In MMA, individual martial arts are most closely associated with the unique techniques of their most notable practitioners. A decade ago, #sambo brought to mind images of great Russian heavyweights and their distinctive thumb-down hooks. Best-ever heavyweight and technical innovator Fedor Emelianenko was, and still is, for many, the face of sambo in mixed martial arts.
Emelianenko’s perpetual aggression and graceful, punishing ground work came to personify sambo in the eyes of many. During the near decade-long stretch which would see him go essentially undefeated, the Russian great dominated #PRIDE’s best heavyweights, and multiple former UFC champions.
However, before Emelianenko’s streak began in 2000, forever changing MMA, there was #IgorVovchanchyn.
In 1999, Vovchanchyn was making his fourth appearance inside of a PRIDE ring, in his 42nd professional bout. His power was remarkable, and while it is sometimes forgotten, he held a deep background in the great Soviet combat art. Notably employing the same style of overhand hook as Emelianenko, he was also an understated defensive grappler, in addition to holding ten submission victories in his professional career. He carried the dogged physicality and grit typical of high level sambo practitioners, overpowering much larger men despite his deceiving 5'8" frame.
While Fedor lay waste to PRIDE’s heavyweight division, another sambo practitioner climbed to the zenith of the UFC.
In a career which more resembled that of a boxer, #AndreiArlovski had shown little direct application of his extensive sambo career leading into his 2005 title fight with Tim Sylvia. Submissions targeting the legs are permitted much more liberally in sambo than in other grappling arts, and this is one of the art’s most notable qualities in modern MMA.
Still, when Arlovski submitted Tim Sylvia with an Achilles lock in 47 seconds to claim the UFC heavyweight championship, it was rather surprising. Arlovski would lose two consecutive rematches to Sylvia not long after, and in 2009, he faced Emelianenko himself under the Affliction banner.
The fight was a rare showdown between sambo practitioners. The New York Times had previously written about both men just months prior, when they competed on the same #Affliction card, and briefly covered the history of sambo as a martial art.
Arlovski found himself leaping directly into a monumental right hook on that night, ubiquitous in "The Last Emperor’s" highlight reel from that point forward.
Fedor would eventually fall in love with his vaunted power, throwing little beyond his trademark thumb-down hooks, but he was once a brilliant technician and tactician during the peak of his powers. As a striker, this was most evident in his monumental victory over Mirko “#CroCop” Filipovic, one of the most feared kickboxers in MMA history.
Emelianenko out-thought and out-struck the bigger man for the duration of their bout by alternating methodical outside pressure with sudden bursts of aggression, smothering Cro Cop’s hands to cover his advances. Hand-trapping is a relatively advanced striking skill not utilized by many in MMA with any real consistency, but Fedor remains, to date, one of the art’s most prolific practitioners.
Throughout his career, he trapped both the lead and rears hands of opponents in order to set up angles for his lightning bolt right hook. This fearless aggression carried over to his ground work.
Though his aggressive, lethal grappling was often seen only as a means to enable his standup game, nowhere was his savagery more evident than in his ground striking. When he faced the great Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, an unrelenting submission expert with a jaw made of cast iron, the sambo specialist did not, as many would intuitively assume, seek to avoid the ground game of the Brazilian.
With eerie confidence, Emelianenko clobbered “Big Nog” from inside of his guard on two separate occasions, easily controlling the positional battle while continually assaulting the jiu-jitsu player with looping punches.
While many of his greatest finishes came from the guard, Fedor’s best work was done from the top position. This is typical of the inherently aggressive Sambo approach to grappling.
In 2017, this is still the case, though the application of sambo in MMA has been fundamentally reshaped by one of the Caucus’ finest coaches.
Speaking in 2014 on the applicability of sambo to MMA, highly ranked American sambo practitioner Reilly Bodycomb told BloodyElbow.com,
"Sport Sambo and Combat Sambo are primarily throwing sports. Meaning most of the scoring is from takedowns, similar to Judo. However, attacking the legs with such things as double-leg takedowns, and fireman's carries are permitted without restrictions unlike judo. Because of this, someone with a competitive background in a Sambo sport would have lots of experience taking others down, and not being taken down."
Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov's style of sambo is efficient, aggressive, and physical, committed to the grappling side of the art and emphasising the exact elements which Bodycomb believes are most transferable to MMA.
The great Dagestani is perhaps the most successful sambo coach in modern MMA. Nurmagomedov-trained fighters exhibit otherworldly chainwrestling technique paired with constant aggression and the intent to dominate, their opponents rarely capable of staying on their feet once they enter the in-fight.
This style is best exemplified by his sons, Khabib and Abubakar. While Abubakar is a promising prospect, and other Abdulmanap disciples such as #IslamMakhachev have shown great promise in the UFC, the face of sambo's resurgence is undoubtedly Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The prodigious Dagestani wildman is a marvel of raw athletic talent, possessing monstrous size, speed and power relative to his contemporaries. His arsenal of takedowns is as comprehensive as that of any grappler, capable of flawlessly chaining together trips and foot sweeps with more traditional freestyle and Greco-Roman takedowns.
Undefeated in 24 professional bouts and riding an 8-fight UFC win streak, Khabib is scheduled to face the surging Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight championship, and he is a decided favorite. Since a shaky performance against Gleison Tibau, not a single man has proven capable of mustering any sort of defense against Nurmagomedov's grappling game, and he has long been viewed by many as the uncrowned lightweight king.
In a landscape which has seen grapplers suffer as championship-level bouts are contested more and more frequently on the feet, Khabib's domination of the UFC's deepest division is an undeniable indicator of the continued strength of sambo in modern MMA.
Notable sambo practitioners in MMA:
- Fedor Emelianenko
- Igor Vovchanchyn
- Andrei Arlovski
- Ali Bagautinov
- Magomed Bibulatov
- Sultan Aliev
- Khabib Nurmagomedov
- Abubakar Nurmagomedov
- Rustam Khabilov
- Amir Sadollah