In today’s combat sports world, every martial art gets asked the question. Is it good for MMA? Each martial art has something to lend to MMA fighters, but some styles, like the Russian system of sambo, provide a more robust skillset.
Sambo is effective in MMA because it teaches a variety of takedowns, throws, trips, and submissions taken from other martial arts and has proven effective. And in its combat version, sambo comes close to actual MMA, and the transition is easier than in any other martial art.
Sambo, much like MMA, is a hybrid system, and we will look at how it came to be and how it is used in MMA today.
Sambo was created in the 1920s in the Soviet Union to create a combat system for the servicemen of the Red Army. The name is an acronym for “self-defense without weapons” in Russian.
The independent efforts of two men created Sambo’s base. One of them was Viktor Spiridonov, a World War I veteran and a proficient scholar and practitioner of various forms of wrestling and other martial arts.
Spiridonov aimed to combine effective techniques from other martial arts into a new, highly effective hand-to-hand combat system.
At the same time, a man called Vasili Oshchepkov was educated in Japan. He studied judo from its creator, Jigoro Kano, during Tsarist Russia.
He became the first Russian to earn a black belt in judo, awarded by Master Kano himself. Returning to Russia, Oshchepkov began teaching judo there and integrated it with the military hand-to-hand combat training.
Spiridonov and Oshchepkov never cooperated, but students of theirs cross-trained and exchanged knowledge and skills.
Finally, in 1938, thanks to the efforts of a student of Oshchepkov, Anatoly Kharlampiyev, systematized the style and emphasized its Russian roots. Sambo was declared the national combat sport of the Soviet Union by the USSR Spots committee.
Sambo is still very popular in Russia and some former Soviet bloc countries. There are academies worldwide, but the rise of MMA overshadows their popularity.
Is Sambo Good For MMA?
The good thing about MMA is that it has been a proving ground for styles and techniques since the beginning. Sambo is one of those styles that, while not hugely popular worldwide, has created some of the best fighters to enter the MMA cage.
What makes sambo effective is that it was created by the same principles that led to the creation of MMA, which is maximum effectiveness in a realistic scenario.
At its core, Sambo is a grappling martial art. It employs a large arsenal of wrestling takedowns, judo throws and trips, and various other methods to take down the opponent, all blended in such a way that Sambo becomes its own entity rather than a mishmash of “stolen techniques.”
Another key component of the effectiveness of martial arts for MMA and self-defense, for that matter, is the hardness of training and competition. Sambo is a full-contact sport and features full-force sparring and wrestling, another aspect that makes it good for MMA.
The Russian martial art has two main styles: sports sambo and combat sambo. Sports sambo is a pure grappling art with no strikes that resembles judo.
However, sambo has fewer restrictions in the rules, especially on legal takedowns, making it a bit more effective for MMA than its more famous Japanese forefather.
Sambo truly shines as a base for MMA in its combat form, which at first glance looks like an MMA match on a wrestling mat where fighters wear uniforms.
Unlike the sports version, combat sambo incorporates punches, kicks, knees, elbows, headbutts, and nearly all other available submissions on the human body. The ruleset of combat sambo still heavily favors grappling, so sambists become masters of transitioning from strikes to takedowns.
The brutality of combat sambo is not surprising when you consider its origins. It was created as a lethally effective system for the special army and police units like the Speznaz and, until the late 1980s, was not taught to the general public.
It was only in the 1990s that it became widely popular and started having competitions.
As a hybrid style that collected and systematized techniques from other martial arts, it’s difficult to pinpoint specific techniques that we can undoubtedly say are from “sambo.” But I will list a few that have become a trademark of sambo fighters.
The Uchi Mata is a judo move, but sambists are masters of it as well. On top of that, training without the kurtka (top of the sambo uniform) is quite common in sambo. Meaning that practitioners learn to do a lot of techniques without the help of a top, making them practical for MMA as well.
Here is how to flawlessly execute an Uchi Mata without gi from a variety of positions:
We continue with the throws from the clinch, which are the best weapons in a sambist takedown arsenal. Fedor Emelianenko used a lot of headlocks and underhook throws throughout his career. There are many ways to throw or trip the opponent, and sambo players are excellent at many.
Here are some very effective ways that work in MMA as well:
While the throws we listed are very common in judo, the Japanese sport bans leg locks while allowed in sambo. If we have to name one technique that sambo is famous for, it’s got to be leg locks.
Leg locks are essential in grappling and have even changed no-gi BJJ dramatically in the last few years, becoming increasingly popular. Still, sambo players were master leg lockers long before they became fashionable.
Here is a lengthy leg lock instructional for those of you who want to dive deeper into the subject:
Fedor Emelianenko is considered by many to be the heavyweight GOAT of MMA. Emelianenko went undefeated in 28 straight fights from 2001 to 2010, fighting against the toughest heavyweights of his time and winning numerous accolades. Fedor came from a combat sambo background and has 3 world titles.
Aside from having a steel brick head, the Last Emperor was a true master of blending heavy punches and grappling.
He entered into distance with vicious punches and grabbed hold of his opponent from where he employed a variety of takedowns, dragging them into his waters. And don’t let his looks fool you. Emelianenko had a bear-like strength both in his striking and grappling.
Here is a very cool breakdown of Fedor’s skillset:
The former UFC lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, made a mark on MMA that few can match. The Eagle hung up the gloves undefeated at 29-0 and took part in some of the most significant battles in the history of MMA.
The Dagestani won two world combat sambo championships and had a firm stance on the effectiveness of sambo against BJJ. We all remember his t-shirt “If sambo were easy, it would be called jiu-jitsu.”
He was the UFC’s most dominant wrestler, seamlessly blending many different types of takedowns and throws, which he attributed to his sambo background. Half-jokingly called “smesh,” his fighting style left his opponents dominated, broken, and beaten in the octagon.
Before Fedor Emelianenko crashed the MMA scene, the initial Russian heavyweight annihilator was named Oleg Taktarov. He was a sports pioneer, and most younger MMA fans won’t know of him, but Taktarov was a sambo practitioner and a judo black belt. When he won the UFC 6 tournament by 3 straight first-round submissions, American fans first learned about sambo.
Sambo is very effective for MMA because it was created by gathering different effective techniques into one system, just like mixed martial arts are. Sambo’s extensive takedown and submission game make it an excellent base for MMA fighters. But just like with other styles, you must make adjustments before matching the rules and dynamics of an MMA fight.