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The History of Sombo


By Dr. Brett Jacques and Scott Anderson

Photo credits to B.J. D’Urso. Translation credits to Dr. Robert Suggs

November 6, 1998

…Everyone saw the similarities between sambo and judo, but no-one was prepared for the effect that the Soviets were going to have on the evolution of judo over the next twenty-five years. To say that they were unorthodox is an understatement, and it was particularly their numerous variations on armlocks which took everyone by surprise. Up until this time a flying juji-gatame had never been seen in competition, but it was apparent that they were very well-rehearsed moves from a very highly-trained team.

Neil Adams in Judo Masterclass Techniques, Armlocks

Page 9, Reference 1

Sambo, sport wrestling, permitting the application of painful holds; also a means of self-defense in a fight against a stronger or armed enemy. (Composed of an abbreviated form of the word SAM [ozashchita] and the initial letters of the words B[ez] and O[ruzhiya].

The Dictionary of the Russian Language, of the Institute of Russian Language, of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, volume IV, page 16

Every SOMBO practitioner winces when a well meaning martial arts savant describes SOMBO as Russian judo, or better yet, Russian combat judo. That is akin to describing karate as western boxing but with kicks. There is a relationship, of course, but more like third cousins thrice removed.

The founders of SOMBO sifted deliberately through all of the world’s martial arts to augment their military’s hand-to-hand combat system. One of these men, Vasili Oshchepkov, taught judo and karate to elite Red Army forces at the Central Red Army House. He had earned his nidan (second degree black belt) from judo’s founder, Jigaro Kano, and used some of the Osensei’s philosophy in formulating the early development of the new Russian art.

SOMBO, however, was born of native Russian and other regional styles of grappling and combat wrestling bolstered with the most useful and adaptable concepts and techniques from the rest of the world. As the unfortunate buffer between Europe and Asia, Russia had more than ample opportunities to sift through 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 SOMBO’s genesis are Tuvin kuresh, Yakuts khapsagay, Chuvash akatuy, Georgian chidaoba, Moldavian trinte, Azeri kokh, and Uzbek kurash to name a few. The foreign influences included Dutch Self-Defense (a European version of Javanese Pentjak Silat), various styles of Catch-as Catch-Can wrestling, savate, muy thai, wu shu, jujitsu, and other martial arts of the day plus the classical Olympic sports of boxing, Greco-Roman and free-style wrestling. SOMBO even derived lunging and parrying techniques from fencing.

Fencing was included in this list because SOMBO’s founders recognized that swordsmanship and unarmed combat have been linked throughout the ages. The samurai of feudal Japan needed their jujitsu for the occasions when they did not wish to harm an opponent, or when they themselves were unfortunately swordless on the battlefield. Fencing concepts such as the lunge had already been incorporated into savate to increase the art’s striking distances.

SOMBO’s early development stemmed from the independent efforts of Oshchepkov and another Russian, Victor Spiridonov, to integrate the techniques of judo into native wrestling styles. Both men hoped that the Soviet wrestling styles could be improved by an infusion of the newfangled techniques distilled from jujitsu by Kano into his new style of jacket wrestling.

In 1918, V. Lenin created Vseobuch (Bceobshchee voennoye obuchienie or General Military Training) under the leadership of N.I. Podovoyskiy to train the Red Army. The task of developing and organizing Russian military hand-to-hand combat training fell to K. Voroshilov, who in turn, created the NKVD physical training center, “Dinamo.” Spiridonov was a combat veteran of World War I, and one of the first wrestling and self-defense instructors hired for Dinamo. His background included Greco-Roman wrestling, American Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestling, Pankration, and many Slavic wrestling styles. As a “combatives investigator” for Dinamo, he traveled to Mongolia, China, and India to observe their native fighting styles. In 1923, Oshchepkov and Spiridinov collaborated with a team of other experts on a grant from the Soviet government to improve the Red Army’s hand-to-hand combat system. Spiridonov had envisioned integrating all of the world’s fighting systems into one comprehensive style that could adapt to any threat. Oshchepkov had observed Kano’s distillation of Tenjin Shin’yo Ryu jujitsu and Kito Ryu jujitsu into judo, and he had developed the insight required to evaluate and integrate combative techniques into a new system. Their development team was supplemented by Anatoly Kharlampiev and I.V. Vasiliev who also traveled the globe to study the native fighting arts of the world. Ten years in the making, their catalogue of techniques was instrumental in formulating the early framework of the art to be eventually referred to as SOMBO. Here, Oshchepkov and Spiridonov’s improvements in Russian wrestling slipped into the military’s hand-to-hand-combat system.

Kharlampiev is often called the father of SOMBO. This may be largely semantics since only he had the longevity and political connections to remain with the art while the new system was called “SAM” or “SAMOZ” or “SAMBA” and finally “SAMBO/SOMBO.” Spiridonov was the first to actually begin referring to the new system as one of the “S” variations cited above. He eventually developed a softer, more “aikido-like” system called SAMOZ that could be used by smaller, weaker practitioners or even wounded soldiers and secret agents. Spiridonov’s inspiration to develop SAMOZ stemmed from an injury that he suffered that greatly restricted his ability to practice SOMBO or wrestling. Refined versions of SAMOZ are still used today or fused with specific SOMBO applications to meet the needs of Russian commandos today.

Each technique for SOMBO was carefully dissected and considered for its merits, and if found acceptable in unarmed combat, refined to reach SOMBO’s ultimate goal: stop an armed or unarmed adversary in the least time possible. Thus, the best techniques of jujitsu and its softer cousin, judo, entered the SOMBO repertoire. When the techniques were perfected, they were woven into SOMBO applications for personal self-defense, police, crowd control, border guards, secret police, dignitary protection, psychiatric hospital staff, military, and commandos.

These applications were often further subdivided. SOMBO devoted particular time to developing teamwork in the police and internal security applications. It was crucial that officers and agents not work against each other while arresting dangerous fugitives or spies. SOMBO designed and rehearsed rescue tactics for comrades being attacked by armed or unarmed assailants. It was important that the rescuer act quickly, but not worsen the situation with his efforts. Here again, teamwork enhanced tactics. If the victim were also trained in the rescue tactics, he could aid his rescuer in effecting his escape.

Many applications had specific situational or occupational techniques. For example, there is a series of techniques to be used by bureaucrats and other officials who might be attacked while working at their desks. Particular emphasis was paid to using the environment (i.e. using the desk, the chair, or even a pen) as both weapon and shield.

Ironically, the military applications developed defensive techniques against weapons that quickly became offensive techniques with the same weapons when they were stripped away from their attackers. A partial inventory of this weapon training includes bayonet fencing, clubs, knives, handguns, and unconventional weapons such as entrenching tools, hats, jackets, and chairs.

Jigaro Kano derived judo (“the Gentle Way”) from jujitsu to be both a sport and system of physical and moral education that could preserve the Japanese martial tradition and be readily used for self-defense.

Kano had observed that jujitsu had been in decline since the 1871 Decree Abolishing the Wearing of Swords. Kano started jujitsu practice when he entered Tokyo Imperial University and encountered some of the larger hooligans in the area. Jujitsu would strengthen his body while giving him the techniques needed to beat larger opponents. Unfortunately, the dojos of the day were often haphazard in their teaching, and it was not uncommon for the senior students to brutalize the initiates as part of their own training.

In my youth I studied jujutsu under many eminent masters…each man presented his art as a collection of techniques. None perceived the guiding principles behind jujutsu. When I encountered differences in the teaching of techniques, I often found myself at a loss to know which was correct. This led me to look for an underlying principle in jujutsu, one that applied when one hit the opponent as well as when on threw him…I discerned an all-pervasive principle: to make the most efficient use of mental and physical energy…I again reviewed all the methods of attack and defense I had learned, retaining only those that were in accordance with the principle…The resulting body of technique, which I named judo to distinguish it from its predecessor, is what is taught at the Kodokan.

Jigaro Kano,Kodokan Judo

Page 16 of Reference 9

In 1882, Kano opened the Kodokan to teach his judo. He was 22 years old and used space in the Eishoji Temple on eight straw mats called tatami. In his first year, he had nine students. He did not call his art jujitsu; he hoped to break away from the stigma of the past. His new system was simplified and logical. By 1885, he had perfected his concept of kuzushi (unbalancing the opponent prior to initiating a technique) that would allow his students to beat most every practitioner of the remaining jujitsu schools. Whereas jujitsu concentrated on winning, judo would concentrate on physical and moral development through kata (prearranged technique sequences) and randori (competitive free sparring). The self-defense techniques were collected into the Atemi Waza and taught after students mastered the basic precepts of the art.

SOMBO, as its name implies, was a combat system that developed a sport version to condition the troops and allow them to practice combat techniques in a relatively safe environment.

Sport SOMBO in Russian is Bor’ba CAMBO and is often translated as SOMBO wrestling. Although the military used the term SOMBO in the 1930s, the sport originally was called free style wrestling (not to be confused with the Olympic sport of today) and did not take on the name of SOMBO officially until 1946. The same year, Kharlampiev assumed the presidency of the All-Union SOMBO section. In this transition period, Combat SOMBO and SOMBO wrestling did much to assimilate each other’s techniques. However, neither application ever absorbed the other style entirely. The combat system adapted to field conditions while the “freestyle wrestling” specialized in the limited warfare engaged in on the competitive mat.

The Great October Socialist Revolution opened the way for the further development of national forms of wrestling. By the 1930s, study of the national and ethnic forms of wrestling had already led to the recognition of the need to create a new, all-union form of wrestling which might assist in resolving the task of preparing Soviet youth for work and for defense, and at the same time might give to wrestlers of various ethnic groups and nationalities the possibility of meeting in the sports arena.

E. Chumakov, One Hundred SOMBO Wrestling Lessons

Page 22 of Reference 4

SOMBO practitioners fore go the gi of Japan and fight in SOMBO boots (“cambofki”), “kurtki (jackets),” and shorts so that the bout referees can judge the severity and risk of injury from SOMBO’s potentially crippling leg locks and Achilles tendon stretches. SOMBO’s birth date is listed officially as November 16, 1938 when the All-Union Committee of Physical Culture and Sport recognized sport SOMBO (at that time, the sport was still called free style wrestling). A. M. Rubanchik was the first president of the All-Union SOMBO section. SOMBO training was conducted by units in Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkov, Saratov, and Baku.

These were dangerous times for the Soviet Union, and the government wanted a civilian populace that had “sport” skills that could be readily translated into military skills for perceived threats from Nazi Germany or even Finland. At last, civilians were allowed to practice the new Russian fighting system. Individual championships were first held in 1939, and team and individual championships were first held in 1949. The first team championships featured fighters from eight Soviet republics plus Leningrad and Moscow. The Dinamo team won the championship.

Two world wars and relative geographic isolation permitted SOMBO to develop uninfluenced by later judo philosophy and technique revisions. Also, in the late 1930s, the Soviet Union took on a siege mentality and recoiled defensively against foreigners and their outside influences. Vasili Oshchepkov with his nidan in judo and contacts in Japan’s Kodokan did not survive the purges of 1937.

Eventually, the SOMBists deemed their sport sufficiently perfected to test it on the international scene. The only international style of jacket wrestling was sport judo. When SOMBO fighters emerged from their Soviet isolation onto the mats of the Essen European Judo Championships in 1962, the Old World immediately noticed the similarities between the two fighting systems. The judoka, however, saw so many differences that SOMBists were at best considered unorthodox. Nonetheless, the Soviet team took third place in the event capturing five medals. A. Kiknadze of Tbilisi won the title of Absolute Champion of Europe.

…It was the arrival of the Russians… which changed many of the traditional attitudes, at least outside Japan. Here were fighters who had very different training methods, and who were accustomed to picking up opponents at any opportunity. They were not worried whether the techniques had proper Japanese name (sic) or not. Their aim was to throw their opponents flat on there (sic) backs-and uranage was just as good as seoi-nage as far as they were concerned. Furthermore, they trained for this, both physically and technically.

This fresh view prised open competition judo. Suddenly, nothing seemed sacred any more. Top champions suddenly became concerned about coming in with a strong forward attack for fear of being unceremoniously dumped backwards.

Robert van de Walle, Judo Masterclass Techniques, Pick-Ups

Page 17 of Reference 14

However, it was only recently, during the 1960s, that the Russians revolutionised modern-day judo with their unorthodox techniques derived from sambo wrestling, thus opening up a whole new range of ideas for modern judoka.

Neil Adams, Judo Masterclass Techniques: Armlocks

Page 8 of Reference 1

Pick-Ups in judo refers to the group of techniques including morote-gari, sukui-nage, ura-nage, kata-garuma, etc. which are considered wrestling techniques as opposed to techniques true to the spirit of judo. Properly executed, a pick-up does, however, score the same point as a classical judo throw.

Through Oshchepkov, the Soviets were well aware of traditional judo training practices but did not always find them practical for their purposes. SOMBO training was based on traditional wrestling instruction bolstered with the latest western athletic training science and philosophy. The wrestling model was particularly useful to the Soviets since much of their military was already versed in their own ethnic styles of combat wrestling. The curriculum was based on learning to use and counter the techniques most likely to be encountered on the streets or the battlefield. It started simply and progressed in range and depth of techniques based on the individual student’s training needs.

The Japanese under Kano’s influence perfected the concept of the martial art where perfection of technique could lead to personal development and enlightenment. The Russians perfected the concept of survival in combat. They did not train to perfect the technique; they trained to become proficient with the technique in all situations. The Russians understood that a partner who is compliant in kata could be quite perverse as an actual adversary. Multiple attackers would some how not be in the designated places at the right time as specified in any kata.

Kano’s genius in creating judo from the many jujitsu ryus was in simplifying the techniques and scouring away the redundant and over complex techniques from the Japanese systems. Kano was always tinkering with the right mix of kata and randori to train his students. He and Oshchepkov were both proponents of kata as a means of training students in their systems. However, most of Oshchepkov’s fellow combatives investigators deemed the practical, fluid and unchoreographed applications found in competitions to be superior training vehicles to hone the reflexes and instincts that fighters needed to survive. In that, they were more like the old jujitsu instructors who concentrated on winning above all.

Therefore, the Soviets developed a combative calculus to handle all the variations that could occur in real life. They did not rely on kata except in the most general sense. When they studied the shoulder throw, they explored all the variations at one time, so the student would not be confused or thrown off by minor deviations in execution. It was not important to master the perfect shoulder throw; it was important to knock the adversary down and submit, damage, or kill him. Instead of hard rules, they developed rules of thumb to guide the fighter. Because real life is not the controlled classroom, their motto became philosophy, not plan.

SOMBists supplemented their techniques and tactics with psychological conditioning, aerobic conditioning, and weight resistance training. In sport, it might be enough to be a technical fighter, but in actual combat, it was better to be a tough, technical fighter.

The Russians explored techniques from all angles without prejudice except that a technique must be effective and able to be integrated smoothly into a fighter’s overall repertoire. Standing techniques were examined to see if they could be executed as groundwork and vice versa. If a technique, such as a sweep, were executed with a foot, could a variation be developed using a knee or a hand? In which situations might that version apply?

The traditional taxonomies of other martial arts were checked for relevancy in modern times and conditions. The primary condition of acceptance remained: could a technique down the adversary quickly and totally?

If the big lifts of Olympic wrestling filled the role, then so be it. These techniques may appear initially to be dramatic demonstrations of physical power, but like most judo techniques, they are often ingenious combinations of set-ups, grips, footwork, and timing. Thus, the high double leg takedown and the snatch double leg takedown became variants of morote-gari while the suplex became an ura-nage variant.

…favoured by Soviet fighters, probably as a result of their tradition in Sombo wrestling. It [a grappling-style approach to judo] involves getting the most possible amount of body contact, closing right in on an opponent and putting him under severe pressure to make a mistake. Aesthetically, it is certainly not as appealing as the traditional style, but there is no denying its effectiveness.

Peter Seisenbacher and George Kerr, Modern Judo, Techniques of East and West

Page 92 of Reference 12

Judo rules and strategy centered on securing the throw. SOMBO fighters worked to a much larger extent for the submission. The Soviets often used the throw or take down specifically to set up the submission. The SOMBO equivalent of judo’s throwing “ippon” is called “ultimate victory.” One full point or “ippon” immediately ends a judo bout when one fighter scores ippon or when the cumulative value of one point is earned in a match. Where the ippon may be scored with a sacrifice technique such as tomoe-nage, a SOMBist must remain standing to score an ultimate victory with a take down or throw.

Judo submissions often came from jime-waza (chokes and strangles). In sport jujitsu and judo, chokes are different from strangles. The former cuts off the flow of blood to the brain while strangles cut off the air supply to the brain. A good technique may be both a choke and a strangle. An excellent technique may a choke, a strangle, and a joint lock all at the same time. Judo banned leg and ankle locks from the sport although they were common in the Atemi Waza. Sport SOMBO banned chokes and strangles while combat SOMBO used them extensively, but not to the degree found in the oriental arts. Alexander Retuinskih cited this difference in Russian Style Hand to Hand Combat:

…Popular judo choke holds using the collar of the clothing are based upon the national peculiarities of the kimono costume with its wide, loose-fitting lapels. For this reason, under our conditions, with buttoned-up collars, thick lapels, and frozen fingers, it’s not worth the trouble to misuse exotic holds…

Paragraph 4.2.4 of Reference 8

Retuinskih was referring to another native Russian system that he taught under the All-Russian Federation of Russian Martial Art (RFRMA) at the RETAL Center for Russian Martial Art in St. PetersburgRETAL also has renovated programs for Sambo/Judo using Retuinskih's System R.O.S.S. His comments are relevant because this same native style influenced the striking, blocking, and kicking aspects of SOMBO’s development. Many of SOMBO’s kick counters may appear to be generic grappling but are made unique by the system of blocks and evasions.

In judo, ippon may also be scored from an osae-komi waza (a hold down) technique, but in SOMBO; the hold down may only score points. Depending on the duration of the hold down, two or four points may be scored in the match one time by each opponent. A twelve point lead scores ultimate victory. Only if the hold down points cause a twelve point lead, can the hold down end a match. This reflects SOMBO’s combat philosophy. Hold downs seldom end actual conflicts in the real world. That an adversary is trapped on his or her back does not alter the fact that the SOMBist applying the technique is only free to leave if the person on bottom is willing to let him go as well.

In combat or the streets, if the fighter on bottom can hold on to his adversary on top until his comrades arrive to help, then the person on top has effectively lost the encounter. In SOMBO, a proficient fighter easily moves from a holddown position to a submission hold to end a contest. That is the preferred method of winning in the sport as well as the real world.

The common ground for submissions in both arts lay kansetsu-waza (arm locks). Since sport SOMBO never allowed chokes or strangles, this application of the art became adept at snagging arm locks from all angles and positions. Many judoka were surprised, and thus, dismayed by SOMBO’s single-minded quest for the arm lock-including the flying arm bars of juji-gatame (cross body arm lock). Worse, the Russians did not even use the traditional kumikata (grips) habitually used on the judo mat. The SOMBO fighters grabbed and threw their opponents by their belts or trousers. The Soviets did wrestling picks and double leg take downs to score ippon, or minor points to set up their submissions. This was very disconcerting to the world of European judo.

Sombo has no strangles, but what it did allow were armlocks, and the Russians wreaked absolute havoc with their clinically efficient juji-gatames, sometimes brought off from the standing position! Their judo was characterized by its unorthodox flavour, but they had many fighters with good, strong koshi-waza (hip techniques), frequently performed by taking an initial grip on the opponent’s belt, and had considerable success in the early years with their specialized version of ura-nage, which they imported from sombo.

Peter Seisenbacher and George Kerr, Modern Judo, Techniques of East and West

Page 167 of Reference 12

Part 2 Of The History Of Sombo

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