WHWHAT IS SAMBO? ITS HISTORY AND TRADITION
By Steve Scott
(Excerpt from the book CHAMPIONSHIP SAMBO published by Turtle Press.)
Years ago, a writer for the local newspaper in Kansas City was covering a sambo tournament I promoted. This was a national event and we had a good many elite sambo wrestlers in town for the tournament. Naturally, there was a lot of serious action going on and I guess this reporter was expecting something different. When his brief story on the tournament came out in the next day’s paper, he wrote in his opening sentence; “Sambo is not for the faint of heart.” He was right.
Sambo isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a rugged style of grappling that seems to attract the heartiest of souls. Simply put, it’s jacket wrestling from Russia, but in fact, it’s a whole lot more.
Sambo, coming out of the dark days of Stalin’s regime in the old Soviet Union, has made a lasting impact on the world of sport and self-defense. Sambo has altered how many people in judo, jujitsu, mixed martial arts and other fighting sports have looked at these martial arts. I know that my first sport, judo, has been changed forever (and for the better in my opinion) because of sambo’s influences.
When Soviet athletes 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 the best in the world. 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 sambo wrestlers of the Soviet Union entered onto the world stage of judo in the early 1960s. Sambo men, wearing judo suits, entered the European Judo Championships in 1962 and won five medals. This was the world’s first look at this strange form of wrestling and it certainly changed the way everyone did any form of wrestling or grappling ever since those men walked onto that judo mat.
These Soviet sambo wrestlers didn’t approach judo the way the Japanese 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. And while the judo men favored throwing, the sambo men worked hard to secure submissions. These early sambo men made everyone in judo realize that making an opponent tap out was as good as throwing him.
Sambo is the Russian acronym which means "self-defense without weapons (SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya) and was developed as a result of the Soviet government's effort to have a system of practical, personal combat for its soldiers. It's easy to say that sambo is "Russian judo" or "Russian jujitsu" and while that description gives a general picture of what it is, it's like calling judo "Japanese wrestling."
Sambo is also spelled "sombo" which is the spelling first used, to my knowledge, in the early 1980s here in the United States. The "o" spelling was used to have Americans use the "ah" sound rather than the "aa" sound in the name. The phonetic spelling helped and most Americans now pronounce the name of the sport correctly. I remember back in the 1970s when I became involved in sambo, most people pronounced it wrong. Actually, sambo was not officially called "sambo" until after World War II. From what I’ve heard and read, it was simply called “wrestling” and may have gone by other names as well. It was Anatoli Kharlempiev who popularized the name "sambo" for this system of self-defense.
It was the Soviet leader Lenin who decreed that the Soviet military needed a hand-to-hand combat method in the early 1920s, so a man named Vasili Oshchepkov who, along with others, started work on the development of a new fighting system. Oshchepkov had lived in Japan as a young man and earned a 2nd degree black belt in judo in 1917, making him one of the first non-Japanese to earn a black belt in the newly-developed style of jujutsu called Kodokan Judo. Oshchepkov and his associates traveled the Soviet Union in an effort to study and categorize the various ethnic wrestling and fighting sports and incorporate them into a workable system of hand-to-hand combat. By the 1930s, sambo was being practiced by Soviet troops and sambo clubs were springing up in various cities. By 1939, sambo was being contested on the national level in the Soviet Union and organized as a sport.
What Oschepkov did, was to evaluate the judo he learned in Japan, combine it with what he and his team of assistants discovered in the various Soviet republic wrestling styles (each region pretty much had their own local folk style of grappling, fighting or wrestling and Oschepkov toured the country to study them) and formulate the beginnings of sambo.
Technically, sambo is primarily a throwing and submission sport. I say this because the focus of action is mostly with getting an opponent to the mat and making him submit from a joint lock. The matwork or groundfighting that takes place in sambo all has the ultimate goal of making the opponent submit. Pins or holds are seen as a way of controlling or containing an opponent on the mat until you are able to secure a submission technique. This is unique in a non-Japanese style of grappling and shows that the technical and philosophical roots of sambo are forever linked to the Japanese judo that Vasili Oshchepekov studied as a young man. Presently, the rules of sambo allow for throws, takedowns, holds, elbow submissions and leg submissions. Choking an opponent is not permitted in the sport of sambo, but the self-defense version of sambo allows for pretty much anything that works. I was always fascinated by sambo’s attitude of accepting anything that works and the philosophy of molding the technique to make it work for the person doing it.
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 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 in the opening paragraph, sambo isn’t for the faint of heart.
Sambo in the United States has been, and continues to be for the most part, technically as good as anywhere else outside of the old Soviet Union. The Russians are still the masters of this sport, but athletes from other countries have made indelible marks on the history of sambo as well. The first American to win a gold medal in the World Sambo Championships was Greg Gibson in 1981. Gibson, a superb and gifted wrestler representing the United States Marine Corps, went on to win the silver medal in Greco-roman wrestling in the 1984 Olympics. The sport of sambo readily accepted women as equals and female athletes from the United States have proven themselves many times on international sambo mats. My wife, Becky Scott, was the first American woman to win a gold medal at the World Sambo Championships in 1983. Actually, she happened to win her championship match before some of her team-mates did at that same tournament, including her own sister, Jan Trussell, as well as her good friend Grace Jividen.
Sambo became a world sport when the first World Sambo Championships were held in 1973 in Tehran, Iran. The first National AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) Sambo Championships for men were held in 1975 in Arizona and in 1980 in Kansas City, Missouri for women. Sambo was considered a third discipline of amateur wrestling (along with freestyle and Greco-roman) by FILA, the international governing body for wrestling, from 1968 through 1984. In 1984, FILA dropped sambo from its program and the International Amateur Sambo Federation (FIAS) was organized. In 1985, the United States Sombo Association was formed, and served as the technical body working with the Amateur Athletic Union in promoting the sport of sambo in the United States.
Sambo was a recognized sport in the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela. The United States was well-represented by both a full men’s team and a full women’s team and was very successful. The U.S. women’s team won the team championship.
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 are still many people training in sambo today, especially in the countries that once comprised the old Soviet Union. Sambo is seeing some new-found popularity as 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 are 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.
Lynn Roethke, Olympic silver medalist in judo, Pan American Games Champion in sambo and World Championship bronze medalist in sambo, once described sambo very well: "It's everything you wanted to do in judo, but weren't allowed to." And you know, Lynn was pretty much right on the money.