As with many of my peers growing up in the Soviet Union, I played hockey. I was even good enough to be the captain of our team. I loved hockey as someone loves his first girlfriend. Or at least I did until a few years later when I found my first true love in the Soviet marital art of Sambo. I stumbled into Sambo quite by accident at the age of 13. A bunch of my classmates had joined a Karate Club and I followed suite. At that time in the Soviet Union, Sambo was mandated by the regional Sports Committee as a preparatory discipline prior to beginning your Karate training.
I did not mind, and even competed at some local tournaments. Then the Soviet Head Sports Committee decided to outlaw Karate and scrapped the training programs. It did not matter to me at that point; I was already hooked on Sambo. Eventually my career as a Sambo wrestler took me far and wide. It provided for me, was partially responsible for my education and shaped me into the man I am today. I was fortunate enough to be coached by some of the best, by the legends of the sport. I had the chance to work out with amazing athletes and future legends. I had the honor to represent and compete for my Country.
I first fully realized what a capable, yet practical hand-to-hand combat system Sambo was at the tender age of 14. I and my teammates were at a train station headed to the Zone Competition training camp. As we waited for the train to leave three dimwitted and slightly intoxicated locals attempted to strong arm our coach and relieve him of his money to continue their drinking. Unknown to them the clean-cut bookworm they were attempting to intimidate and rob was Vladimir Pashkin. Pashkin, even at his ‘just past competitive prime’ age of 31, was an awesome athlete and true master of the art. He was a three-time National Champion in Sambo, World Student Games Champion in Judo, winner of several annual Moscow-Tokyo tournaments and more. To this day Pashkin’s Two-Sleeve Back throw hasn’t been performed by anyone with the precision matching that of Vladimir himself.
Following a quick introduction, the leader of the brave band laid down their demands. Pashkin did not comply and the leader suddenly swung wildly at my coach. While dodging the punch Pashkin stepped to his left and with a quick back sweep had the leader of the pack flying in a perfectly horizontal position. Gravity soon brought the confused body mass to their ground with a thump. He appeared dead. In an instant, the braver of the two minions decided to avenge their leader by choking our coach to death. He lunged at Pashkin with both of his meaty paws extended. I have to say, this was a slight miscalculation on his part. Over years of tutelage I’ve learned one thing; you do not extend both hands toward Pashkin. So, the minion flew. He flew like a bird in a great arc with amplitude rivaling that of the Arc de Triumph before crashing down on the concrete tiles of the platform. At this moment, with his two crewmates barely alive the third minion forgot the initial demands and expressed a wish to depart for home. He did go home, but only after answering to a group of angry 14 year old Sambo students.
This incident at the train station changed our lives. Without a punch thrown my coach faced three attackers and took two of them out without so much as popping a button on his white shirt. From then on, every fight that my teammates or I were involved in (involuntarily of course) would have an element of a sweep or throw that usually ended a contest right then and there. This became a point of pride and admiration among us, the Sambo practicing teenage delinquents. Anyone can throw a punch or a kick, but not everyone can throw a person.
The applicability of Sambo for real world scenarios can be seen in its name. SamBO is a Russian abbreviation for Self-defense (Sam) Without (B) Weapons (O). This very capable hand-to-hand combat system was developed in the 1920s by several Russian combat enthusiasts. First Victor Spiridonov a renowned Jujitsu master started to develop a new system of hand-to-hand combat by introducing into Jujitsu elements from other styles of wrestling. In 1923, he started to teach his new system which he called ‘Self-defense’ at the NKVD Sports Club ‘Dynamo’ in Moscow.
Later Vasiliy Oschepkov, a graduate of the Japanese Judo University ‘Kadokan’ and 2nd-degree Black Belt added his Judo based elements to the new system. Anatoly Kharlampiev, who studied ethnic styles of wrestling and hand-to-hand combat, contributed elements from those disciplines to the newly developed martial art. By the 1930s Sambo was recognized as an effective hand-to-hand system of its own and was being taught to the Soviet Militia, NKVD, OGPU and civil defense force. The benefits and effectiveness of the new Soviet developed fighting system soon led the Soviet military to train their elite reconnaissance and scout units in Sambo. Decades later, after proving to be a very effective hand-to-hand system, combat Sambo techniques continue to be taught to the Russian Armed Forces.
Why is Sambo so effective, more so than Judo, Jujitsu, Boxing or Karate? Simply because it was developed around real life and death struggles which take place in combat. Whether apprehending a criminal or capturing an enemy prisoner for interrogation, one had to possess techniques which would allow him or her to complete the mission. In combat you need to have an advantage over your opponent. That advantage for Soviet soldiers was Sambo. Sambo as a system was born from accumulating only the most effective moves and elements, throws, trips, sweeps, chocks, holds, submissions, kicks and punches, arm and leg bars from several martial art systems. At the same time the less effective elements were discarded.
Sambo was designed for professionals who had to react to dynamic situations in a split second and quickly render an opponent incapacitated with only the tools at hand. The only tools available might be just a shovel, rifle butt, stool or only their bare hands. Often they’d have to disarm or dispatch multiple opponents as quickly as possible to continue with their mission. These are the roots of Sambo as a system.
While developed by the Soviets for combat, Sambo is equally practical for the American looking to protect themselves and their family from the pitfalls of everyday life. Robberies, assaults and rape are, unfortunately, everyday occurrences. Often these attacks involve weapons. Properly learned and practiced Sambo techniques can prevent you from becoming a victim. In real life combat, there are no formal stands or proscribed grips. Just remember the schoolyard fights or bar brawls. After a few punches every fight eventually comes to grappling on the ground. Sambo teaches you what to do in particular situations and what elements to deploy against single or multiple opponents, even if they are armed.
The effect of a properly executed Sambo throw is absolutely devastating to the assailant. Especially for those who have never trained in properly breaking a fall. The fight is usually over at this point. As a rule and from my personal experience, after a throw the opponent no longer has the will or capacity to fight. The human brain does not react well to the loss of a base of reference, such as solid ground. It is easy for an untrained person to get ‘lost in space’. While in ‘space’ an untrained person tends to assume a fetal position. This makes the body and vital organs absorb the entire energy of a fall. Add to it the amplified acceleration generated by leverage and the effects are devastating.
In recent years Sambo as a combative system has risen in popularity here in the US. This is due to the Mixed Martial Arts community being exposed to the likes of Oleg Taktarov, Igor Zinoviev and Fedor Emelyanenko. These Sambo fighters all have proven track records in Russia and around the World. They have demonstrated the effectiveness and advantages of the Sambo techniques in the ring and in the Octagon. The effectiveness of Sambo as a viable hand-to-hand combat system was quickly recognized by the MMA community at large. Every MMA Gym in the US now teaches fighters some elements of Sambo.
However, just learning a few leg bars is not enough. The instructor has to be a regular day-to-day Sambo practitioner to properly teach the techniques. Sambo as a system goes beyond just learning throws and grappling. It includes physical preparation, understanding leverage and basic physics. But, most of all it teaches confidence and the ability to execute a technique even in a dire situation. Sambo is strength coupled with technique enhanced by speed and boiled in confidence. Many think Sambo is similar to Judo and if you practice Judo you can become a Sambo wrestler. You can, but that is the exception. In fact, a good Sambo player makes a very good Judoka, but not every exceptional Judoka can make a decent Sambo player.
Like I said, there are many gyms and clubs now offering Sambo training here in the US. As a rule, most these are affiliated with MMA training. Choosing a good instructor can be problematic. As I’ve said earlier I had the fortune to be taught by many great coaches. However, I have also come across some bad ones too. Often athletes are ‘bound’ to their coaches due to a lack of alternatives. But here in the US we have choices. A good place to start is with the US Sambo Association (ussambo.com). They can help with locating a qualified instructor. But ultimately getting the right instruction lays on the student’s shoulders.
First and foremost I believe the instructor must possess the dedication and commitment to the discipline of SAMBO. Things like, “I am a 3rd degree Black Belt in Aikido, but I also teach Judo, Sambo and Jujitsu” would be the first indication you will not learn Sambo at that gym. The other pitfall is when the instructor tells you how many seminars he or she has taken with unashamed name-dropping.
The instructor you are looking for is someone who has been practicing Sambo for several years. You want someone who has trained under known Sambo instructors, preferably abroad. I suggest someone who has actually competed in Sports or Combat Sambo competition. Someone who has accumulated and possesses the only thing which cannot be lost, experience. Experience, unlike physical strength and conditioning, can be transferred.
Of course one has to understand that not every coach or instructor is or was a great athlete. Not all become a World or Olympic Champion. But more often than not a true scholar of the sport and outstanding coach comes from the ranks of former good, solid competitors, and rarely from the ranks of great champions. These are the ones who made the champions great and continue to do so year after year. The great instructor with dedication to Sambo and competitive experience would be able to introduce/teach a technique, then break it down to fit any and all practitioners individually. He or she would break down an individual wrestler/fighter based on his or her physique and abilities. Then mold the Sambo elements around them making each one of them a unique fighter with his or her individual style. That’s who I would want to be my coach.
Learning Sambo techniques and practicing them does not mean you have to drop everything and become an athlete who competes at tournaments. No. But, one can possess the knowledge that one day may come in handy, like an additional survival skill. Think of it as another tool in your proverbial toolbox of knowledge. Except I’d like to think of Sambo as a multi-tool that one day might save your life.
For more information on Sambo training in the US: US Sambo Association www.ussambo.com.
Marco Vorobiev served in the Soviet Spetsnaz during the war in Afghanistan and was the Soviet Armed Forces SAMBO Champion.