I'm fortunate enough to train under a fantastic Russian Sambo coach, Vadim Kolganov, and I recently took the opportunity to sit down and have him spill his opinions on everything from Fedor Emelianenko to modern Judo.
With the recent influx of top talent from the former Soviet Union, including the upcoming Khabib Nurmagomedov v. Rafael Dos Anjos title eliminator, I also had Vadim break down what exactly makes fighters from Russia and surrounding areas so effective in MMA. After getting in a ‘Because they're fucking Russians!' Joke, he gave great, insightful answers that everyone with an interest in MMA should read.
Iain Kidd: First off, give us a little bit of information about your background.
Vadim Kolganov: I started out in Judo. My club was mostly Judo, but had some Sambo. I got into competitions for both because in those days in Russia - The Soviet Union in those days - the Judo and Sambo federations were close together, so moving from one to the other was an easy transition. I was competing in both Judo and Sambo when I was 16 and I finished my school, so I went to the University of Sport in Moscow and entered into Sambo because I liked it more.
I became coach in both Judo and Sambo, because they're both jacket wrestling. Some people call Judo a martial art, and it is, same as Sambo, but I still call it wrestling. For me, wrestling is when you grab someone and try to throw them.
Iain Kidd: What was the peak of your competitive Sambo career?
Vadim Kolganov: That would have been the Dynamo Sambo Moscow championships. In Judo, at the junior level, I went to the Russian Nationals in the team event. I came third in the world masters of Sambo in Prague about five years ago back before I ruptured my cruciate ligament.
Iain Kidd: For a lot of MMA fans their knowledge of Sambo sort of starts and ends with Fedor Emelianenko. MMA fans kind of view him as the very peak of the sport, is that how he is seen amongst Sambists in Russia?
Vadim Kolganov: Yeah, Fedor is almost like an icon. He's the face of Sambo, if you like. There are a lot of other good Sambo fighters, especially at a very good school in Moscow called Sambo-70. I trained and competed there a little bit. My school is Dynamo Sambo in Dynamo Club in Moscow doing Sambo and Judo.
Fedor mostly does Combat Sambo, which is relatively new as a sport. It only started as a sport in the 1990's. Before that there was Sport Sambo. Combat Sambo was mostly for self-defence for the police and the army, but few people were taught that. The public were taught Sport Sambo. There were many great fighters before and after Fedor in Sport Sambo, but he definitely stands above everybody in Combat Sambo because he achieved so much. To me, he's one of the best Sambo fighters.
Iain Kidd: The difference between Sport Sambo and Combat Sambo doesn't really come up when we discuss Sambists in MMA, but there's a difference. Can you explain the difference between the two?
Vadim Kolganov: In Sport Sambo there is point-scoring. You can win a match by throwing someone for a certain number of points, or a pin for a certain number of points, or by making your opponent submit. That's a sport. In Combat Sambo, which you can also call Military Sambo, there are basically no rules. The main thing is to dispose of your opponent as quickly as possible. You can train Combat Sambo techniques, but you can't finish them.
You can practice some techniques on an opponent who is resisting, that's how it works as a sport. The combat applications come later; instead of throwing someone on their back, you throw them on their head. Instead of trying to submit someone, you snap their limb. That should come easily to people who have the sport background, you just need to change the application, but that's psychological. You have to train your brain from a sport mind-set into combat mode.
Iain Kidd: I've seen some Sambists in MMA use their elbows to block punches, is that a Sambo technique?
Vadim Kolganov: That's actually an old boxing technique. Back when the gloves were quite small, guys would defend using the elbows. There's lots of that in the Russian traditional fighting and fisticuffs. There would traditionally be a lot of overhead and figure of eight punches, where you punch with one arm, bring it around and turn it into a hammerfist. That's a traditional style in Russian, which is probably where the Sambists pick up that technique. I think it might just come naturally to Russian fighters, it's in their blood [Laughs].
Iain Kidd: I've noticed that the Russian fighters always seem to be going 110% in the cage. Sometimes we see fighters from the US and Europe pacing themselves, holding themselves back, but it seems like most Russian Sambo fighters are constantly trying to take someone's head off.
Vadim Kolganov: I think that's a mentality thing. When you step in the ring, it changes. If you watch Fedor, before the fight he is very calm and relaxed, and the nicest person you could meet; very polite and pleasant, but when he's in fight mode, he changes. It's not a personal thing, but his opponent is a target he wants to finish as quickly as possible, and I think that's the mentality most Russian fighters, and Sambo fighters in particular have; to go 100% and win or lose, fight as hard and best as you can.
Iain Kidd: You've trained all over Europe and Russia, and you've seen a lot of different martial arts. What are the biggest differences you've noticed between how people train in Russia and how people train elsewhere in the world?
Vadim Kolganov: I think a big difference is intensity. A lot of Sambo fighters start early, whether Russian or Chechen or Dagestani, and they have a strong background in wrestling as well as Sambo. In Russia you start off from an early age. I started training in Sambo and Judo when I was 10, and most Sambists will start at that age or earlier.
You have intense training and a lot of competition. There are a lot of people in your club. It's natural selection. If you have a competition that has 10 people in it, you can only be the best amongst 10. When there is 100 people, that's different. It's natural selection. Having a large contingent of people to compete against makes you tougher.
Your coach, and probably your father as well, will push you. I'm always thankful that my dad helped me and pushed me to do Sambo and sport, because when you hit puberty and you have different interests, you think, ‘I don't want to bother with sport anymore.' Then your father says, ‘I don't think so. You're going to do it. I'm going to pick you up and you better be there.' [Laughs]. When you get through that rough patch it becomes second nature to you.
I also think there's a political/economical factor. Sometimes things are not that easy in Russia, so you naturally become tougher. It's not that life is bad, it's just... different. You learn that only the strongest survive. You have to fight and crawl your way into being the best.
Iain Kidd: You mentioned Sambo having a large pool of competitors. How popular is Sambo in Russia? Are all children taught it in school, or are there just lots of clubs?
Vadim Kolganov: There are lots of clubs. There was a program in the late 1930's/1940's when it was supposed to be introduced into schools as part of the education curriculum, along with being able to run, throw grenades and shoot. That was back in Stalin's time and stuff, but now it's a bit mellower.
Now it's found more in sports schools and clubs, with people coming in to train. In Russia you can get help from the government to train in sport, which you don't get over here [in Scotland] unless it's an Olympic sport, even then you need to be very good. In Russia it's easier to get help from the government to train in sport.
Iain Kidd: From a layman's perspective, it seems like Sambo fighters are very, very good at transitions, can you give some insight into what it is about Sambo that helps with that?
Vadim Kolganov: Adaptability. Sambo has a lot of martial arts contained in it. To go into the history of Sambo a little bit, it has two founders; Oschepkov and Spiridonov. Oschepkov was taught in Japan when he was young. His Sambo started in Judo, which is why there are similarities. It has changed slightly, because he changed the classifications and terminology to suit Russia. Instead of Japanese terms, he came up with Russian terms for the throws, and he changed how you break down the holds and throws. Spiridonov mostly taught in the NKVD, which was the old KGB. He was more teaching self-defence for special branch types.
Spiridonov and Oschepkov disagreed with each other. I don't know if they liked each other, but there was lots of arguments between them. It was Kharlampiev, a student of Oschepkov came up with the name Sambo and put the two training styles together.
Iain Kidd: When we see people come over from Judo, they sometimes struggle with the lack of a jacket. What is it about Sambo that makes the transition easier from jacket to no jacket?
Vadim Kolganov: I think it's probably that most Sambists cross-train. The adaptability of Sambo makes it easy to transfer from one thing to another because it's so flexible. Judo is great, I really do like it, but there are a lot of restrictions, especially nowadays. If you change the grip from the classic sleeve and lapel grip, they complain, ‘that's not Judo, that's wrestling,' but Judo was wrestling the last time I checked! It seems like Judo practitioners want to keep Judo pure, but along the way they lost the point a little bit.
So they do well on the Judo circuit, but when the rules change, they can find it difficult to adapt. Sambo is more flexible, especially with the grips. My favorite is two-on-one grip, but Judo guys hate that, because it's not 'normal'. They get panicky and don't know how to deal with it. In Sambo, there are lots of different grips and wrestling applications, so it's easy to transition.
Part of Sambo was catch-as-catch-can wrestling, which is where Sambo takes its leglocks from... Sambo improves it though. Because it's Russian, it's better [Laughs].
Iain Kidd: A lot of techniques we see on the ground in Sambo are very similar to what we see in BJJ. Obviously both have some roots in old-style Judo, but how much of Sambo is based on submission grappling specifically?
Vadim Kolganov: Hmm... bear with me while I try to answer that question. When somebody says, ‘Oh we have that technique in Tae-Kwon-Do,' or, ‘That's a Judo technique,' to me a human body is a human body. We're not aliens with six hands. The body works only in a certain way. It's just about application of knowledge of the human anatomy.
In Russia there are a lot of sports universities that will teach not just the practical and technical aspect of Sambo, but also the psychological side, body mechanics and biochemistry, so you get really good specialists in the field. You're really taught the science of sport, and when that's put together Sambo is kind of the result.
Iain Kidd: In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu grappling, there aren't any strikes. As a result we sometimes see black belts come into the cage and their technique suffers when they start taking punches to the face. That doesn't seem to happen with Sambists, is that something trained for in Sambo?
Vadim Kolganov: There are some old Sambists who only like grappling, but Sambo, from the start, was an evolving sport. The good thing about Sambo is it has never lost that essence; it uses techniques that work, and doesn't use techniques that don't. It's natural selection again, if a technique doesn't work, we don't use it anymore.
With Judo practitioners now, their stand up throws are great, but the ground work is awful. My students went into training with some Judo guys and a guy with a black belt said to one of my students, ‘Hey, Sambo guy, watch out for our chokes!' My student, who is a novice, choked him out in about 20 seconds.
In BJJ, the ground work is awesome. There are so many transitions that sometimes I actually find it too complicated. I like simple things, because simple things work. You know that KISS principle? Keep It Simple Stupid? Yeah, I like that, because the more complex something is, the more space for error there is.
Sambo has got both. It has good stand up, and good ground work. To me, it's also more simple, and that's why it works. Well... not simple, but less complex. The correct term to use might be that Sambo is more direct.