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Brazilian Jiu Jitsu BJJ is a popular grappling style in the West. Still, another fighting style sambo has also been building up steam ever since it came to prominence with Russian MMA superstar Fedor Emelianenko in 2010. Both styles are arguably effective grappling skills, but there are definite differences between the two.
So which is better, sambo or BJJ? Sambo is an aggressive fighting style from Russian that focuses on quick striking paramilitary techniques. BJJ is a popular fighting style focusing on strong groundwork and chokeholds, designed more for ring competition than street fighting. This makes it harder to use in practical applications.
While there are some similarities between BJJ and sambo, there are distinct pros and cons of each fighting style that set them apart from each other. Keep reading to learn more about these two grappling schools, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each.
The Art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is a martial arts style that focuses on grappling and is designed as an unarmed self-defense technique. Jiu Jitsu originated in Japan as an unarmed combat style of the Japanese samurai, where used as a last resort technique once a samurai was unhorsed and left disarmed. Eventually, this style of Jiu Jitsu branched off into several other fighting styles, one of which was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
With the advent of MMA, BJJ has become a very popular foundation style for mixed martial arts that can be built on by cross-training into other styles. If the BJJ gyms cropping up on every other street corner in America are any indication, this is a versatile fighting style that will be around for a long time.
Advantages of Using BJJ
As a fighting style, there are many benefits of making BJJ your go-to discipline, whether you’re looking for a last-ditch self-defense style or you want to learn a grappling martial art for competition purposes. Here are some of the benefits of BJJ:
Guard-based techniques: In BJJ, guard is a variety of positions on the ground where the BJJ practitioner is trying to control an opponent on top of them by using their legs. This is an effective fighting style for when you’ve been sucker-punched, and someone already has you down on the ground before you realize you’re in a fight. Using BJJ, a fighter on their back foot can turn the tables quickly.
Focus on chokeholds: Along with a general focus on groundwork, BJJ zeroes in on chokeholds as a means to control one’s opponent. Like guard-based techniques, chokeholds are a great way to weaken a larger, stronger opponent who otherwise has a weight and height advantage. Choke holds are also a good way to incapacitate an opponent without causing lasting damage.
Lots of schools, plenty of places to learn: BJJ is arguably one of the most popular fighting styles in the United States and abroad due to its versatility in the MMA arena when learned in conjunction with another style that is more focused on strikes. The fact that it is so popular means that if you want to learn BJJ, you have plenty of options for gyms.
A more complete style than sambo: BJJ is a derivative of Japanese Jiu Jitsu, which has been around for centuries. In comparison, sambo was only developed in the early 1900s. BJJ incorporates a lot more techniques from other martial arts than sambo, which is a more restrictive style (at least in its sports version—combat sambo is a different story).
Incorporates all groundwork: BJJ offers a lot more options in ground grappling than many martial arts. While the throws in BJJ are impressive and typically result in an instant victory, in practice, they only make up about 10% of the moves practiced in BJJ. The rest of the fighting in BJJ is floor grappling.
Goes after multiple targets: BJJ is designed to go after legs, arms, wrists, spine, basically anywhere that can result in a broken limb that will cause a submission in the fight. Between that and its focus on chokeholds, BJJ gives you a lot of options against your opponent once you end up on the ground.
Effective against a single opponent: In a fight where you can focus all your energy against one enemy, BJJ is an effective style. BJJ allows a smaller fighter to use agility and leverage to their advantage even if they end up beneath the other fighter.
Emphasizes a meticulous approach to discipline: BJJ teaches fighters to think in moves ahead, with limited opportunities to act. It’s sort of like chess in that way. This means in comparison to some martial arts, BJJ could be considered a very intellectual sport. At higher levels, the amount of moves to finish a match is minimal, so every move must be decisive.
Lots of sparring: BJJ is a great fighting style for people who want a lot of “on the job” training in their martial art, rather than focus on forms or concepts. The best way to learn BJJ is to actually fight, so people training in this sport will get plenty of opportunities to hone their skills against their fellow fighters.
- Complimentary to other fighting styles: While BJJ has some weaknesses when used as a martial art on its own when used together with other fighting styles, it can easily become the cornerstone of an MMA cross-training regimen. The techniques used in BJJ can be found incorporated in the personal styles of the major competitive MMA fighters in the world.
Unlike fighting styles that focus on relentlessly attacking one’s opponent, BJJ is designed more as an ace-in-the-hole sort of fighting style that can be pulled out when an attacker already has you on the ground or is in the process of putting you there and needs to be subdued quickly.
Disadvantages of BJJ
BJJ has a lot to recommend it as a fighting style, but like all martial arts, it has its drawbacks as well. Here are some of the disadvantages of choosing BJJ as your fighting style:
Ineffective against groups: BJJ is not a good martial art to try and use against a gang of attackers. While a BJJ practitioner might be able to take down the enemy that is directly on top of them in guard position, that doesn’t help when there are three or four other attackers kicking at him from all sides.
Not effective against armed opponents: BJJ focuses on waiting for an attacker to strike first, and the close-range proximity required to make an effective move in BJJ puts the fighter in danger of a concealed weapon like a gun or knife.
Inconsistent focus on leg attacks or guarding them: Some schools of BJJ have a negative view on leglocks and other leg-based attacks and believe that they are “cheap” moves that don’t belong in competitive BJJ. This can lead to some BJJ schools teaching leg attacks and others that don’t. If you end up in a BJJ school that puts no focus on legwork, you might find yourself at a disadvantage against a fighter who knows how to fight with their legs.
Street application different than gym practice: Rolling around on a soft mat in a BJJ gym in groundwork is a lot different than tumbling around on asphalt in an alley with a real attacker. Because sports-based BJJ is a far removed from real street fighting, BJJ fighters can find themselves unprepared in an actual self-defense scenario.
No striking: BJJ doesn’t focus on striking or what to do in response to being struck, leading some BJJ fighters to go down like a sack of potatoes if they catch a headbutt or an elbow in the face. Since many real street fights focus on heavy offensive striking rather than floor grappling, a fighter who knows how to strike may be at an advantage over a BJJ fighter who doesn’t.
Can be weak against wrestling-style fighters in MMA matches: Since a BJJ fighter really needs to get their opponent down on the ground, fighters that are heavyset upright wrestling types can be difficult for a smaller BJJ fighter to ground without leglocks.
Can cause skin problems and other medical problems: One of the downsides to grappling martial arts is that they tend to cause medical issues like skin infections. These problems can be prevented to an extent through strict hygiene at the gym, but at the end of the day, a lot of grappling-based fighters end up with some kind of skin infection or turf toe at some point in their martial arts career.
- Focus on groundwork leaves it generally weak as an upright style: Because so much of BJJ focuses on floor grappling rather than throws or strikes, this means the BJJ fighter is usually at a disadvantage against many other fighting styles until the fight hits the ground.
BJJ is a strong martial art, but its drawbacks mean that it is usually better suited as a complementary skill, rather than one’s only fighting style.
The Art of Sambo
Sambo is a martial arts style formulated in the early 1900s for use by the Russian army. This aggressive, hard-hitting fighting style uses a combination of judo, Greco-Roman wrestling, and European folk wrestling, combined with modern-day paramilitary suppression techniques.
The sports version of sambo is quite different than the combat version of sambo, with extreme mixed martial arts techniques such as head butts and groin strikes allowed in the latter category. Combat sambo is the type of sambo that is actually used by the Russian military, while sports sambo is a more stripped-down version that focuses more on catch-wrestling.
Sambo is not as widely known as BJJ because of BJJ’s popularity boom in the 1990s. However, with the arrival of several sambo-trained MMA starfighters in the early 2000s, sambo became a more well-known branch of martial arts.
Pros of Sambo
While it isn’t as well known as BJJ, there are still several advantages to sambo that mark it out as a worthwhile discipline to pursue. Here are some of the benefits of learning sambo:
Leg locks: While many schools of BJJ don’t put much focus on leglocks, sambo dedicates a lot of training to them, which can give a sambo fighter an advantage against a fighter who is only trained in BJJ alone.
Belt turn: In sambo, fighters are allowed to grip their opponents by the belt, which is a grip that is not allowed in traditional judo. This technique was introduced through the Russian wrestling schools to the broader MMA audience and is considered an advanced tactic in sambo fighting.
Striking techniques: Unlike BJJ, sambo puts a lot more emphasis on hard-hitting striking techniques designed to put an opponent on the ground as quickly as possible, rather than having the opponent put you on the ground.
Similar to judo: Sambo’s similarity to judo makes it easy for those with previous judo training to pick up the fundamentals of it quickly and incorporate them into their MMA style. It could be argued that combat or American freestyle sambo is simply a more versatile form of judo that allows for “dirtier” fighting tactics.
No sudden victories: While a BJJ match can be won with a single ippon throw, there are no such total victory moves in sambo. Instead, the victor must accumulate a higher number of points through move combinations.
Allows all grips and takedowns: Unlike BJJ, which limits the types of grips that are allowed, sambo allows all grips, including a grip on the belt. Sambo also allows any style of takedown, including body slams, scissor takedowns, and arch throws. The many different wrestling applications you can use in sambo gives the fighter a ton of options both upright and after they hit the ground.
Rare and unique fighting style: Everybody and their brother is learning BJJ, but sambo is a much more uncommon style of fighting. If you want to learn a martial art that people don’t run into every day, sambo is definitely the way to go. Because it is so rare, if a fighter finds themselves in a position where they have the opportunity to train in sambo, it’s a chance that might not come up again later in life.
- Combat sambo allows for all strike types: In essence, combat sambo was MMA before MMA was invented. Combat sambo is also meant to be used in offensive street fights rather than designed for ring combat, which makes it a rough and ready martial art for practical self-defense. Combat sambo reasons that if your opponent is going to fight mean, you might as well fight mean too.
Sambo doesn’t mess around, and if you’re trying to find a fighting style that is just as effective upright as it is on the ground but still has a strong grappling foundation, sambo is definitely an option you should think about looking into. It’s hard to find an MMA opponent that can stand up against a fully trained combat sambo fighter, and even the sports version is more aggressive than traditional judo.
Disadvantages of Sambo
Sambo has a lot of advantages as a martial art, but like any discipline, it has its share of drawbacks as well. Here are some of the downsides to learning sambo as opposed to a different fighting style:
Limited groundwork: Sambo focuses as much on upright striking and leglocks as it does on groundwork, which means that fighting styles with more focus on groundwork (such as BJJ) can overcome a sambo fighter once the fight hits the floor.
No closed guard: It’s against the rules of sambo to use a closed guard. There is some guard usage in sambo, but it is a much more temporary loose position than the rigid grappling guards utilized in BJJ and other groundwork-focused martial arts. In sambo, a closed guard is considered a stalling tactic and is subsequently penalized.
No chokeholds: For many fighters, the fact that sports sambo bans chokeholds is a major disadvantage of the fighting style as a self-defense method. The rules of sambo force the fighters to go for submissions quickly, so extended ground tactics like chokeholds and guards don’t come into play.
Can only submit with armlocks and leglocks in sports sambo: Other types of locks such as wristlocks, spine locks, neck cranks, heel hooks, and kimura locks are banned. In American freestyle and combat sambo, the types of submissions allowed are much more varied and MMA in style, leading to a freer interpretation of the fighting style.
Mostly Russian fighters: Even a century after its foundation, sambo is still very much a Russian-dominated sport, with attempts to elevate it to the Olympic level kiboshed totally after the Olympic committee removed even traditional Greco-Roman wrestling from the summer Olympic line-up. That means that if you’re lucky enough to find a sambo trainer, it’s probably going to be Russian-dominated.
Funny outfits: While the jackets used in sambo are actually useful grappling points during a sambo fight, some fighters find the jacket-and-short combo to be goofy-looking and uncomfortable to wear in a competitive match. The fact that sambo allows belt grips also gives a fighter’s opponent the chance to use their own outfit against them.
- Not many places to train: In comparison to other grappling martial arts like judo or BJJ, where you can find a gym practically on every other street corner, there are very few places where you can get authentic sambo training. If you do manage to find a gym where you can train sambo, you’re not going to have many alternative options, and you may end up having to commute pretty far for training.
How BJJ and Sambo Are the Same
There are some distinct differences between BJJ and sambo, but there are also some basic ways that they’re alike.
Both grappling styles: As opposed to martial arts like Muay Thai or karate, BJJ and sambo both focus on grappling, which is a form of combat that focuses on grasping or gripping the opponent to manipulate their body weight, rather than striking out at them.
Both are the continuations of older fighting styles: BJJ is the spiritual successor to older Jiu Jitsu schools and other unarmed Eastern martial arts traditions that came before it, while sambo is a cut-and-paste conglomeration of judo mixed with Greco-Roman wrestling and strike-heavy Eastern European paramilitary street fighting.
Both are restrictive in competition: While the restrictions involved in BJJ and sambo aren’t the same, both fighting disciplines have distinct rules with regards to what kinds of holds are legal, how long fighters can spend locked on the ground, and what kind of strikes or holds are permissible. Unlike no-holds-barred MMA, these foundation fighting styles are much less freewheeling.
- Both are most effective in conjunction as cross-training for another fighting style. Sambo alone leaves fighters vulnerable to groundwork, while BJJ fighters are weak to upright strikes and leg attacks. The two fighting styles combined are much more effective than either style is separate, which is one of the reasons why MMA is so popular.
BJJ and sambo may have been developed on opposite sides of the planet, but they’re a lot more alike than they are different. In both fighting styles, swift leverage and forceful technical moves used against the other opponent is the key to a sure victory.
How BJJ and Sambo Are Different
Sambo and BJJ might both be grappling-based martial arts, but when it comes to their development, the two fighting styles originated in completely different ways.
Sambo was designed for the military; BJJ was designed for the ring: This means that in a lot of cases sambo wins out for a practical application in a self-defense situation—it was designed for use against unarmed attackers, armed attackers, and even multiple opponents, rather than a single opponent in a controlled environment.
Sambo matches are shorter than BJJ matches: Sambo matches the last five minutes, while most BJJ matches last between five and ten minutes depending on the aptitude of the fighters involved. Sambo fighting involves aggressively coming at your opponent as fast as you can, while BJJ is a more studied, methodical way of fighting.
- Sambo was developed in Russia, BJJ was developed in Brazil: Sambo was developed by Russian military scientists as a program of unarmed combat taught to soldiers and special operatives—it even has a “softer” version called Samoz that was designed for use by weaker combatants such as secret agents or wounded soldiers. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was carried to Brazil from Japan in its original form by one fighter—Mitsuyo Maeda.
How to Choose Between Sambo and BJJ When Choosing a Martial Art
By now, in this article, you’ve learned pretty much all the basics there is to know about these two fighting disciplines inspired by old school judo techniques. So how do you choose which grappling martial art is the right discipline for you?
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to decide whether you should learn sambo or BJJ as a martial art:
- Is this going to be my only form of self-defense or martial arts training?
- Do I want to use my martial arts training for exhibition, competition, or practical self-defense?
- Is there a BJJ or sambo gym close enough for me to train with?
- Do I want to learn how to street fight, or fight in a sports ring?
- Am I learning this martial art as a cross-training discipline for MMA competition? If so, how will it affect my overall fighting tactics?
If you’re trying to build up your repertoire of moves for MMA sparring and competition, you’ll be best served to cross-train in multiple fighting disciplines to have the largest toolbox at your disposal when it comes time to hit the ring.
Even if you really want to take sambo training, unless you’re in a place with a large Eastern European population, chances are you might have to travel pretty far to find any sambo gym, much less a choice of several to pick from. So that means you might end up having to fall back on BJJ whether you want to learn sambo or not.
At the end of the day, sambo is a great martial art to learn if you have access to it, and if you know of a sambo gym nearby, you’d be doing yourself a favor to check it out and see what kind of training is available. But if you’re stuck with BJJ as a backup (or simply prefer it), then you’re in luck—BJJ is still considered one of the best martial arts to start your training in MMA fighting styles.
Grappling Fighting Styles Are the Key to a Strong MMA Background
While hard-hitting strikers are impressive in the MMA ring, Jiu Jitsu and wrestling based fighting disciplines have become some of the most dominant styles seen in MMA competitions today.
Whether you favor the chess-like tactics of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or the overpowering submission-based moves of sambo, having a strong grappling background can allow you to take out a physically superior opponent.
Check out our other articles where we match up Jiu Jitsu against other martial arts BJJ vs. Everybody.