As it turned out, he was fascinated with what took place on the mat and stayed for most of the tournament. Since this was sambo and not the far more popular and better-known sports of baseball, basketball or football (and I imagine the reporter wasn’t too high up on the food chain in the newsroom at the time by getting this assignment), the local newspaper ran a small, perfunctory article in the back of the sports section in the morning edition the next day. But what that young reporter wrote in his opening sentence of his brief story has stayed with me ever since. He wrote; “Sambo is not for the faint of heart.”

He was right. Sambo isn’t for the faint of heart, or for the faint of body for that matter. It’s one of the most technically rich and diverse, as well as physically demanding sports ever devised. Sambo is a tough sport practiced by tough men and women. It’s a demanding fighting sport that either makes the best out of you or takes the best from you.

Almost every culture on this planet has its own form of wrestling or fighting and it was the culture of the people who made up what was then the Soviet Union that gave birth to the rugged sport of sambo. Sambo was born in the old Soviet Union and its roots are steeped in the social fabric of the diverse people who lived in the republics that made up the Soviet Union during that time. It’s a demanding fighting sport that either makes the best out of you or takes the best from you. Many people consider sambo to be the most demanding grappling sport that has ever been devised.

Coming out of Stalin’s regime in the old Soviet Union, sambo has stood the test of time, world events and the evolution of combat sports to make a huge and lasting impact. Sambo has altered how many people in judo, jujitsu, mixed martial arts and other fighting sports have looked at these martial arts and has been a catalyst for innovative technical change in just about every fighting sport or art that has come in contact with it. I know that my first sport, judo, has been changed forever (and for the better in my opinion) because of sambo’s influences.

Essentially, sambo places emphasis on fast-paced, powerful and functional throwing techniques and equally fast-paced, powerful and functional groundfighting techniques. Fitness is a key component in a sambo wrestler’s arsenal and serves as the foundation for technical and tactical superiority. There are two basic versions of sambo. One is Combat Sambo that emphasizes self-defense and resembles mixed martial arts in sambo jackets. The other is called Borba Sambo, or grappling-based sambo.

Philosophical and Technical Foundation

Sambo’s early technical theories were based largely on Kodokan Judo, but theories and techniques from other martial arts and fighting styles, both native to the Soviet republics and from outside the Soviet Union were also included. Vasili Oshchepkov, one of the men who initially developed what later became known as sambo, trained in Japan under judo’s founder Jigoro Kano. Oshchepkov didn’t hide the fact that judo was the basis for the new form of grappling combat he developed and he lost his life for it.

A victim of Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s, Oshchepkov died in a Soviet prison accused of being a Japanese sympathizer and spy, but it is believed by many people that he was arrested because of the credit he gave judo for sambo’s early technical development instead of claiming it was purely a Soviet invention. But, Oshchepkov (as well as Viktor Spiridonov and others) put into motion the philosophical and technical foundation that remains to this day. While judo was the initial martial discipline that Oshchepkov studied, he, Viktor Spiridonov and their collaborators and students traveled across the Soviet Union taking the best they could find from the many regional wrestling styles they encountered.

As a result of this research and development, the fighting discipline that had no formal name other than being called “judo” or “freestyle wrestling” by Oshpechkov and “samoz” by Spiridonov (until the Soviet government officially named the sport sambo) evolved and took on a form and personality all its own. It was Anatoli Kharlampiev, the man recognized as the “father of sambo” and a student of Oshchepkov, Spiridonov (as well as other early pioneers) who gave this form of personal combat a name and gained for it formal recognition by the Soviet government on November 16, 1938.

When Soviet athletes first appeared on the international scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they changed the way sport was done—any sport.  Their training methods were considered the best in the world at that time.  The Soviet Union was, among other things, a sports machine that cranked out world-class athletes every year, seemingly getting better every year until the wall came crumbling down, both literally and figuratively. The Soviet Union wanted to make a political statement and one of the ways they made it was through their athletes in the world of international sport. Where better than on the world stage of the Olympic Games? The Soviet sports machine, born after the ruins of World War II, was introduced to the world in the 1950s and early 1960s and since sambo wasn’t an Olympic sport, the next best things were judo and wrestling. The 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan served as the stage for the world’s first look at sambo when a team of sambo/judo men from the Soviet Union competed in the Olympic judo event. The Soviets entered four athletes and won four bronze medals, placing second as a team behind Japan. The initial exposure of this strange form of grappling certainly changed the way everyone did any form of wrestling or grappling ever since those sambo men walked onto that judo mat in Tokyo.

New to the World Stage

The unusual, yet effective, throws that the sambo men in the 1960s were doing in international judo tournaments had not ever been seen on the world stage before. In addition, these sambo grapplers seemed to have a sixth sense on how to get an opponent, almost any opponent, into some kind of armlock. These Soviet sambo men meant business. They didn’t care about the aesthetics of any given throw, hold or submission technique. They simply cared about the functional aspect of how to go about beating any and every opponent they faced. And, not only that, these guys were in shape. Their fitness levels were superb and because they were so physically dominating, they made their technical execution of their unusual skills even more effective and impressive.

These Soviet sambo wrestlers didn’t approach judo the way the Japanese (or pretty much anyone else) did. The sambo men didn't train to perfect a technique, as was the accepted Japanese (and world) view of judo.  Instead, these sambo men trained to become proficient with techniques in a variety of situations.  Emphasizing utility over aesthetics, they molded the technique to work for them and had no qualms about changing a move to make it work for their own body type or weight class. In the seclusion and isolation of the Soviet regime, the sport of sambo developed into a mature and efficient combat sport parallel to the development of the sport of judo, rooted in the technical concepts of Kodokan Judo with influences of wrestling styles from throughout the Soviet empire. In reality, sambo was the Soviet Union’s counterpart to judo during that period of history.

To the Soviets who invented sambo, and to the exponents all over the world who practice the sport, sambo is considered one of many styles of wrestling or grappling or fighting available. The sports of judo, freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling, or any of the traditional folk styles of wrestling found anywhere in the world are, to the sambo exponent’s way of thinking, fundamentally similar. The major differences are simply in the rules of the sport and the emphasis each sport may place on specific techniques or tactics. A good throw is a good throw, no matter what sport it’s done in, who does it or what type of garment is worn. The same thing can be said about an armlock, hold or any other technical skill. The emphasis, in every case, is that the skill is done in a functionally efficient and effective manner.

For many years following the Second World War, sambo was the primary wrestling style in the Soviet Union and the other styles of international wrestling and judo were secondary to their native sport of sambo. This is why sambo so greatly influenced the way the Soviets did judo, freestyle wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling for many years and why sambo has made such a lasting impression on anyone who participates in wrestling, judo or grappling today. Sambo wrestlers who participate in the many mixed martial arts events popular today prove that sambo places emphasis on both skill and fighting ability. Again, as said earlier, sambo isn’t for the faint of heart.

Resurgence of Sambo

When sambo wasn’t selected as a demonstration sport in the 1980 Moscow Olympics or the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the sport began to decline in popularity. However, there has been a real resurgence in the last few years and many new people are training in sambo today. Sambo’s new-found popularity is (to a great degree) the result of sambo men who have done well in the various mixed martial arts events held all over the world in recent years. Much like its initial rise in popularity back in the 1960s when the Soviet sambo men took the judo world by storm, a younger generation of sambo athletes is winning in the new international sporting event of mixed martial arts.

Sambo, by its very nature, is an eclectic and wide-open approach to mat combat. Embracing a philosophy of effectiveness over beauty, it is no wonder that grapplers, fighters and wrestlers all over the world have discovered that sambo is worth learning.

The above is an article by Steve Scott, author of The Sambo Encyclopedia: Comprehensive Throws, Holds, and Submission Techniques, Pub Date November 2019, by YMAA Publication Center, ISBNL 978-1-59439-6557