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Sambo (Russian: ?????—also called Sombo or Cambo and sometimes written in all-caps) is a modern martial art, combat sport and self-defense system developed in the Soviet Union and recognized as an official sport by the USSR All-Union Sports Committee in 1938, presented by Anatoly Kharlampiev.
The word “?????” (Sambo) is an acronym of ?????????? ??? ?????? (SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya), meaning “self-defense without weapons” in Russian. Sambo has its roots in Chinese Shuaijiao, Japanese judo and traditional folk styles of wrestling such as Armenian Koch, Georgian Chidaoba, Moldovan Trînta, Uzbek Kurash, Mongolian Khapsagay and Azerbaijani Gulesh.
The founders of Sambo were Vasili Oshchepkov (who died during the political purges of 1937 for refusing to deny his education in judo under its founder Kano Jigoro) and Viktor Spiridonov. They independently developed two different styles, both with the same name. Spiridonov’s style was a soft, aikido-like system developed after he was maimed during World War I. Anatoly Kharlampiev, a student of Victor Spiridonov, is often officially recognized as the founder of Sport Sambo.
Although it was originally a single system, there are now five generally recognized styles of Sambo:
A Sambo practitioner normally wears either a red or a blue jacket kurtka, a belt and shorts of the same color, and sambovki (Sambo shoes). The Sambo uniform does not reflect rank or competitive rating. Sport rules require an athlete to have both red and blue sets to visually distinguish competitors on the mat.
In Russia, a competitive rating system is used rather than belt colors like judo and jiujitsu to demonstrate rank, though some schools around the world now institute belt colors as well. The rating system is called Unified Sports Classification System of the USSR, with the highest athletic distinction known as the Distinguished Masters of Sport in Sambo.
Examination requirements vary depending on the age group and can vary from country to country. The examination itself includes competitive accomplishment as well as technical demonstration of knowledge. Higher level exams must be supervised by independent judges from a national Sambo association. For a rating to be recognised, it must be registered with the national Sambo organization.
The founders of Sambo deliberately sifted through all of the world’s martial arts available to them to augment their military’s hand-to-hand combat system. One of these men, Vasili Oschepkov, taught judo and karate to elite Red Army forces at the Central Red Army House. He had earned his nidan (second degree black belt out of then five) from judo’s founder, Kano Jigoro, and he was one of the first foreigners who learned Judo in Japan and he used some of Kano’s philosophy in formulating the early development of the new Soviet art.
Sambo was in part born of native Russian and other regional styles of grappling and combative wrestling, bolstered with the most useful and adaptable concepts and techniques from the rest of the world.
As the buffer between Europe and Asia, Russia had more than ample opportunity to evaluate the martial skills of various invaders. Earlier Russians had experienced threats from the Vikings in the West and the Tatars and Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde from Mongolia in the East. The regional, native combat systems included in Sambo’s genesis are Tuvan Khuresh, Yakuts khapsagai, Chuvash akatuy, Georgian chidaoba, Moldavian trinta, Armenian kokh, and Uzbek Kurash to name a few.
The foreign influences included various styles of European wrestling, Japanese jujutsu, French Savate and other martial arts of the day plus the classical Olympic sports of amateur boxing and Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling. Sambo even derived lunging and parrying techniques from the Italian school of swordsmanship.
Sambo’s early development stemmed from the independent efforts of Oschepkov and another Russian, Victor Spiridonov, to integrate the techniques of judo into native wrestling styles. Spiridonov’s background involved indigenous styles of Russian martial art. His “soft-style” was based on the fact that he received a bayonet wound during the Russo-Japanese War which left his left arm lame. Both Oschepkov and Spiridonov hoped that the Russian styles could be improved by an infusion of the techniques distilled from jujutsu by Kano Jigoro into his new style of jacket wrestling. Contrary to common lore, Oschepkov and Spiridonov did not cooperate on the development of their hand-to-hand systems. Rather, their independent notions of hand-to-hand combat merged through cross-training between students and formulative efforts by their students and military staff. While Oschepkov and Spiridonov did have occasion to collaborate, their efforts were not completely united.