Secret origins of Sambo, the fighting style of Fedor Emelianenko

USA TODAY Sports

Kid Nate looks back at the origins of the Russian fighting style Sambo and the pioneers who introduced it into modern mixed martial arts in the 1990s.

My Future Evolutions Tete-A-Tete with Dallas Winston this week got me thinking about the Russian fighting style Sambo so I thought I'd post a few nuggets from some articles I've been reading about its origins. I've been thinking about Sambo because of the exciting UFC debut of Rustam Khabilov last weekend and the new Bellator Heavyweight champ Alexander Volkov.

First off, what is Sambo? It's the fighting style developed by the Russian Soviets in the 1920s and 30s to improve the hand-to-hand combat skills of Red Army soldiers. Per Wikipedia, the word "SAMBO" is an acronym for SAMooborona Bez Oruzhiya, which literally translates as "self-defense without weapons."

The New York Times posted an interesting piece on Sambo a few years back when Fedor Emelianenko was about to fight Andrei Arlovski for Affliction. Here's how they summarized the creation of the discipline:

Sambo originated in the early 1920s as the newly formed Soviet Union attempted to improve the hand-to-hand-combat abilities of the Red Army. Two men, Viktor Spiridonov and Vasili Oschepkov, studied various martial arts throughout the world - disciplines like karate, judo and Mongolian wrestling - to find the most efficient way to thwart an armed opponent.

They worked independently through the 1930s. But after the Soviet government reportedly killed Oschepkov in 1937 for political reasons, a student of his, Anatoly Kharlampiev - along with students of Spiridonov - began combining their techniques. In 1938, the Soviet government recognized this fusion of teachings as the country's official combat sport.

In my abandoned History of MMA series I covered quite a bit on the first Russian fighters (all of them Sambo trained) to make an impact in International MMA:

Kid Nate's History of MMA: Oleg Taktarov and a new phase in the UFC | Kid Nate's History of MMA: From Russia With Leglocks | Kid Nate's History of MMA: RINGS, Shooto and Pancrase

For those to lazy to click the links, the key pioneers of Sambo in international MMA in the 1990s were:

Oleg Taktarov: UFC 6 champion, UFC 5 runner-up, Ultimate Ultimate 95 finalist

Igor Zinoviev: EFC champion, first fighter to defeat a BJJ black belt (Mario Sperry) on an American pay-per-view

Mikhail Ilioukhine: IAFC champion, a huge tournament held in Russia in 1995

Volk Han: The man who brought sambo to Japan at the invitation of Akira Maeda. Han fought few true MMA bouts (most RINGS bouts were works) but his smooth grappling made a huge impression on Japanese fans and he brought over a student named Fedor Emelianenko a few years later.

Igor Vovchanchyn: Igor V. was more of a kickboxer than a grappler but he's from the former Soviet Union and made a huge impact on international MMA in the 1990s by winning more 8 man tournaments than anyone else ever. Igor fought in PRIDE but due to visa issues was never able to fight in the UFC.

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