Sambo

Classic Black Belt Article From 1967: Russia Prepares to Export Sambo (Part 3)

Despite the aforementioned similarities between sambo and judo, there are plenty of dissimilarities. For one thing, the sambo jacket is shorter and worn tighter than its judo counterpart, and it has special loops to hold the belt in place. And the belts, which come in green and red, aren’t used as a sign of rank but merely to distinguish one opponent from another. From the waist down, the clothing is largely influenced by Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling. Instead of trousers, trunks are worn, as are shoes like those used in amateur wrestling.

One amusing incident reveals that there’s still an interchange of ideas between sambo and judo. Japanese sambo men had been wearing their traditional judo gi while practicing the Russian sport. However, they decided that the Russian-style jacket, with its belt loops, was “more rational” because it held the belt in place and made continuous adjustments unnecessary. They ordered several dozen jackets from the Soviet Union. Much to their surprise, the jackets they received weren’t equipped with belt loops. It seems the Soviets had concluded that the Japanese jacket without loops was simpler and “more rational” than their own and had started making them that way.

Fight Strategies

There are other differences between the sports. The sambo grips are more varied than the usual sleeve and collar grips of judo. As in sumo, the belt is a favorite hold for sambo stylists, while that’s not permitted in judo. Typical grips in sambo include those on the back of the jacket, the front or back of the belt, and the traditional sleeve and collar.

Reverse joint-pressure holds form a vital part of the sambo mat repertoire. The ankle, knee, wrist and elbow are the usual objects of attack, while the neck and fingers are ruled out. Ankle or wrist twisting is also disallowed because it’s too dangerous.

Pressure holds are applied to intensify pain and force one person to submit by crying out yetsugi or by tapping the mat or the back of his opponent. When this occurs, the aggressor is declared the winner.

Sambo has 60 basic techniques, including those for hand, leg and hip throws. Most of the hand-lift throws originated in wrestling rather than judo. This is borne out by some comparisons. For instance, Michiaki notes that for the past 30 years, tripping has played a decisive role in 70 percent of judo bouts. But in sambo, wearing wrestling shoes prevents the excessive use of the feet. Thus, many judo-style foot sweeps and trips can’t be used. That forces sambo stylists to go more with hand techniques.

Always a Winner

The equivalent of ippon is awarded for a clean throw. Single points and half points are given for less-than-perfect throws. There are three ways to win a match: by ippon, by forcing an opponent to give up because of a painful reverse joint-pressure hold and by collecting a specified number of points.

If the first sambo practitioner gets three points without his opponent registering any, the match is stopped and the former is declared the winner. If, however, the opponent wins even a half point before the first player amasses three points, the latter must win by at least four points for the referee to halt the bout. That is, if the opponent has a half point, the first competitor must get 4-1/2 points before the referee will declare the winner. Otherwise, the two rivals continue to the end of the time limit and the person with the most points wins.

There must always be a winner in sambo. There are no draws or overtime periods. If the two competitors are tied, the winner is decided on the basis of aggressiveness.

A point instead of ippon is given for throws when the aggressor loses his balance afterward or when the throw is otherwise imperfect. A point is also awarded for pinning an opponent for the required 20 seconds, but only one point can be given for pinning in any match.

Warnings are dispensed for violations, and three warnings mean the match has been lost. A sambo player can receive warnings for running away from his opponent, for committing a foul throw, or for executing an illegal throw or hold. No choking is allowed, nor is throwing an opponent onto his head.

Matches are limited to six to seven minutes for youngsters and eight to 10 minutes for adults. Preliminary bouts are usually set at eight minutes and final matches at 10 minutes.

Poised to Expand

More than 300,000 sambo practitioners live in the Soviet Union today, compared to less than 100,000 judoka, and the Russian sport is growing fast. Sambo is taught in school sports programs from the primary grades up, and both boys and girls can receive training. It’s also been incorporated into …

Classic Black Belt Article From 1967: Russia Prepares to Export Sambo (Part 2)

What is this style of sambo that, in such a short time, has produced so many outstanding wrestlers? American judo man Hayward Nishioka, a 1965 U.S. national judo champion, has had experience with sambo-men-turned-judo-players in international competition. He has great respect for their prowess, as he pointed out in an article in Black Belt’s March 1966 issue.

The first thing that impressed him was their overall physical stamina. “Tremendous,” he says.

Next were their throws. “They use a lot of techniques which appear strange to a judo man,” Hayward Nishioka says. “They use techniques that, if you explained them to the Kodokan, you would be told they were impossible. Yet the Russians try these techniques and make them work. It’s really surprising.”

Hayward Nishioka described one technique used by the late Parnaoz Chikviladze, a brilliant Russian judo man, at the world tournament held in Rio de Janeiro in 1965: “He used a throw that I’ve never seen. I don’t think it’s ever been used before in a major tournament. And he pulled it off against a top judo man, not a second-stringer. It’s a little difficult to explain even now.

“While facing his opponent, he went forward, ducked and went between the [legs] with his arm. Then he lifted his opponent and threw him for ippon. Boy, that judoka was surprised.”

Sambo Surprises

The Russians have been coming up with surprises in sambo ever since Anatoly A. Harlampief began developing the art. Wrestling is immensely popular throughout the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Although substyles differ, there are two general styles: those that specialize in standing throws and those in which mat techniques take precedence.

The Soviets take a casual approach to wrestling costumes. In some places, the wrestlers fight bare-chested and clad only in trunks. In others, more elaborate garb is worn, which can consist of a judo-like jacket, black tights and shoes. This latter outfit is the standard uniform for sambo.

When he set out to develop a Soviet wrestling system, Anatoly A. Harlampief scoured the various republics, doing extensive research on techniques in each area. Eventually, he drew up a set of rules and regulations based on his research and submitted it to the National Sports Committee, which officially recognized the new sport.

It was promptly dubbed “sambo,” which is a Russian acronym meaning “self-defense without arms” (sam for “defense”; b for bez, or “without”; and o for “arms”). The first individual contests took place in Leningrad in 1939, and a team contest followed 10 years later.

Judo Connection

Although Anatoly A. Harlampief and other Soviet sports officials deny any direct judo influence, Japan’s foremost sambo authority, Hiroshi Michiaki, points out that judo was being taught in Russia half a century ago, long before sambo was born.

A Russian named A. Oshichenikov visited Japan in 1911 and spent the next six years studying judo. After returning home in 1917 as a second dan, the Russian began teaching the Japanese martial art to the secret police and Red Army. Another Russian, V. Speredonov, started teaching judo in Moscow in 1923 after studying in Japan. Moreover, these two Soviet instructors assisted Anatoly A. Harlampief in drawing up the original sambo program in the 1930s. It seems likely that the influence of the two judo men was felt in creating the original program.

Among the many similarities between sambo and judo is the costume. The sambo jacket and belt are almost exact copies of judo wear. Also, Russian terms for ippon and matta appear to be direct translations from the Japanese words.

Technique Comparison

Another thing often pointed out is that a number of sambo throws seem to be carbon copies of judo techniques. It’s in this sphere that many Japanese martial artists tend to become confused. There are so many similarities, and so many differences, that it’s difficult to keep the two separated. For instance, in one sambo throw, the aggressor rolls backward, putting his feet against his opponent’s midsection before flipping him onto his back. Tomoenage? Perhaps. The technique is close enough to suggest that it might have been borrowed from the Japanese art.

There’s also a thigh throw resembling ouchi gari. In a hip throw similar to tai otoshi, the aggressor uses his right leg as a brace and twists his opponent over the extended leg and onto the mat. And a trip throw in sambo is similar to tsuri-komi-ashi. In mat work, too, there are many similarities. Both sports allow elbow pressure holds and use pretty much the same tactics in pinning an opponent.

Some Japanese sambo enthusiasts even go so far as to claim that the Russian sport is made up of 75-percent judo and 25-percent amateur wrestling techniques, although that percentage for judo seems rather …

Classic Black Belt Article From 1967: Russia Prepares to Export Sambo (Part 1)

In Russia, the name of the game is wrestling. It ranks as the national sport. Soccer, as in the rest of Europe, is also a favorite with the locals, but it’s confined to the big cities. For sheer numbers of participants, no physical pursuit in Russia comes close to wrestling. From European Russia on the west through Oriental Russia on the south, then eastward across thousands of Siberian miles, in small villages and big towns, wrestling is the true king of sports.

With this emphasis on the grappling art, it’s easy to understand why the Soviet Union is the greatest wrestling country in the world. Some nations specialize in certain forms of wrestling in which they excel, like Japan with judo, but no one country has mastered all the various major styles of wrestling and produced champions in them as the Russians have.


The image at the top of this article is from an old Black Belt magazine cover. Wouldn’t it look great framed on your wall?
Start your collection of frame-quality Black Belt cover reprints today!


With the Russians so expert in everyone else’s form of wrestling, it’s surprising that they didn’t develop their own style long ago. That observation occurred some 30 years ago to Anatoly A. Harlampief, a prominent wrestler of the time who’s still active in Moscow sports circles. He decided to do something about it.

Anatoly A. Harlampief came up with an art called sambo, a rugged, fast-moving style of wrestling that employs some of the most freewheeling throws ever seen on or off the mat. He also produced something of a controversy for such a short-lived sport.

Development of Sambo

Sambo appears to be a grab-bag collection of wrestling styles, influenced partly by judo, partly by Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, and partly by something else. That something else is the Russian contribution, made of techniques picked up from amateur wrestling arts practiced in various parts of the nation.

The development of sambo hasn’t finished. The Russians are still experimenting, tinkering with its techniques, and there are frequent rule changes. Even so, a number of wrestlers believe that sambo’s techniques as a whole make for a more rational system of grappling than judo, at least from the Western point of view.

And Russia’s sambo men have shown themselves to be great competitors on mats around the world. Coming out of the sambo tradition, they’ve displayed flexibility in moving between various wrestling styles. For instance, Oleg Stepanov, a national sambo champion in Russia, is also one of the world’s leading judo men, having won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. The same can be said for a dozen other Soviet wrestlers.


Get your FREE Guide to a judo superstar’s tips for effective judo throws!
The Neil Adams Guide to Judo Throws


Since its beginning in the mid-1930s, sambo has experienced a meteoric rise in the Soviet Union. Officially accepted by the National Sports Committee in 1938 as an authentic form of Russian wrestling, it’s grown to the point at which the Soviets are beginning to export the art. It’s already established in Communist Bloc countries in Eastern Europe, especially in Bulgaria and Romania. As part of the drive to internationalize the sport, the Soviet Union has set up the World Sambo Federation.

Sambo in Japan

The non-Communist world got its first close-up look at the sport last summer when a team of Russian sambo men invaded Japan for a series of good-will matches. The Japanese showed an interest in sambo, and in 1965 they set up the Japanese Sambo Federation. The number of Japanese practitioners is small — perhaps only 100 or so — but they’re enthusiastic. Most are former judo men, with some holding high rank.

However, the results of last summer’s matches with the burly Russians showed that Japanese sambo enthusiasts still have a long way to go before they attain the excellence their fellow countrymen have shown in judo. The Russian sambo players crushed the Japanese, winning 14 of 16 matches.

Sambo vs. Judo

The results stand in contrast with a series of matches held three years earlier in Japan. At that time, a group of Russian sambo stylists came to Japan to compete against a group of judo players in judo matches. After a week of intensive study at the Kodokan, the Russians were turned loose against the Japanese, most of whom were either third- or fourth-degree black belts. Showing their flexibility for competing in other styles, several of the Russians proceeded to stack up the opposition.

The Russian sambo men fought the Japanese to a standoff. It wasn’t until the final night and final match that the Japanese were able to eke out an 8-7 win over the visitors. During the tour, Genrikh Shults, a …

Learn 3 Grappling Techniques From UFC Star Chael Sonnen

Chael Sonnen isn’t your typical politician. For one, he actually answered our questions. But more important, the All-American wrestler from Oregon taught us some of the best tricks from his playbook.

Despite his reputation as one of the UFC’s loudest stars, he doesn’t have a bad word to say about any martial art or training. We hope you’ll enjoy his interview with Lito Angeles, a Southern California-based police officer, mixed martial artist and author of Fight Night: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Mixed Martial Arts.

—Jon Sattler

Lito Angeles: I read that you started wrestling at a very young age.

Chael Sonnen: I come from a family of wrestlers—my father, my uncles, my cousins were all very good. I begged my dad to get me into wrestling, but he wanted me to do karate or boxing. Finally, he let me wrestle when I was 9.

Angeles: Did you wind up doing any karate or boxing?

Sonnen: I got into boxing later, but not then.

Angeles: And you stayed with wrestling all the way to the collegiate level, right?

Sonnen: Yes. I wrestled through high school and got a scholarship to the University of Oregon. In 2001 I graduated from college and was working out at a gym in the back of a car lot. There was one mat and nothing else, but Randy Couture and Dan Henderson worked out there every day. It was an hour and a half from where I was living, and I made the drive every single day to wrestle with them. We were all trying to make the Olympic team. They let me in, and it was the three of us. After college, I went back to training with them, and they were wearing MMA gloves. I just put on a pair of gloves and continued practicing.

Angeles: Does that mean you recommend wrestling as the best foundation for MMA?

Sonnen: Well, it has to be some kind of grappling. There’s a statistic: 100 percent of fights start standing up, and 80 percent of them end up on the ground. Jiu-jitsu and wrestling have done really well in MMA, but I don’t know that any form of grappling has been proven to be better.

[ti_billboard name=”Chael Sonnen 1″]

The grass always seems greener—I wish I knew more of other disciplines than wrestling, while other fighters probably wish they knew more wrestling. I wish more judo practitioners participated in MMA.

Angeles: Why?

Sonnen: Jiu-jitsu and catch wrestling are well-represented. All three styles of wrestling, from collegiate to Greco-Roman to freestyle, are, too. I know judo is a good, competitive sport. I wish there was more judo in MMA so I could see how it stacks up.

Angeles: After a student develops a grappling base, do you recommend muay Thai or boxing—or something else?

Sonnen: I’d say boxing. Muay Thai is good, bit it’s very hard to practice. There aren’t a lot of muay Thai guys around—it’s not in high schools or colleges or the Olympics—so it’s hard to find guys to practice with. Elbows are effective, but you can’t do them in practice without hurting someone. Same with knees. With boxing, however, you can put on the gear and find a partner, and it seems to do well in MMA.

Angeles: But then you give up kicks. …

Sonnen: Kicks aren’t as effective in fighting. If you land one, great. You can do good things with it. But kickboxing had to put in a rule that you had to kick a guy three times per round or you’d lose a point. The reason was, guys quit kicking. They just boxed because boxing is more effective. With that said, I spend the majority of my time doing kickboxing and muay Thai. But if I was mentoring a young fighter, I’d tell him to spend more time on boxing. That doesn’t mean I would ignore kickboxing—you still need to learn the defenses—but in stand-up, it’s hard to beat good, solid boxing.

Angeles: How is muay Thai boxing different from Western boxing?

Sonnen: The big difference is head movement. In muay Thai, there’s not a ton of head movement. You use your foot to get the guy off-line, then you step out and sweep his leg to off-balance him. In boxing, you just shift out of the way and use that momentum to come right in and attack. Head movement is so important, especially when you’ve got those little 4-ounce gloves on. If you just land one shot, you can break the guy’s nose, open a cut or knock him out.

Angeles: Does knowing wrestling and boxing cover all the bases with respect to technique, or should a person add other arts like karate or sambo?

Sonnen: I would never close the door. …

Gokor Chivichyan: Fighting Tall Opponents

If you don’t know Gokor, you’re not really into grappling. Disagree all you want, but you can’t dispute the fact that Gokor Chivichyan is the go-to guy for submissions, especially leg locks. He was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame in 1997 as Judo Instructor of the Year, but his curriculum vitae extends so far beyond that art that it’s not even funny. In addition to his ninth-degree black belt in judo, he holds a sixth degree in sambo and a sixth degree in jujutsu. Long before he earned them, he entered his first competition—and went home victorious. That was in 1971, and he hasn’t stopped winning since. The Armenian expatriate now oversees 27 affiliate schools in the United States and 43 in Europe, and organizes 10 Hayastan Grappling Challenge tournaments a year in the United States and seven in Europe. In this archival video, Gokor shoots a 2007 grappling story for Black Belt, the world’s leading magazine of self-defense and martial arts, and shows you how to fight tall opponents.