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Does Russian Sambo Produce the Best MMA Fighters?

The Origins of 'Sambo' and Where It's Going in Today's MMA

By Robert Rousseau,
The word Sambo in Russian means "self defense without a weapon". Today, Russia recognizes three versions of their native art. These are Self-Defense Sambo (the version meant for people in the street), Combat Sambo (the variety that originated in the military but is now widely practiced by mixed martial artists), and Sport Sambo (for competitions).

Interestingly, the sport of Sambo allows leg locks (unlike wrestling and judo). Therefore, it is no surprise that MMA practitioners with a Sambo background have proven quite dangerous with leg submissions.

Sambo's roots are somewhat difficult to pinpoint, primarily for the same reason why it is so effective.

You see, the many forefathers of Russian Sambo had one thing in mind. Take all the best parts of each martial art the world has to offer, and blend them. In doing this, a lot of disciplines and personalities became involved.

History of Sambo

Before Russians were capable of sifting through the world's martial arts to find the best techniques, they needed to first be familiar with these techniques.

Fortunately for them, early contacts with the Japanese, Vikings, Tatars, and Mongols, along with the various Russian fighting styles already present in the country did not make this difficult.

Vasili Oshchepkov, the Karate and Judo trainer for Russia's elite Red Army, wanted his men to be the best trained in the world. Thus, he (a man who achieved second degree black belt status under judo's founder, Jigoro Kano), and a man by the name of Victor Spiridonov (who had extensive training in Greco-Roman and other Slavic forms of wrestling), eventually set out to collaboratively merge their knowledge of the Japanese arts with the various native wrestling styles available to them in order to develop the world's most effective martial art.

By 1918, Anatoly Kharlampiev and I.V. Vasiliev, two other well-renowned martial artists, joined them in this collaboration. In short, they wanted to take only the best techniques the world had to offer and discard the rest.

This was the beginning of Russian Sambo (or Sombo as Americans sometimes call it).

Kharlampiev seems to be given the most credit in textbooks and such for developing Sambo, but there is some evidence that Spirodonov was actually the first to refer to the art as Sambo. In addition, it appears that Spirodonov, like Helio Gracie with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, veered off a little from the others in his ideologies by developing many softer movements (designed for weaker practitioners). This differing ideology can perhaps be seen today most in Self-Defense Sambo teachings.

Sambo was and is currently being used for military, police, self-defense, and sport maneuvers worldwide. In addition, it is considered one of the four main forms of amateur wrestling along with Greco-Roman wrestling, Freestyle wrestling, and Judo.

Sambo's Emergence on the MMA Scene

In short, Sambo's initial emergence on the MMA scene was for the most part due to the fighting exploits of Oleg Taktarov.

Taktarov first set foot in the UFC's Octagon at UFC 5 on 4/7/95. There he made quick work of Ernie Verdicia (submission), before taking on Dan "The Beast" Severn. In a bloody battle against the UFC Hall of Famer, he was eventually stopped due to a cut.

However, at UFC 6 is where Taktarov really made a name for himself. He blew through the first two opponents he faced, submitting them both easily. Then came Tank Abbott, and a war.

After over 17 grueling minutes, Taktarov won the sixth UFC Championship by choke. Afterwards, both fighters were so exhausted they could hardly move.

Taktarov finished his MMA career in 1998 with a record of 11-5-2 (with nine submission victories). He was known for his breathtaking takedowns and strong submission skills, two things that Sambo teaches extremely well.

Sambo in MMA Today

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu clearly ruled the roost early on in MMA. These days, however, it is hard to define mixed martial artists by any one discipline as they train in so many. Still, there are several fighters with Sambo backgrounds out there, particularly heavyweights (likely because Russians are big), that are making a whole lot of noise.

Fedor Emelianenko - Many consider Fedor to be the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. He is a powerhouse with excellent takedowns and ground control skills, not to mention very good submission capabilities. Along the way to an overall MMA record of 24-1 (11 submissions), he's defeated elite fighters such as Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mark "The Hammer" Coleman, and Renato "Babalu" Sobral. Fedor is also a World Combat Sambo and Russian Combat Sambo Champion.

Andrei Arolvski - This former UFC Champion is, in reality, known for his striking more than his Sambo or ground skills. However, in his first fight against Tim Sylvia, he demonstrated the leg locks that at one time had helped him to become the Junior World Sambo Champion quite nicely. His overall MMA record stands at 9-5.

Aleksander Emelianenko - Sports an overall MMA record of 9-2. Like Arlovski, Aleksander Emelianenko is known best for his striking. Still, he is a two time Russian Sambo and World Sambo Champion. Further, he is Fedor's brother.

Where Is Sambo Going?

As evidenced above, many of these Sambo practitioners are doing very well on their feet striking. Though pure Sambo did teach, to an extent, some measure of striking, the real reason for this seems to be a willingness to cross train by the aforementioned MMA fighters.

Perhaps like Sambo's forefathers, the current flag bearers seem more than willing to continually add techniques that work to their discipline. They are open to admitting that they don't know everything.

In other words, Sambo practitioners have embraced the concept of continuous learning; in fact, it seems that they always have. Therefore, the Russian art of Sambo is on its way up in mixed martial arts.

And if fighters like Fedor Emelianenko, Aleksander Emelianenko, and Andrei Arlovski have anything to say about it, this is going to continue.

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