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Understanding the Difference Between Sambo and BJJ

May 8, 2024

Martial arts have been practiced around the world for many thousands of years, and they are always evolving. Compared to ancient disciplines, Sambo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) are relative newcomers in the realm of combat sports, both developing in the early 20th century. Even though they come from completely different regions—Sambo from the Soviet Union and BJJ from Brazil—they have a lot in common (and a lot of differences). They are great disciplines for martial artists or aspiring martial artists eager to focus on self-defense, hone their grappling skills, and improve their mental and physical fortitude. 

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Overview of Sambo

Sambo is short for SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya, which means “self-defense without weapons” in Russian. This modern martial art was designed by Viktor Spiridonov and Vasili Oshchepkov to enhance combat readiness for the Soviet military and police forces. Like other modern combat arts, Sambo combines several martial arts into one, including judo, wrestling, and indigenous folk wrestling styles from different regions of the Soviet Union. It encompasses both standing and ground fighting techniques, including throws, takedowns, joint locks, and submissions

History of Sambo

In October 1917, martial artist Vasili Sergeyevich Oshchepkov became the first Russian to earn a second-degree black belt in judo. He grew up in Japan, where he studied directly under Kanō Jigorō, the founder of judo, before bringing his martial arts expertise back home to his home country: the Soviet Union. He taught self-defense in the military before taking a role at the Institute of Physical Education, where he was tasked with analyzing the effectiveness of combat training.   

Meanwhile, retired soldier and martial artist Viktor Afanasievich Spiridonov began spreading his theory of self-defense across the country. During World War I, Spiridonov was injured by a bayonet, which greatly restricted his left arm and ability to practice wrestling. He published three books on his self-defense system, which focused on fighting and defending yourself without weapons. Like Oschepkov, Spiridonov assessed military combat training to determine whether its techniques were acceptable in unarmed combat. Concentrating on the moves that allowed a combatant to stop an armed or unarmed adversary as quickly as possible, the two men each created a fighting system suited for war-based combat.  

Although they did not work together, both Oschepkov and Spiridonov aimed to improve military hand-to-hand combat techniques by introducing techniques from other foreign martial arts. Over time, their cross-training of military staff and students took hold in the culture and later became known as Sambo and by 1938, it was the official combat sport of the Soviet Union. In the following decades, Sambo evolved into a distinct martial art with its own set of techniques, rules, and competitions.

Overview of BJJ

BJJ is a grappling martial art that concentrates on the ground game, where you aim to get your opponent to submit via a joint lock or choke. A key aspect of BJJ is its focus on technique and leverage rather than relying solely on physical strength. It promotes the principle that a smaller, weaker person can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger assailant, making it one of the most effective combat styles for self-defense.

The thing that really makes BJJ stand out from other martial arts is how it enables anyone to successfully defend themselves. BJJ has the most developed method of fighting on your back, a position weaker people will often find themselves when attacked. No matter your size, if you know BJJ, you can take your opponent to the ground and defeat them using holds and submissions. Fighters try to use gravity to their advantage and take away the opponent’s strengths. Success in BJJ relies on strategy and proper technique rather than explosiveness and brute strength.

History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu 

In 1904, judo master Mitsuyo Maeda left his home to share judo with the world. After much traveling around North America, his travels brought him to Brazil, where he taught brothers Carlos, Oswaldo, Gastão Jr., O’Brien, and Hélio Gracie jiu-jitsu in 1917. Several years later, the Gracie family experimented and adapted it to be more effective in real-life self-defense situations, modifying judo ground techniques and eventually creating a unique fighting style called Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.

The Gracie brothers developed BJJ because they wanted a discipline that didn’t rely solely on physical strength. BJJ  concentrates on the ground game, where you aim to get your opponent to submit via a joint lock or choke. A key aspect of BJJ is the idea that a smaller, weaker person can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger assailant.  

In 1972, Carlos Gracie moved to the United States to teach jiu-jitsu, and in 1978 was followed by Rorion Gracie, who co-founded UFC in 1993. BJJ became popular internationally after Royce Gracie won the first, second, and fourth Ultimate Fighting Championships.

Comparing Sambo and BJJ

The biggest similarity between BJJ and Sambo is their practical use in self-defense. BJJ is popular because it teaches smaller fighters how to successfully defend against a bigger, stronger assailant. Rather than using brute strength, fighters rely on technique and leverage. Sambo is a highly versatile martial art that blends different combat traditions and techniques to prepare practitioners for real-life self-defense situations. It emphasizes physical fitness, mental discipline, and technical proficiency, making it a comprehensive martial art suitable for individuals of all ages and skill levels.

Techniques and Competitions 

Sambo and BJJ both have regional bodies that govern national and international competitions. Sambo has the World Sambo Championships and the Combat Sambo World Championships, organized by the International Sambo Federation (FIAS). In the competitive world of BJJ, two major entities are the North American Grappling Association (NAGA) and the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF).

BJJ competitions take place mostly on the ground, focusing on positional dominance, sweeps, escapes, and submissions such as joint locks and chokes. Matches typically involve grappling until one person submits or time runs out. Each BJJ institution has its own set of rules, so depending on the event, a BJJ match can have different weight divisions, competition types (Gi vs No-gi), point systems, legal positions, time limits, and submissions. In the federation tournaments run by federations, you have to buy membership to earn eligibility and have to pay to compete. These competitions usually welcome more fighters and are, therefore, much more challenging and competitive. If you want to compete in a smaller tournament, all you have to do is pay for entry.

There are several styles of Sambo practiced today, including Sport, Combat, Beach, and Freestyle. Sport Sambo focuses on throwing, groundwork, and submissions. Other than chokeholds, there are very few restrictions on the grips and holds fighters can use. Combat Sambo is stylistically similar to mixed martial arts, with fights taking place standing up or on the ground. Unlike BJJ, Combat Sambo allows fighters to use strikes such as punches, kicks, elbows, knees, headbutts, and groin strikes. Throws, holds, chokes, and locks are also included in Combat Sambo competitions. 

Like BJJ, Sambo is recognized as an official sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but it has yet to be included in any Olympic Games.


Like other martial arts, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ranking and promotion is based on a colored belt system. The five belt colors are White, Blue, Purple, Brown, and Black. Sambo follows a competitive ranking system rather than colored belts. Earning a high rank in Sambo earned you the title ‘Masters of Sport’ from the International Combat Sambo Federation and the American Sambo Association in the United States.

Choosing Between Sambo and BJJ

There are plenty of good reasons to pursue either Sambo or BJJ. Although there are plenty of similarities between them, you should consider which style of fighting is more appealing to you. Sambo emphasizes throws, takedowns, and ground fighting techniques, making combat more dynamic and explosive. BJJ is more methodical and strategic, focusing primarily on ground fighting, submissions, and positional control.

If you’re in North America and you’re wondering which of these styles of fighting makes sense for you, you might simply be at the mercy of geography. While Sambo has gained international popularity, there are only ten USA Sambo Endorsed Schools and Training Centers in the whole country. So, if you’re not near one of these ten schools, it can be tough to learn this style of fighting.

BJJ, on the other hand, is one of the most widely practiced martial arts in North America. If you’re looking to get into combat sports, BJJ has a huge community of practitioners who can support you on your journey. Either way, these two fighting styles complement each other, as all matches start on their feet before progressing to takedowns. If you’re able to find a Sambo school, it can help you improve your takedown abilities, and because it’s such an explosive sport, will really improve your strength and conditioning. 

Sambo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are both exciting and fulfilling practices that can push you to your physical and mental limits. They will allow you to develop the strength, endurance, and will to persevere in challenging situations, on and off the mat, while preparing you for real-world self-defense situations.