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MMA Origins: Russian Revolution

On this day 96 years ago, massive food shortages forced the populace of Russia to revolt against their monarch. The "February Revolution" would cause shock waves around the world, that are still being felt to this day. There is almost nothing in the modern world that hasn't been affected in some way by this tumultuous moment in history and MMA is no exception. So to mark the anniversary, T.P. Grant examines how this revolution has impacted the growth of Mixed Martial Arts.

USSR National Sambo Team 1973
USSR National Sambo Team 1973
Wiki Commons

This series started out by tracking the migrations of Japanese Judo and European Catch Wrestling to create the original cradles of Mixed Martial Arts in Brazil and Japan. Eventually influences from both of these spread to the United States creating the early MMA scene in the 1990s, but there is one other MMA breeding ground that has not been addressed: Russia. While it was largely isolated from the rise of Vale Tudo and shootfighting in Japan, Russia had developed a fighting system on a par with any martial art in the world.

The late 1800s to early 1900s were not a stable time for Russia. In Europe at the time, nations were racing each other into the future in terms of technology, infrastructure, and social structure. That race for better technology combined with a growing sense of nationalism created an arms race for the best military technology that left the land of the Tsars was woefully behind, but Russia was busting with potential power. The sheer size of its natural resources and population made it a powerhouse in the making, but its political, economic, and social systems were downright medieval.

As nations began to feel more threatened, webs of alliances crisscrossed Europe, becoming so intertwined that the smallest event could set off a huge conflict. This, of course, happened on June 28, 1914 with the assassination of the Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand, plunging Europe into what would become known as World War I.

Russia was one of the first nations pulled into the war by an alliance and they quickly found themselves in a brutal conflict with Germany. Early battles in the war were blood baths as military leaders failed to grasp how recent technological advances, like machine guns and modern artillery, impacted military tactics. As a result most militaries soon adopted the conservative approach of creating fortified trench lines to account for the huge increases in firepower possessed by soldiers.


Russian soldiers manning a trench in the forests of Sarikamish via Wiki Commons

The resulting style of warfare consisted of the attackers leaving their trenches and closing the distance to the enemy's trenches, enduring artillery, machine gun, and other small arms fire. Casualties would be huge for the attacking force and the survivors of crossing "no-man's land" would then engage the defenders of the enemy trench in hand-to-hand combat until one side broke and ran.

It was an extremely bloody and horrible method of fighting, and combat in the trenches was savage. Due to these violent conditions any soldier that survived on the front lines quickly became a seasoned close combat fighter. John Nash did a piece looking at hand-to-hand combat in World War I and I highly recommend you check it out if you have not seen it.

Japanese MMA Origins

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As the war dragged on, the magnitude of the conflict put huge strains on the economies of nations. The pressure of this conflict proved too much for the outdated social, political and economic structures of the Russian Tsardom and the still to be fully realized strength of Russia was unleashed upon its own government.

The Russian people, starving and tired of war, held huge rallies that eventually forced the Russian Tsar to abdicate the throne on March 8, 1917. A period of violence and turmoil followed as factions fought for power but eventually it was the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, that took power.


Russians flee a demonstration in July of 1917 as troops fire machine guns into the crowd via Wiki Commons

As things began to settle, the new government of Russia looked to cement its power by firmly establishing its new military. Considering the role close combat had played in the trench centered battles of WWI, an important aspect of creating a new military was also creating a new hand-to-hand program. This program would be developed through a process that involved primarily three men who would combine two different philosophies of fighting to create something uniquely Russian.

One of the men was Viktor Spiridonov, a World War I combat veteran who had lost mobility in his left arm due to a bayonet wound suffered in the war. With his background in international wrestling styles, both Greco-Roman and Freestyle, and Russian Steppe folk style wrestling traditions, Spiridonov focused on techniques he could perform in his physically limited state. He also used techniques from Japanese Jujutsu, which had traveled to Europe in some forms at this point in history.

The result was a self-defense centered style that would become called Samoz in 1937, which was adopted by the special intelligence squads, military forces, and police units. Samoz's influences can still be seen in the Russian military as many still train in his softer style of unarmed combat.

Samoz disappeared in 1938, but its influences can still be seen today. Here is an excellent example of how it would have been trained and what it would have looked like:

It was in 1918 Lenin officially created the Vsevobuch, general military training, and Spiridonov was among the panel of experts called upon to help create the new hand-to-hand program. Another man was also brought in to work in conjunction with Spiridonov, Vasili Oshchepkov. While the two men would be working towards the same goal they seldom actually worked together, instead operating independently and only occasionally crossing paths.

Oshchepkov grew up on Sakhalin Island which became occupied by Japan after the Russo-Japanese was and as a teenager he had shown enough talent at a local judo club to be selected to train at Jigoro Kano's Kodokan Academy, where Kano taught his own personal variation of the Japanese art of Jujutsu, which would become known the world over as Judo. Oshchepkov trained with Kano for years, becoming the first Russian to earn a black belt in 1913. He earned his second degree from Kano in 1917, the very same year that another student of the Kodokan, Mitsuyo Maeda, began instructing a rebellious Brazilian teenager named Carlos Gracie.

Oshchepkov brought his knowledge of Kano's Kodokan Judo back to Russia. During the late 1920s and 1930s he taught at the Dynamo club, were Spiridonov's system was being taught. Oshchepkov also helped in the development of the Red Army's new combat system which was officially dubbed Samooborona Bez Oruzhiya, which literally translates as "self-defense without weapons." It was shortened to the acronym Sambo.

Here is a fantastic video showing Oshchepkov (white gi) and several of his students demonstrating their skills, both with sparring and demonstrations of drills similar to those in Samoz. It is then followed by a video of Steppe folk wrestling which also heavily influenced Sambo and then the grappling aspect of Sambo.

Oshchepkov, like Kano, believed competition was a key to learning and growing a martial art, and the timing and improvisation learned through resistance training was invaluable to a student. So through the 1920s and 1930s, while the Gracies experimented and tweaked the Judo they had learned from Maeda at their new academy in Brazil, Oshchepkov did much the same, adapting what he had learned to fit the needs of the military and of the sport he wished to create.Sprirdonov did not favor the idea of opening Sambo up to outside of the military. As a result he and Oshchepkov had something of professional, and possibly personal, rivalry.

During this time, Joseph Stalin was the head of the Soviet Union, and his paranoia caused an endless hunt for spies in the country. In 1937, Oshchepkov's close ties to Japan caused him to fall under suspicion as tensions between Russia and Japan increased. Oshchepkov was taken to a Siberian Gulag and later shot for his ties to Imperial Japan.

The Soviet bureaucracy would have eliminated Sambo, seeing its Japanese roots as a poisonous influence on Russian culture, but Anatoly Kharlampiyev, a student of Oshchepkov, did a clever job of political maneuvering to save the art by recasting its history. Kharlampiyev integrated the teachings of Oshchepkov with the Samoz style of Spiridonov and leveraged the largely Russian background of Samoz to save Oshchepkov's Sambo. He also brought a striking background to Sambo, having boxed during his time as a physical education trainer.

In 1938, thanks to the efforts of Kharlampiyev, the All-USSR State Sport Committee adopted Sambo as the Martial Art of the Motherland, and making it the nation's official combat sport.

Vale Tudo Origins

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There were two branches of Sambo at this point: the program used in the military, what would become known as Combat Sambo, which made use of striking and grappling in addition to weapon disarms, and the sport grappling style of Sambo.

Sport Sambo competitors wear modified judo gis, with shorts and wrestling shoes, and while there is not a belt rank in Sport Sambo there is a ranking system governed by competition results and technical demonstration tests. The rule set in Sport Sambo is similar to competitive Judo's but less restrictive when dealing with grips, throwing techniques, and submissions.

Sambo also allows the use of leg locks, something illegal in Judo competitions. However, after World War II chokes were outlawed in Sport Sambo, over the strong protests of some of the coaches, to help create a greater difference between Sambo and Judo. This has since created a breakaway branch called Freestyle Sambo, which has fewer restrictions on grappling and submissions.

Sambo remained contained within the USSR through the 1950s and 1960s during the early decades of the Cold War. This was the same time when Brazilian Vale Tudo became the battlefield for a host of grudge matches, the most heated of which was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu vs. Luta Livre.

Russian Sambists began to appear in international judo in the late 1960s and 1970s, at the same time Karl Gotch brought his personal brand of Catch Wrestling to Japan, One famous incident was when the largely unknown Boris Mischenko submitted Japanese Judoka Isao Okano in 1967.

Sambo had also begun to spread outside of Russia and in 1973 the first he World Sport Sambo Championships were held, and then in it was featured in the Opening Ceremonies of the 1980 Summer Olympics.

Here is some archive footage from the 1980s highlighting Sport Sambo techniques; in this case the video is focused on throws. (Thanks to Mr. Nash for this video)

While Sport Sambo grew by leaps and bounds, Combat Sambo remained the exclusive province of the military. It featured a combination of strikes, throws, grappling, and submissions to defeat enemies. But in the mid-1980s, when Shootfighting began in Japan and the Gracies were accepting challenges in California, Combat Sambo was adopted as a sport.

The sport of Combat Sambo would feature fighters wearing the same gi tops and shorts of Sport Sambo, but they would also wear open fingered gloves and in some cases headgear and shin pads. Combat Sambo features dynamic matches that allow striking standing, in the clinch and on the ground and also contains submission grappling. Fights can be won by knockout, submission, judge's decision or won via points that are awarded for throws and pins.

Combat Sambo fighters compete in a sport where athletes need to be armed with the ability to strike, grapple in the clinch, take opponents down, and submit them. It is a homegrown Russian version of Mixed Martial Arts.

Between Sport Sambo, a grappling art with relatively few restrictions, and Combat Sambo, which is essentially Mixed Martial Arts in a gi, Russia was emerging as a breeding ground for mixed martial arts talent. It did not take long for some of that talent to cross over. In 1995, Oleg Taktarov a Russian black belt in Judo and a Sport Sambo competitor won the tournament at UFC 6.

Taktarov winning a UFC title was just the first of many Russian MMA fighters to find success with a Sambo background. And considering how closely Sambo resembles MMA and the physical and technical demands it places on its athletes, he won't bet the last UFC champion to have donned a kurtka.

For More on Sambo:

Kid Nate's "The Secret Origins of Sambo"

A New York Times article on Sambo

A Sambo History Video made with Fedor

A Sambo History written by American Sambo Expert Scott Sonnon


Special Thanks to Stephen Kopfer, President of the American Sambo Association, who left an amazing comment containing some key information that has been since added to the article.