From The Martial Arts Encyclopedia

Sambo is a modern Russian martial art, combat sport and self-defense system developed in the former Soviet Union.

The word Sambo is an acronym for SAMoabarona Bez Oruzhiyem, meaning "self-defense without weapons" in Russian. Sambo has its roots in traditional Russian folk wrestling with heavy influence from Judo and Jujutsu. Sambo is one of the four main forms of amateur competitive wrestling practiced internationally today, alongside Greco-Roman Wrestling, Freestyle wrestling and Judo.

Sambo was a demonstration sport at the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. However, due to Western boycotts resulting from the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it failed to garner sufficient audience numbers and has not been seen at the Olympics since.

There is dispute as to who initially created Sambo. Anatoly Kharlampiev is regarded by many as the founder. Two other major figures in the development of Sambo were Vasili Oschepkov, the first ever European to earn a black belt in Judo, and Viktor Spiridonov, who originally developed Sambo as a soft, Aikido-like system since he was maimed in his left shoulder from a bayonet wound in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905.

Versions of Sambo

Although it was originally a single system, there are now three generally recognized versions of Sambo:

  • Sport Sambo is similar to Judo but with some differences, such as that Sambo allows all types of leg locks, while not allowing chokeholds.
  • Self-defense Sambo is based on self-defense application, such as defending against attacks by both armed and unarmed attackers.
  • Combat Sambo is utilized and developed by the Russian military. This includes practice with weapons and disarming techniques. Competition in combat sambo resembles older forms of Judo and modern Mixed Martial Arts in that it includes striking.


A Sambo practitioner normally wears either a red or blue kurtka (jacket), a belt and shorts of the same color, and sambovki (Sambo shoes).

History of Sambo

The founders of Sambo borrowed extensively from all of the world’s martial arts to create what they hoped would be the best possible military hand-to-hand combat system. One of these men, Vasili Oschepkov, taught Judo and Karate to elite Red Army units. He earned his nidan (second degree black belt) from Judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano, and used some of the founder's philosophy in creating the earliest version of this new martial art.

Sambo was developed from native Russian and other regional styles of grappling and wrestling, augmented by concepts and techniques from the rest of the world. The foreign influences include various styles of European Wrestling styles, Japanese Jujutsu, and other martial arts of the day plus the classical Olympic sports of boxing, Greco-Roman Wrestling and freestyle wrestling. Sambo even includes lunging and parrying techniques from Italian scherma fencing.

Sambo’s early development was based on integrating the techniques of Judo into native Soviet and Russian wrestling styles. Spiridonov's background included indigenous styles of Russian martial art. He structured his "soft-style" as a result of the bayonet wound he suffered during the Russo-Japanese war which left his left arm crippled. Spiridonov also fought on the eastern front in World War I. His background included Greco-Roman wrestling, Freestyle wrestling, and many Slavic wrestling styles. He also traveled throughout Mongolia and China studying the native fighting and wrestling styles of those cultures.

In 1923, Oschepkov and Spiridinov collaborated with a team of experts to improve the Red Army’s hand-to-hand combat system. Spiridonov wanted to integrate all of the world’s fighting systems into one comprehensive style that would be adaptable and effective in any and every situation. Oschepkov had personally witnessed Jigoro Kano’s distillation of Tenjin Shin’yo Ryu Jujutsu and Kito Ryu Jujutsu into Judo, and so had the needed experience to integrate different combative techniques into a new system. Their team was supplemented by Anatoly Kharlampiev, who had also traveled all around the world learning many different martial arts.

Spiridonov was the first to actually call the new system "Sambo." He eventually developed a softer, more Aikido-like system called Samoz designed to be used by smaller, weaker practitioners or even wounded soldiers. Spiridonov’s development of Samoz stemmed from his injury which severely limited his physical abilities.

Each technique in Sambo was carefully studied and dissected. The best techniques of Jujutsu and its softer cousin, Judo, were integrated into Sambo. Sambo’s single and ultimate goal is to stop an armed or unarmed attacker in the least amount of time needed.

Sambo practitioners

  • Fedor Emelianenko- World Combat Sambo Champion and Russian Combat Sambo Champion. He is widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound mixed martial arts fighter and is the current heavyweight champion in the PRIDE Fighting Championships in Japan.
  • Aleksandr Emelianenko- Fedor's younger brother, two-time Russian National Sambo Champion, and two-time World Sambo Champion.
  • Vladimir Putin- President of Russia (2000-2008), a black belt in both Sambo and Judo.
  • Oleg Taktarov- UFC 6 Champion and UFC '95 Ultimate Tournament finalist.
  • Igor Yakimov- World Judo Champion, as well as a World Sport Sambo Champion and a medalist at the Combat Sambo World Championships.
  • Sergei Kharitonov- a PRIDE Fighting Championship competitor.
  • Megumi Fuji- a currently undefeated female MMA fighter, affectionately known as the 'Princess of Sambo'.
  • Andrei Arlovski- former UFC heavyweight champion, former Junior World Sambo Champion.
  • Lance Campbell- Sport Sambo World Champion. One of only eight grapplers selected to compete in the Ultimate Submission Showdown.
  • James "Chico" Hernandez- World Cup Vice-Champion, US National Sambo Champion and British Sambo medalist.
  • Scott Sonnon- Distinguished Master of Sports in Sambo, nominated as the "Pioneer of American Sambo", World Sambo Games Vice-Champion, USA Grand National and Pan-American Sambo Champion, and USA National Sambo Team Coach.Scott Sonnon USA Dojo