The Unfortunately Named Russian Martial Art Sambo Would Make For A Kickass Olympic Sport

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The International Olympic Committee announced today that sambo was among the sports whose international governing bodies achieved temporary IOC recognition, a move that brings the regrettably named combat sport one step closer to eventual Olympic status. While fellow Olympic hopefuls like kickboxing and lacrosse have a larger profile, sambo remains relatively unknown outside the post-Soviet world. The process of adding sports to the Olympics is a tortuous one, and even if known Olympics schemer Vladimir Putin has personally pushed for sambo’s inclusion into the Games for years, I hope it gets added to the program. This is because sambo fucking rules.

The word sambo is an acronymic version of the Russian phrase samozashchita bez oruzhiya, which translates to “self-defense without weapons.” The martial art was founded by the Russian military 100 years ago as Vladimir Lenin’s sought to train his soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. One of the experts deputized by Lenin to do this work was Viktor Spiridonov, a wrestler who became interested in combining techniques from a variety of disciplines after suffering a bayonet injury in the Russo-Japanese War. Because Spiridonov’s left arm was apparently all fucked up, he emphasized using one’s opponent’s own moves against them rather than striking aggressively.

Another man on Lenin’s panel was Vasili Oshchepkov, who grew up on the then-Japanese occupied Sakhalin Island and was so proficient in judo that he trained in Japan under the discipline’s legendary creator Kano Jigoro. Oshchepkov was executed in 1937 for his ties to the Japanese empire, and sambo likely would have died along with him had one of his students, Anatoly Kharlampiyev, not successfully synthesized Oshchepkov and Spiridonov’s styles into a sport that could be presented as authentically and uniquely Russian.


Kharlampiyev also integrated some of his boxing techniques into sambo, and in 1938, the USSR adopted sambo as its official combat sport. Because sambo was inherently interdisciplinary—in addition to the aforementioned disciplines, it uses moves from Mongolian wrestling, karate, and classic Greco-Roman wrestling—it became an effective propaganda tool in the USSR’s drive to unite Russia’s many disparate ethnic groups.

While Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo grew rapidly outside their respective places of origin, sambo remained a largely Russian art form because of the USSR’s cultural isolationism. It was only very recently that sambo started to gain international popularity, due to the rise of several famous sambist MMA fighters.


There are three forms of modern sambo: sport, freestyle, and combat. Sport and freestyle sambo are grappling-only varieties of sambo in which competitors earn points with throws, pins, and takedowns, while also being able to win by submission. These styles of sambo share a lot of DNA with judo, though they’re far more open with what is allowed when it comes to throws and trips. Sport sambo only permits submissions by armlock and straight leg lock; freestyle, an American twist on sambo, opens things up a bit, and allows neck cranks and certain chokes.

Combat sambo is the more acutely militarized version of the sport, and as such, it allows striking. You can’t earn points for strikes alone, though a knockdown is counted as a throw. Combat sambo looks a lot like MMA with more clothes, and MMA superstars like Fedor Emelianenko and Khabib Nurmagomedov came up as sambists. One-time UFC heavyweight king Andrei Arlovski also fought sambo before transitioning to MMA.

You can also apparently do head-butts in combat sambo.

Anyway, this shit is cool, and I would happily watch it at the Olympics.