Combat Sambo and Its Use as Self Defense


This is a Q and A session by Russian journalist and Sambo expert Mikhail Didenko. It outlines numerous questions and answers about the world of Sambo and includes an attached video as well. We would like to thank Mikhail for his expertise and contribution. Be sure to check out his Facebook group.


We live in the 21st century, and use powerful computers just for entertainment. Still self-defense is not an obsolete word. Sometimes we need to protect ourselves as our far ancestors did thousands years ago. Sooner or later we realize the necessity of fighting skills. But what martial art is more reasonable to choose? And if we are going to protect our life on a street, not on a ring, would a sport martial art hit the target? Do we need sparring? Do we need mental training?

These and other ‘spicy’ questions are answered by the famous Russian combat sambo master and coach – Valery Volostnykh, a teacher of the MMA fighter Alexei Oleinik. The combat sambo is closely connected to the mysterious Russian Martial Art, it was developed by the Soviet secret services, and it gave the world Emelyanenko brothers. So these guys have some words to say.

Q. Nowadays a lot of martial artists, especially punchers, have ‘wrestlerphobia’ – they are cautious towards wrestlers concerning a street fight, because a wrestler can do a double-leg takedown for example. If we take a person who is interested in self-defense only, not in sports, should he learn some throws just to know what wrestling is?

A. You have to attend a wrestling group for some period of time where you’ll feel a real resistance of your sparring-partner in a bout to understand what it is.


Q. So is a puncher better attending a wrestling group for some period of time?

A. In combat sambo we have wrestling already so we don’t have to go to other groups. Also you need to experience sparrings.


Q. What if a person is a puncher only? And he is not a combat sambo fighter. What recommendations could you give him?

A. Anyway it’s advisable to get some practical knowledge of wrestling. Just to know what to do when a wrestler ducks and grasps your legs – and that’s it, you can do nothing. And a puncher wouldn’t even know what to do. He learned to hit a ‘target’ that is his sparring-partner’s chin. And what about a partner’s face as a target when it’s close to your solar plexus? You can see all that in the cage fights. Although there are a lot of universal fighters now. And back in the days a puncher did not know what to do when he didn’t succeed in hitting his opponent. It’s not easy because in striking martial arts a referee always breaks opponents thus giving them an opportunity to ‘reload’ and ‘shoot’ again. So they are jumping on a ring and finding the target all the time. Then such a fighter who got used to that targeting comes into the cage and there’s no such a possibility at all there. If you didn’t strike down your opponent in the very beginning, then he wouldn’t give you a second chance. And what will you do? Of course, one should have wrestling skills of some level. Not to be disoriented, know how to act when at a close distance.


Q. Still should one go easy on wrestling because he cannot come up to somebody who is a many years wrestling practitioner anyway?

A. We are talking about universality. At least one should know something about a defense against a chokehold, a submission hold. Otherwise you will be choked and your arms and legs will be broken off like you are a chicken. And when you are trained it’s not that easy to fight with you. It’s advisable to learn wrestling basics and to get a practical experience. There is all of that in combat sambo. And you can examine your skills in competitions – can you quit your trainings or should train some more.


Q. So is it more reasonable to learn combat sambo where you have that all instead of learning boxing and then freestyle wrestling which can cause a mess in your head and in your moves?

A. All other conditions being equal, yes; but people are different and the given mix is also can be good for somebody. A person might learn boxing and freestyle wrestling and he would be alright. But freestyle wrestlers don’t wrestle in clothes and we think that you should know how to wrestle with jackets (kurtkas) and without as well. All participants of street conflicts usually wear clothes – a street is not a beach, or a sauna. According to the climate conditions we don’t wear waistcloths. And military people of all countries of the world also wear regular clothes. Criminals wear clothes as well.

There are fights with jackets and without in combat sambo. We experience all combinations. And we take part in different MMA competitions with different rules and gear. That’s how the universality appears I was talking about.

Wrestling in jackets is more close to the hand-to-hand combat part of combat sambo and submission holds differ a little bit when you wrestle in a jacket. It also helps when throwing. And it looks spectacular. When your opponent in a bout has no jacket on him and he is sweaty, your hold can go loose. When you are a universal fighter you fear nothing. Fedor Emelyanenko can fight in both situations, and strikes, throws, holds – everything is on a high level. This is our role model: a universal fighter.


Q. What recommendation would you give to a person who has never wrestled and is not going to, concerning the ground fighting? Any hand-to-hand combat solutions against a wrestler?

A. Basics of the hand-to-hand combat part are submission holds and chokeholds. Partially they are needed there for broadening of your outlook, at least to know how to defend yourself against them. Sport combat is not necessary to learn for this situation, the hand-to-hand combat part is the main thing to learn. If we are talking about a usual self-defense, a person just shouldn’t let this happen. It is unlikely you encounter a world champion, who is an experienced ground fighter on a street. Why would you bring it to the ground? Your actions ought to be based upon the applied training – if your opponent reached out his hand to do a hold, you need to get out of the attack line instantly and go on. It’s not like you will be impossible to be fallen, but that would be much more difficult to do. One of the structural principles of the system is maintenance of balance. Our center of gravity shouldn’t go beyond the area of the base of support. It’s not advisable even to take an unnecessary step. Low stance is possible in sport combat: you can stride, you can slightly waltz in, you can rely on something. When in hand-to-hand combat you should move only up and down. No half-formed intentions despite who an aggressor is. By getting out of the attack line we anticipate the further actions of an opponent – he’s just reached out his hand, and I’ve got out already, and now I am alongside of him. What for to wait for an opponent grab you and start beating you? You need to cut it off at once.


Q. Are there any techniques for the ground fighting in the hand-to-hand combat part of the combat sambo?

A. Yes, there are. A person might fall or slip. He should know how to escape blows. For example somebody’s trying to kick me – I am rotating like a log, grasping his foot, and the opponent rolls over me. It’s necessary to know all such techniques, but of course you shouldn’t aim for falling and being hit from all sides.


Q. A frequent situation on a street: two men were fighting and then they fell down in a clinch. What to do in such a situation?

A. In this situation it’s better to have some wrestling skills. At least skills of defense in the ground fighting, to minimize the potential damage. That’s why we try not to separate the hand-to-hand combat part and sport combat one of combat sambo. On some level at least. I start my courses with teaching the hand-to-hand combat part – knife and stick fighting elements, so that my students would understand there’s one principle for any situation, it doesn’t matter if an opponent has a knife in his hand, or a stick, or maybe it’s just his fist. It’s all the same: a knife, a stick, a gun, and bare hands. Then it’s easier for them to learn, because they don’t need to remember what particular action he should take in a particular situation. And we get out of the attack line in the same way in any situation.


Q. What qualities, physical and personal, a person should have to win in a street fight?

A. You’ve got to go through the applied psychological training, so not to be frightened, but to anticipate the further actions of aggressors. It’s perfect when an opponent only takes his knife out and you act instantly, wait for nothing. No thinking, let alone the fear indeed. That’s what we should train. And the rational techniques of our combat system.


Q. Should one develop physical strength preparing for self-defense, or muscles would make you less flexible, thus making your punches slower?

A. We need to develop everything – but wisely. At first students learn the hand-to-hand combat part, the principles, and only after that they are taught sports elements. We do not put stress on weights lifting, but it’s possible. My method differs from many masters’ approach, when they stretch their students out, to a split, talking them that later they would be taught some secret ‘super techniques’. I consider that a master should teach hand-to-hand combat techniques since the very beginning, because your student can be attacked tomorrow. So he should get some knowledge how to defend himself at least in a week’s time. And later he can go to the national team (if he trains as a professional and meets the requirements). So the sport combat part is a second priority, not the first one. I came to this conclusion on the basis of many years coach experience.

What’s the use of the cross split if in a week’s time a person can be put to death or seriously hurt? And he would stretch out all that week. Or learn ground fighting. We must give a student what he needs and at once. Also we shouldn’t forget the pedagogics.

A coach should know all the training methods in the world: special forces training (if a coach is engaged) and high performance sports as well. A sportsman doesn’t need to know all of that. He can even not have enough time, especially if he’s a student of some university. But a coach must know that, know how to show that, and how to teach. This is the difference between a sportsman and a coach.


Q. In videos masters always show defense against a frontal assault – it’s like aggressors attack you only from the front, so you can see an aggressor. Or maybe an aggressor comes to you and puts his hand on your shoulder thus giving you a good chance to break his hand in a cool way, like in a movie. And a real assault is more like killing a sentry – it’s sudden, made from the back, maybe with weapons. Any comments on this?

A. By the way there are sentry killing techniques in combat sambo as well. The whole part is dedicated to it.  And I should say that frequently students are taught a bunch of unnecessary techniques. I guess our method based on principles is more rational. What’s the benefit? A fighter uses the principles, not some separate techniques.

– The first one is a principle of natural moves. That everyone has. Moves are simple if you understand the essence. We don’t calculate the trajectory we use to move a spoon to the mouth at the dinner, do we? And  no master teaches us how to move hands to our face to wash it. So moves should be simple, not complicated – when even a master cannot understand them.

– The principle of maintenance of balance – it’s clear as well. Our technique is based on that. Shouldn’t be any inclines of your body when throwing like in sport combat. Only up and down and you keep your balance.

– The principles of getting out of the attack line – a knife, a stick, a gun, a punch. You got out instantly and found yourself behind his back or alongside. This is a great advantage. You don’t even need to remember what to do. The funny thing is that your opponent ‘suggests’ you what to do by his actions. If you are as tall as he is or taller, you ‘cut off his head’. If he is taller you strike the groin by an invisible move, getting out of the attack line simultaneously. That is not a frontal attack, it’s a flank one. So after that your opponent bows thus turning to a short person and like telling you: ‘Strike here, strike my head’. So you strike him with the sharp of the hand or some other way. Then you twist his head or dig his head into the ground. Done. The attacker ‘told’ you what to do – this is our method concerning self-defense. You don’t need to remember what and where you learned. You just need to know the basics.

What about submission holds which they show in TV-programs, when one partner puts his hand on other one’s shoulder, and the second partner starts to lock his wrist, I wouldn’t say I like them. These techniques are good for a single combat or when you have a task to seize somebody. I like faster techniques.


Q. Also such TV-programs might make a false stereotype about a street assault – it’s like when somebody comes up to you ‘asking for a smoke’ or asking what street you live, thus giving you time to look about, prepare for a fight. But a street assault is usually unexpected. Are those TV-programs correct?

A. They are not. Actually force structures should train their actions for a sudden aggression – because life would force them.


Q. So do techniques and tactics rely upon practical experience?

A. Sure. Life will force you. And if you don’t follow, you’ll lose. Any real combat system based on karate, boxing, whatever, even aikido, will come to the sudden assault response mental training. A fighter must react instantly and his further actions are determined by his style: if he is a boxer then it will be a series of punches. It’s better be not a frontal attack, and he should get out of the attack line to become invisible for his opponent. In his turn the opponent would be like a static target, a dummy. That would be the most rational tactics no matter what is style: boxing, karate, taekwondo. Instead taking a stance and starting a boxing sparring on a street! Or wrestling like you are on tatami – on a street as well.

It’s possible, but it’s not rational according to our method. It would prolongate the fight duration. And the fighter would compete with his opponent as equals – who’s better. But when he got out of the attack line and got to his opponent’s back he doesn’t care who the opponent is – a boxer or a wrestler. The fighter doesn’t even think about his opponent’s style, he will act guided by his opponent’s moves. Only when he fails in something probably the fighter will have to spar or wrestle (including the ground fighting). So you should know how to do it – at least at some level. It wouldn’t be an unusual thing for you. If you never sparred it would be a revelation for you. For example you didn’t manage to do some technique and then you opponents is grabbing you and starts beating and you even don’t know what to do. That’s why I’m talking about the harmonious training, which I’d like to give every one of my students, even those who came just for self-defense. They would be taught sports elements later on.

In sport every fighter makes his own set of techniques, but teaching self-defense we teach anyone one and the same techniques, because they are the most rational and selected moves. Getting out of the attack line, a kick to the groin – what for to compose anything else? Vulnerable striking areas attack – a quick one, so an opponent wouldn’t see it. You need nothing more.


Q. Do your students share stories on successful self-defense?

A. Some of them do. There’s one interesting example. My student was happy and thanked me. The incident took place at a bus stop. He didn’t kill anyone, but he defended himself. They tried to get him with kicks, but he got out and they could do nothing. He could see and feel the entire situation. He had just blocked their strikes and got out of the attack line and no kick could hurt him. Although they wanted to get him. Then they broke up as far as I remember. So the student defended himself.

After the sudden assault response mental training course you even wish to be attacked, because you know you’re ready. You feel that your opponent will give a jerk only and you would got out already. Such a pleasant feeling. This feeling comes after the training, not at once. The force structures representatives could tell more stories about the practical experience, because it’s their job. I together with N. Borisov held a workshop for SOBR (Russian SWAT), but workshops are not long. I taught the security guards of the Alpha private security firm permanently.

It all depends on a boss in security structures. Some of them don’t pay attention to their subordinates’ trainings, just hire them as watchmen. But there were permanent trainings on rotation in the Alpha PSF. Every three months the guys passed through more and more complicated tests on the hand-to-hand combat part. The tests were conducted in restricted space. For example a guy would come out of the room and three opponents with different weapons would attack him from different positions (he didn’t know from where). Then we also made a restricted space with the help of mats in the gym. While attacked the tested person couldn’t grab, just soft, slipping blocking and counterattack not to waste time, because two other opponents could attack as well. Also he had to maintain his balance. If you fall down – the test is failed, it’s clear. But you even can’t incline or move in an inappropriate way. You must also strike a weapon out of his hand, or take it, and finish your opponent off. A situation when you fell your opponent down and left a knife in his hand is not accepted, because he can stand up and attack you again with the knife. The knife should be in your hand or stroked out. If you forget this, you fail and you have to pass through tests once again later.

Besides they had inner competitions every quarter. And experienced sportsmen took part in combat sambo championships. That was the good training.


Q. What do you think about fake moves? Is there manipulating of an opponent with the help of provoking and other feints in combat sambo?

A. Fake moves are more usual for sport combats. If we should fix a problem on a street in 1.5-2 seconds, it has no sense to make fake moves. The opponents are cautious towards each other in a sport combat, because an equal opposites you, you’re on the same level. This determines the combat nature: you should prepare your strike, survey. In a street conflict an attacker is self-confident about himself, his mental advantage. Maybe he hopes for his weaponry: a machine gun, a pistol, a knife or a stick. When there are some attackers they rely on their quantity.

It’s easier to fight on a street from the techniques point of view, but it’s more difficult on the mental side. So if you defend yourself you have no opportunity to make fake moves, you should block a strike at once. If I see that a brick, or a stick, or a fist is coming towards me I should evade, that’s it.

You should finish street attackers off with knees strikes, not punches. At first if you strike with a hand you should look at the aim not to miss, also you bow. Due to this you cannot see the surrounding area, or you can lose your balance. If you strike with a knee you don’t even have to look – ribs and head zones are enough! Besides I can block strikes with my hands or roll if necessary.

Text: Mikhail Didenko, 2013

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