Sambo vs. Wrestling: What’s The Difference?

September 25, 2022

People have been wrestling for thousands of years, and many styles are still preserved. But two of the most popular forms of grappling are wrestling and Sambo.

Wrestling is a pure grappling sport where the goal of the contest is to pin both shoulders of the opponent to the mat. Sambo is a Russian hybrid combat sport and martial art that allows submissions as a viable way to win and throws your opponent on his back. Some rules in Sambo also allow striking.

It’s easy to see that Sambo and wrestling have a lot in common but quite a lot that sets them apart. Both are mainly grappling combat sports, but what exactly is the difference?

What Is Sambo?

Sambo is a Russian national martial art, first created in the 1930s in the Soviet Union as a system for hand-to-hand combat for the servicemen of the Red Army. The name is an acronym for “self-defense without weapons” in Russian.

It was created by the individual efforts of Viktor Spiridonov and Vasili Oshchepkov, who were mixing techniques from different martial arts to create a more effective system.

Judo became the primary backbone of the new system. Still, Sambo implemented many more techniques from catch wrestling and other martial arts in Sambo, which was accepted as the official combat sport of the USSR in 1938.

Sambo has multiple variations, which can be pretty different from each other. The most prevalent version is called sports Sambo, which resembles traditional Judo quite a lot. It is a pure grappling sport that allows a variety of takedowns, trips, and throws, as well as multiple submissions.

The other main version of the Russian sport is combat Sambo. Initially, combat sambo was developed and used solely by the military and some special police branches. Still, at the end of the 1980s, it was gradually opened to the general population.

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It includes striking in addition to grappling. The striking aspect is extraordinarily free and allows almost every strike possible, including head butts. Combat sambo is very similar to MMA, but the rules are very different, changing how matches are played quite a bit.

Sambo has been made very popular worldwide by the legendary Fedor Emelianenko and Khabib Nurmagomedov after him. Both are combat Sambo world champions and two of the greatest MMA fighters of all time, attributing their success in the cage to Sambo. 

What Is Wrestling?

Wrestling is one of the oldest forms of unarmed combat. Every single major culture in history has had some form of wrestling practiced. There are records of competitive wrestling dating back to 3000BC, and it was a very prestigious and important activity in Ancient Greece and Rome.

There are countless variations of wrestling, including Sambo and Judo. All of which are united to ground an opponent in a particular position or hold him there.

However, in modern times the term wrestling is used mainly for the Olympic version of the sport. The Greco-Roman and catch-as-catch styles were developed in the 19th century and became the dominant wrestling form in the west.

Catch-as-catch wrestling is a freestyle with almost no holds barred, and many different locks are used to force the opponent into a pin. Still, a match can also be won by submission.

In the 1920s Olympic games, the freestyle we know today was adopted, which removed the holds and joint locks. The main goal of freestyle wrestling is to throw the opponent to the mat and pin their shoulders for a short duration.

Key Differences Between Sambo & Wrestling

Sambo vs Wrestling For Self Defense

As I’ve explained, both Sambo and wrestling have different rulesets, which can be quite different from each other. To make a proper comparison between the two styles, we will use the most popular versions of both sports—freestyle wrestling and sports sambo.


Wrestling matches are divided into two periods of three minutes each, with a 30-second break in between. The mat on which matches are contested is 9 meters in diameter.

The primary objective of the match is to pin both shoulders of the opponent on the mat for a short period, which leads to immediate victory by “fall.”

If there is no pin, the match is won by points. There is a specific scoring system in which wrestlers are awarded points for offensive moves like takedowns and reversals and putting the opponents back on the ground.

Sambo matches are contested on an 8-meter mat for five minutes. In sports sambo, there are multiple ways to score points and win a match. These are throws, hold-downs, and submissions.

A throw on the back earns the highest score; if the thrower remains standing, he automatically wins. Different moves earn different points; a match is over if one competitor has an 8-point advantage.

Aside from throws and takedowns, holding the opponent to the ground also scores points. The last method of earning points and winning is by applying a submission. Straight arm and leg locks are allowed in sports sambo, while chokes and most other submissions are not.


Wrestlers wear a singlet, which is a form-fitting one-piece uniform. The singlet is tight-fitting around the body to allow the referee to clearly see the competitors’ bodies and, most importantly, to make accidental grabs extremely difficult. Wrestlers also wear flexible shoes that provide an excellent grip on the mat.

Sambo practitioners wear a jacket called a kurtka, similar to a judo gi. The big difference with wrestling is that the kurtka can be grabbed and used to aid in takedowns and control the opponent. On the bottom, sambists wear tight shorts and shoes very similar to wrestling shoes.

In both wrestling and Sambo, one competitor wears a red uniform while the other must wear a blue one.


Freestyle wrestling allows the use of the whole body to take the opponent to the ground, so there are many ways to attack and many things to defend. The most common takedown techniques are double and single-leg takedowns, but they are far from the only ones.

Leg trips, as well as the fireman’s carry and duck under, are very common. Wrestlers are also skilled at applying pressure and finishing takedowns with underhooks and overhooks.

On the surface, this may seem like a somewhat limited move list compared to other grappling arts. Still, each takedown technique has enormous detail and different ways to finish and defend.

Then, once on the mat, there is much more to learn. For example, how to pin the shoulders of the opponent and prevent him from doing it to you.

Sambo has a plethora of techniques because, in addition to the wrestling takedowns permitted in Sambo, there are additional legal ways to bring someone to the mat. The jacket can be grabbed and used, allowing various new maneuvers and scramble options.

In addition, some submissions are legal. While chokes and neck and spine cranks are off limits, the arm and leg lock game in Sambo is unparalleled in other grappling martial arts.

Sambo vs. Wrestling For Self Defense

Sambo vs Wrestling

Sambo is better suited for self-defense due to its more liberal ruleset. It was initially designed as a self-defense system and serves that purpose admirably. Even sports Sambo, without any striking, teaches devastating takedowns, including the use of clothing, which is very effective in real-life situations.

Many sambists also practice combat sambo, which may be the best martial art for self-defense. The use of strikes with each body part, wrestling, and all available submissions makes it highly effective for self-defense. After all, it is a combat system designed for the military.

With that said, wrestling can also teach you valuable self-defense skills. Wrestlers are very tough and athletic people and can slam a person onto the concrete in seconds. Their body control can also be beneficial in incapacitating an attacker without the need to harm him.

Sambo vs. Wrestling For MMA

Generally, Sambo should be better for MMA as well because it has more tools at its disposal. And this is sports, Sambo. Combat sambo is very similar to modern MMA. Some of the greatest MMA fighters of all time, Fedor Emelianenko and Khabib Nurmagomedov, are combat sambo world champions.

But an essential factor in wrestling is hard to replicate elsewhere. As an Olympic sport, wrestling is very prestigious all around the world. The more popular a sport is, the more money and respect there is, and the more people want to get to the top.

Wrestling is infamous for its highly competitive and rigorous competitions, which instill a one-of-a-kind mentality in high-caliber wrestlers.

It has been proven repeatedly that former wrestling champions are some of the toughest MMA fighters, both mentally and physically. Think about the success of Henry Cejudo, Daniel Cormier, Randy Couture, and Cain Velazquez, to name a few.

It is tough to determine if Sambo or wrestling is a better base for MMA, given that some of the greatest fighters came from one of the two. So, it’s safe to say that both are amazing.

Does Sambo Have Wrestling?

Does Sambo Have Wrestling

Unlike its forefather, Judo, where leg grabs are banned, Sambo allows attacking the legs for a takedown. This means wrestling takedowns like the single and double leg are also very commonly used in Sambo. Because of this, wrestling is an essential component of Sambo.

Sambo vs. Wrestling: Who Would Win?

Sambo should have the upper hand in a fight without rules, just by its variety. While strikers have a hard time defending a takedown, sambists are also grapplers but with a more diverse skill set.

Of course, in a pure wrestling match, wrestling easily wins. Wrestlers are also usually stronger, faster, and more durable by the nature of their sport, and the use of clothing in Sambo lowers the need to use raw physical power to win. 

Should You Learn Sambo or Wrestling?

Sambo and wrestling have proven to be incredible martial arts and combat sports. The skills and physical and mental qualities they develop are worth mountains of gold. If you are looking for a more diverse skillset to use in MMA and self-defense, Sambo is probably the better choice.

But if you are looking for a professional career path, wrestling has infinitely more to offer. Even in countries with well-developed Sambo, such as Russia and the former Soviet bloc, being a wrestling champion is one of the highest sporting honors you can achieve.

Olympic and world champion wrestlers become celebrities and earn significantly more money and respect.

So, the choice will be tricky if you have both Sambo and wrestling available to train. But you can’t go wrong in either case.

About the author 

Plamen Kostov

Plamen has been training for the last 14 years in karate and kickboxing, before settling in for MMA for the last 5 years. He has a few amateur kickboxing fights and currently trains with and helps a stable of professional and amateur MMA fighters.


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