo fighters can also throw and go for submissions as well as strike on the ground. It is a truly wonderful combat art that develops world class fighters.

No Gi Sambo / Sambo Without a Kurtka

Sambo can be also done without a kurtka, yes there are fewer grips as with the kurtka but due to the fact that samboists can takedown opponents with low line takedowns there is a great transition to no gi grappling and submission wrestling. We have seen fighters like Fedor Emeianenko and Khabib Nurmagomedov toss opponents around with throws and takedowns like the inside trip and have had no issue transforming their sambo skills to the cage.

The best part of no gi sambo vs no gi bjj is the fact that the sambo fighter has an incredible amount of tools in the standup game while in bjj there is still some absence of a proper takedown game in most competitors without the addition of auxiliary arts like wrestling and judo.

Final Thoughts

There is no doubt that we will continue to see sambo fighters be a force to reckon with in MMA, as well as we will see more sambo mixed in with other grappling arts such as bjj, which if done correctly, would be a truly amazing spectacle to see.

No matter how you look at it, Sambo truly is an amazing martial art. Any grappler can benefit with adding sambo wrestling into their grappling game. You should definitely look at learning sambo as it will only compliment your grappling and fight game.


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