History of Sambo
(Originally Published at Sambo-Asia)
Origins and influences
Sambo’s early development stemmed from the independent efforts of Vasili Oschepkov and Victor Spiridonov, to integrate the techniques of judo, jujitsu, and other foreign martial arts into native wrestling styles. Oschepkov taught judo and karate to elite Red Army forces at the Central Red Army House. Vasili Oschepkov was one of the first foreigners to learn Judo in Japan and had earned his nidan (second degree black belt, out of then five) from judo’s founder, Kano Jigoro. Spiridonov’s background involved indigenous martial arts from various Soviet regions as well as an interest in Japanese JuJitsu (though he never formally trained it). His reliance on movement over strength was in part based on the fact that he received a bayonet wound during World War I which left his left arm lame. Both Oschepkov and Spiridonov independently hoped that Soviet military hand-to-hand combat techniques could be improved with an infusion of the techniques distilled from other foreign martial arts. 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.
Each technique was carefully dissected and considered for its merits, and if found acceptable in unarmed combat, refined to reach Sambo’s ultimate goal: to stop an armed or unarmed adversary in the least time possible. Thus, many techniques from jujutsu, judo, and other martial systems joined with the indigenous fighting styles to form the Sambo repertoire. When the techniques were perfected, they were woven into Sambo applications for personal self-defense, police, crowd control, border guards, secret police, dignitary protection, psychiatric hospital staff, military, and commandos.
In 1918, Lenin created Vsevobuch (General Military Training) under the leadership of N.I. Podvoyskiy to train the Red Army. The task of developing and organizing Red Army 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, freestyle wrestling, many Slavic wrestling styles, and Japanese jujutsu. As a combatives investigator for Dinamo, he traveled to Mongolia and China to observe their native fighting styles.
In 1923, Oschepkov and Spiridinov collaborated (independently) 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 the most practical aspects of the world’s fighting systems into one comprehensive style that could adapt to any threat. Oschepkov had observed Kano’s distillation of Tenjin Shin’yo Ryu jujutsu and Kito Ryu jujutsu into judo, and he had developed the insight required to evaluate and integrate combative techniques into a new system. Their developments were 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 Sambo.
Kharlampiev is often called the father of Sambo. This may be largely semantics, since only he had the longevity and political connections to remain with the art while the new system was named “Sambo”. However, Kharlampiev’s political maneuvering is single-handedly responsible for the USSR Committee of Sport accepting Sambo as the official combat sport of the Soviet Union in 1938 — decidedly the “birth” of Sambo. So, more accurately, Kharlampiev could be considered the father of “sport” Sambo.
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 his World War I bayonet injury, which greatly restricted his (left arm and thus his) ability to practice Sambo or wrestle. Refined versions of Sambo are still used today or fused with specific Sambo applications to meet the needs of Russian commandos today.