What Sambo & BJJ Can Learn From Each Other

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Sambo is one of the most well rounded, well researched, combat tested and professionally organized martial arts on the planet, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu could learn much from this Soviet-born style of grappling. 

Written by guest contributor Daniël Bertina

'Movement first, technique second…'


We live in a time where Brazilian jiu-jitsu schools can be found on nearly every street corner in California. Every week a flashy new kimono brand is being launched, and the social media masses are proudly proclaiming their #bjjlifestyle. It's sometimes hard to imagine other grappling styles even exist, such is the dominance of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. But for every berimbolo enthusiast, there is a sambo player perfecting ways to throw you on your head and snap your limbs.

Sambo has a massive international tournament scene, overseen by governing body FIAS, and several sambo fighters dominate in MMA competition (think of fighters Khabib Nurmagomedov and Fedor Emilianenko, and -- for the old schoolers among you -- no holds barred pioneer Oleg Taktarov). 

Stephen Koepfer, head instructor of New York Combat Sambo and co-founder of the American Sambo Association, talks about how the arts of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Sambo can strengthen each other. 

FloGrappling: What are the roots of sambo?

Stephen Koepfer: Like all martial arts, there is always a bit of myth involved. But the general story is that in the early years of the 20th century, two officers in the Soviet Union were appointed to devise a form of empty hand combat for military purposes. The founders -- Viktor Spiridonov and Vasili Oshchepkov -- created sambo, an acronym for SAMozashchita Bez Orushiya: literally 'self defense without weapons', blending Japanese judo and jiu-jitsu, catch-as-catch-can, freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, and a dozen or so native Eastern bloc wrestling styles. 
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Some of the techniques were taken from books. On other occasions soldiers and law enforcement personnel were debriefed after raids about the moves they used, and sometimes they even sent observers along to take notes. In any case, sambo became the Soviet system of unarmed, no-rules fighting; all about incapacitating the other guy as quickly as possible, taking what works and disregarding what doesn't. 

FG: What are the differences between sport, combat and military sambo?

SK: Sambo started as a combative fighting style for soldiers and police officers. Then they realized -- thanks to the influence of judo -- that there should also be a competitive sport version of the art to sharpen their skills. 

In 1938, Sambo was codified and became a regulated sport of grappling with a jacket (called a kurtka). At a glance it looks similar to judo, but with leg locks. You can win by submission -- although chokes aren't allowed -- throw, or points scored; for instance, by pins.

At a glance it looks similar to judo, but with leg locks. You can win by submission -- although chokes aren't allowed -- throw, or points scored; for instance, by pins
This was called sport sambo, and the military system was then referred to as combat sambo. Here's where it gets confusing: around the year 2000 they also started to formalize a sport version of combat sambo -- with punches, kicks, elbows, knees, headbutts and groin strikes, so then they started calling the original style 'military' sambo to differentiate between those three expressions of the art. 

Most people just call everything sambo. The most popular version is sport sambo. And no, there isn't an official no-kurtka sambo tournament -- it's straight-up jacket wrestling with no belt ranks or skill divisions. The only categories are weight and age, so you have to come prepared, because you might draw a world champion in the first round of your first ever tournament. 

FG: What is sambo's biggest strength?

A good sambo coach will give you a framework like a specific drill or game, and whatever you do within that framework is up to you. My coach would always say: 'Teach movement first, technique second'. We would be doing a lot of movement drills, solo and with a partner, and flow rolling. It was all about first building a physical relationship with another human being, and the ground.

I kind of laughed when I saw an interview recently with Conor McGregor's coach talking about how this movement based approach is so innovative and new, and that nobody has been doing this in fighting. Sambo has been training like this for years
Another strength of sambo is that, from the beginning, we've always worked on transitional moments. Flowing from strikes to throw, from throw to ground, from ground to submission. Keeping that whole chain of movement fluid. I kind of laughed when I saw an interview recently with Conor McGregor's coach talking about how this movement based approach is so innovative and new, and that nobody has been doing this in fighting. Sambo has been training like this for years, the general public just doesn't know about it. 

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FG: How can BJJ and sambo benefit from each other? 

SK: Just from my own experience, cross-training with BJJ has really improved my understanding of guard-based techniques, both in passing on top and attacking from the bottom. That's definitely not as evolved in sambo. And of course BJJ has way more sophisticated chokes.

Sambo chokes are rudimentary and nowhere near as intricate. That also due to the way the kurtka works, you can't choke someone using the lapel, because the belt goes through the jacket and it never opens up. You will never see worm guard in sambo. Coincidentally, that's the reason why Sambo guys got so good at belt throws, because the belt always stays tied. 

You can't choke someone using the lapel, because the belt goes through the jacket and it never opens up. You will never see worm guard in sambo

In terms of what BJJ can learn from us, obviously it's the leg locks, aside from the throws and transitions I mentioned earlier. It's pretty cool to see all the inverted stuff and the rolling leg attacks in no-gi grappling nowadays. Sambo has been doing that for decades. People were telling us those were bullshit and would never work, now it's super popular. 

I do have to say that strategies are always dictated by rules. In BJJ you aren't allowed to reap the knee, which makes a lot of leg attacks harder to pull off. And in sambo it's not permitted to close your guard (you can actually get pinned from the closed guard and lose on points) and there's limited time on the mat. Those rules all have consequences for the sambo groundwork, making it short and aggressive. 

FG: Who's the Rickson Gracie of sambo?

SK: David Rudman is one of the kings. He's a multiple-time Soviet champion who was beating the Japanese in their own sport of judo back in the 1960's. Igor Kurinnoy is another legend, a multiple-time world champion and Russian national champion. There might be guys that have won more tournaments, but Kurinnoy is considered to be the most technical living sambo fighter. That man is a warrior/scholar if I ever knew one. He's a PhD in sport science, a former scientist in the cosmonaut programme, and right now he's in charge of overseeing the development of sambo fighters in the Moscow region. Quite a dude. 

And then of course there's Fedor Emilianenko. He's actually more known for MMA and combat sambo, not so much in sport sambo. 

FG: Do you think Sambo will ever become as hip as BJJ?


SK: I hope not! Most of that 'lifestyle' stuff is just marketing and spin. I don't think sambo will ever be as big as BJJ in the United States. BJJ had the head start, capitalizing on the great success of the UFC, and I think we might've missed the boat on that one. That's okay. We'll just keep training and competing with everyone. 

Stephen Koepfer is co-founder and former president of the American Sambo Association. He is the head instructor at New York Combat Sambo. Follow him on Twitter.

Daniël Bertina is a journalist and writer from The Netherlands. He is a black belt in BJJ under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Team. Follow him on Twitter.

​Sambo Quick Facts​

• Created in the Soviet Union, early 1920's
• Estimated 300,000 practitioners of sambo in Russia 
• Governing body: Sambo International Federation (FIAS), operating in nearly 100 countries 
• Known for ruthless throws and takedowns, leg attacks, aggressive transitions, mobility training 

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