Sports sambo and judo look very much alike at first glance. To the uninitiated, they may even seem like the same grappling martial art but with a different uniform. But the closer you look, the more differences you will see.
The primary distinctions between judo and sambo are in their competition rules and philosophies. Judo forbids leg grabs, all possible takedowns that result from them, and all joint submissions except to the elbow. On the other hand, Sambo employs various takedowns but does not allow for chokes.
Further investigation of the subject will reveal numerous other differences and the unavoidable similarities stemming from the fact that judo is the primary foundation upon which sambo was created.
What Is Sambo?
Sambo is a Russian martial art and a combat sport, created in the Soviet Union as a self-defense and combat system. The name itself is an acronym of the term “self-defense without weapons.”
Sambo was created to improve the hand-to-hand combat capabilities of the soldiers in the Red Army and, since its inception, has used practical techniques from other martial arts.
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Sambo’s roots were developed by the independent efforts of Vasili Oshchepkov and Viktor Spiridonov. Oshchepkov learned judo from its creator, Jigoro Kano, in Tokyo and later introduced it to Russia.
On the other hand, Spiridonov was a wrestling and martial arts scholar (as well as a practitioner and a WW1 veteran) who gathered effective techniques and aspects from traditional wrestling styles found in the USSR’s republics.
While they did not cooperate in creating a combat style, their efforts were continued, supplemented, and finalized by Anatoly Kharalampiev. In 1938, sambo was declared the martial art of the Motherland by the All-USSR State Sports Committee and became an official combat sport.
There are two very distinct styles of sambo. The first one is sports sambo, a purely grappling combat sport that is a mixture of wrestling and judo.
The second is combat sambo, which includes punches, kicks, elbows, knees, chokes, head butts, and most available submissions. Until the late 1990s, combat sambo was reserved purely for the military. Still, today it’s widely practiced, and it has its own sports competitions.
What Is Judo?
Judo is a martial art and a popular combat sport that originated in 19th century Japan. It is a grappling-based martial art whose primary goal is to control and dominate the opponent.
The objective in competitive judo is to throw the opponent, immobilize him on the ground, or submit him via various chokes and joint locks. No strikes are evident in judo outside of the pre-arranged forms called kata.
Judo has had a significant influence on modern martial arts. Its core philosophy and protocol, such as the use of colored belts, the use of kimono, and the distinction between different training modalities, were adopted by karate and many other martial arts.
Master Jigoro Kano created Judo. He pursued mastery in jiu-jitsu as a youth and made major reformations to the skills he had learned, resulting in Kano jiu-jitsu, which was later renamed Judo. The word judo means “the gentle way” or “the way of softness,” which is a central principle of the art.
Judo has been an Olympic sport since 1964 and has a tremendous worldwide reach in popularity and student participation. Judo served as a sprouting root for many martial arts like sambo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and hapkido and has served as a base for many successful MMA fighters.
Key Differences Between Sambo and Judo
For a more detailed look at the differences, we will compare judo with sports sambo as two grappling sports. Combat sambo is more similar to MMA, and the differences with judo are too significant and noticeable to expand.
The object in a judo match is to throw the opponent to the ground, pin him and hold him on his back, or force him to submit to a choke, strangulation, or arm lock.
The only joint locks allowed in judo are to the elbow as they are deemed safe enough to be performed full force. Many other joint locks that were allowed in the past have been gradually banned for safety reasons.
Matches are contested on a judo mat and are scored in four grades: ippon, waza-ari, yuko, and koka, with ippon being a full point resulting in a sudden win, waza-ri a half point, and yuko and koka being used as tie-breakers.
Sport Sambo has a similar scoring system to judo. Two competitors face off in a round matted area for 5 minutes. A perfect throw of the opponent on his back leads to a direct victory, while throws that are not perfect (you don’t remain standing) earn points depending on the quality.
Pins and hold downs also score points, but only once a match. The allowed submissions are armlocks and straight leg locks. No chokes, neck cranks, heel hooks, or twists are permitted.
However, there is a ruleset called Freestyle sambo which is still a grappling-only competition but with more open rules regarding allowed submissions, including chokes.
Judo is practiced in a uniform called a judogi consisting of cotton drawstring pants and a quilted cotton jacket. The jacket is held by a colored belt that indicates the practitioner’s rank.
Sambo uses a very similar jacket called a kurtka. The bottom of the uniform consists of tight shorts very similar to modern MMA compression shorts and wrestling-type shoes. For easier visual distinction, one competitor must wear a blue uniform while the other must wear a red one.
Judo includes various throws, rolls, hold-downs, and submissions separated into two main categories: throwing techniques (nage-waza) and ground techniques (katame-waza), with each category further subdivided.
The gradual cropping of the sport’s rules left judo without many of its original tools and techniques. Because leg grabbing the legs is forbidden in competition judo, essentially to remove the single and double leg takedowns. Practitioners rely on throws and trips to get the opponent to the ground.
Once on the mat, a judoka can choose between various straight arm locks like the arm bar and a slew of regular and lapel chokes like the triangle, rear naked choke, and the sliding lapel choke.
However, these are only the competition legal submissions. Judo has many other chokes and joint locks that are still taught in some schools and are practiced in free sparring.
Sambo is much more open in terms of rules, with a strong emphasis on throwing the opponent to the ground, ideally while still standing.
Sambist’s arsenal is diverse, including wrestling takedowns, judo throws, and sweeps. In sports sambo, the ruleset also encourages aggressive grappling, and arm locks and straight-leg locks are very common.
Most sambo practitioners also train in freestyle and combat sambo, so they have a large arsenal of submissions.
Another big difference between judo and sambo is grading systems. Judo is a hierarchical martial art where rank is earned in the form of a colored belt. Belts are awarded based on skills and knowledge of the sport.
Below, black belt levels are called kyū, and black belt levels are called dan. Jigoro Kano developed this system for judo, and most modern martial arts have since adopted it.
Sambo does not have a strict grading system, but there is a competitive ranking system. Athletes can also earn certain ranks, like Master of the Sport, awarded by their country’s sports organization based on their sports merits.
Competition Scene and availability
Judo wins by a wide margin in the availability and competition level with sambo. Judo has been in the Olympics for half a century, bringing large amounts of money and popularity to the sport.
Millions of people practice judo around the world, with an intense competition scene in most countries aiming to produce Olympic champions, thus creating a very deep pool of talent.
Sambo has significantly less reach. The smaller financial incentives and the fewer possibilities for competition and fame inevitably attract fewer practitioners overall. Sambo is popular in Russia and the former Soviet bloc but very niche everywhere else.
Aside from the technicalities, sambo and judo differ significantly in their principles. Kano created judo with two core principles in mind. The first is “maximum efficiency, minimum effort,” and the second is “mutual welfare and benefit.”
He was adamant that his martial arts be used as a system to develop the mind and spirit in unison with the body and that you should practice it with kindness towards the opponent.
Sambo does not have an underlying philosophy other than winning at all costs. Much like western martial arts, it was created with effectiveness as its central pillar.
This does not mean it does not teach discipline and respect inside and outside the gym, but this occurs naturally and is not a set aspect of the martial art.
Sambo vs. Judo For Self Defense
In its current form, sambo is much more effective for self-defense. Originally, judo was a complete grappling martial art. Still, with the gradual cropping of the competition rules, many techniques became forbidden and less and less practiced in the dojo because you couldn’t use them in competition.
The stricter a combat sports ruleset is, the less practical it is in a real-life scenario. Still, judo will teach you many effective techniques, composure, and confidence in dangerous situations.
On the other hand, Sambo employs many more techniques and values aggression, which makes it very good for self-defense. Most sambists train in combat sambo, which is one of the best styles on the planet for self-defense.
It includes striking with every body part, wrestling, and grappling. Furthermore, the grappling in sambo is aggressive and fast-paced, which is more usable in a frantic self-defense scenario where every second counts.
Sambo vs. Judo For MMA
Many successful MMA fighters come from both judo and sambo backgrounds. Still, comparing them, the more successful ones have a sambo background.
The two biggest names that boast world titles in combat sambo are Fedor Emelianenko and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Both are amongst the greatest (if not the greatest) heavyweights and lightweights, respectively.
The reason why sambo is better for MMA again comes down to the competition rules. A sambo competitor has a much broader skill set, even without training in combat sambo, compared to the tightly specialized judo players.
The absence of leg takedowns in judo further diminishes its effectiveness in the cage.
Of course, sambo also has a lot of holes, and any fighter that wants to perform well in MMA must adapt to his art and learn many new skills. But once we include combat sambo in the picture, the Russian system comes as close as it gets to MMA without actually being it.
Is It Easier to Learn Sambo or Judo?
Competitive combat sports are inherently difficult, and it’s impossible to discern which is easier. Sambo has many more skills to learn and is perhaps a bit more physical than judo.
On the other hand, the competitive scene in judo is as fierce as it gets, and reaching the higher levels is much harder than in sambo.
Should You Do Sambo Or Judo?
If you have a choice between the two, you should do what is closest to your heart. Judo’s profoundly ethical and philosophical code underpins a highly developed competitive scene, combining both tradition and modern sports.
Sambo lacks the code of judo and gives you little chance to earn money and fame if you are outside of Russia, but it teaches more skills and is more effective for self-defense and MMA. Whichever you choose, you will earn many great benefits given that you pay with your time and dedication.