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BJJ vs Sambo: The Ultimate Guide

We compare the similarities and differences between these two very different grappling arts.

Brazilan Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and Sambo are martial arts with many similarities in techniques and history. 

BJJ is solely a grappling martial art where practitioners mostly grapple on the ground using different guards. Sambo is both a grappling martial art (usually called sports sambo) and a mixed martial arts system with striking called combat sambo. Both arts have strong sports and mixed martial arts (MMA) applications, with UFC champions hailing from both disciplines.

Table of contents

The key differences between BJJ and Sambo

1. Allowed submissions

The first key difference between Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Sambo is that BJJ allows practitioners to perform joint locks and strangleholds whereas sports sambo only allows arm and leg joint locks. Combat sambo however also allows chokeholds.

2. Points scoring systems

Points are also scored differently in BJJ and sports sambo. In BJJ points are scored for various positions or maneuvers, and in sports sambo throws earn different numbers of points based on who performed the throw, the position and more. Points can also be earned in sports sambo for hold-downs.

Combat sambo also awards points for strikes.

3. Winning a match instantly

The second key difference is in how a match can be won instantly in both arts. In both BJJ and sports sambo a practitioner can instantly win by submitting an opponent, but in sambo a practitioner can also win instantly by successfully performing a perfect throw. 

In combat sambo a practitioner can also instantly win by knocking out their opponent or successfully knocking them down twice.

History and origins

Both BJJ and Sambo have histories which date back to the 1920s and 1930s, with many techniques in both coming from traditional martial arts. 

BJJ

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu evolved from judo after Japanese judo practitioners travelled through Brazil showing and teaching their art. In 1914, a judo master named Mitsuyo Maeda arrived in Sao Paulo in Brazil and eventually taught judo to local Brazilians. 

Carlos Gracie, one of the key figures of the Gracie family who would later help spread BJJ throughout the world, either learned techniques from Maeda or his student Donato Pires dos Reis at around the time Maeda settled in Belem, Brazil in 1920. 

By 1925, Carlos and his brother George were teaching jiu jitsu, and in the early 1930s had their own school. During this time they often took part in public demonstrations or exhibition fights against practitioners of other styles.

Eventually Carlos’s younger brother Helio started teaching jiu jitsu, and started also taking part in fights against practitioners of other martial arts.

It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s when the Gracies and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu would reach the USA. During this time Rorion and other Gracie family members moved to the USA to start teaching their art, and garnering admiration from notable figures like Chuck Norris.

By far though the biggest contributor to the international growth of BJJ was when Royce Gracie won the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993. This catapulted BJJ into the public eye as a martial art that could beat many other martial arts, and caused it to gain the popularity it still enjoys today.

Sambo

Sambo traces its roots back to the 1920s, as a result of the Soviet Union’s desire to improve the hand-to-hand fighting system for its red army and security services.

It was largely the brainchild of two independent pioneers, Viktor Spiridonov and Vasili Oshchepkov. They studied various martial arts including judo, karate and indigenous wrestling and chose techniques which would be most effective in combat. These techniques were later combined into Sambo, resulting in its selection as the official sport of the Soviet Union in 1938.

In order to make Sambo sports-friendly, striking was removed and a kurtka or jacket similar to a judo gi top started to be worn by practitioners. After World War 2, chokeholds were also banned from sports sambo. 

Combat Sambo was still practiced in the military and other security services without the above restrictions.

In 1966 Sambo was officially recognised as a wrestling style by the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles, and has since grown in popularity.

Sambo had a complicated history after the fall of the Soviet Union, with internal divisions and splits plaguing the art

Sambo gained more popularity on the worldwide stage after the world witnessed Andrei Arlovski and Fedor Emelianenko’s successful careers in popular mixed martial arts (MMA) competitions like the UFC. 

Arlovski is a Sambo International Master of Sports who, in addition to a successful sambo competition record, became the UFC heavyweight champion in 2005 and continues to fight in the UFC at the time of writing. 

Fedor Emelianenko has also had a highly successful sambo and mixed martial arts career. After a successful career in the Russian national sambo team he became an MMA fighter, successfully defeating many opponents in RINGS, PRIDE, M-1 and Bellator events and becoming the PRIDE Heavyweight Champion.

In 2018 the International Sambo Federation (FIAS) was given provisional recognition by the International Olympic Committee for three years. This is the first step for a sport to become an olympic sport, and the president of the FIAS Vasily Shestakov has mentioned the next step will be to try to get Sambo into the Olympic Games.

Rules

The competitive rules and points scoring systems of Sambo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu are mostly different. The one major commonality is that a successful submission by a practitioner signals instant victory. 

The major difference between the rules of Sambo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is that in Sambo “total victory” can be had if a competitor carries out a perfect throw, has an 8 or more point advantage, or in the case of Combat Sambo, knocks their opponent out.

Here are the main rules for each martial art:

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu rules

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, most competitions use the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) ruleset. The general rules are:

  • Matches are between 5 – 10 minutes long for adults depending on rank
  • Competitors score 2, 3 or 4 points for successfully obtaining dominant positions or performing advantageous maneuvers
  • Matches are won either by successful submission or decided by points

Some BJJ rulesets are “submission only”, meaning that no points are scored, and matches can only be won if one athlete successfully submits the other. Others like the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) are hybrids between the two, and are effectively submission-only matches for the first half of the match, after which points can be scored.

Sports Sambo rules 

The FIAS Sports Sambo rules are quite different from BJJ rules. They include:

  • Matches are between 3 – 5 minutes long for adults depending on their age
  • Competitors score 1 – 4 points for throws and hold downs depending on a number of factors
  • A competitor can score a “total victory” and win the match immediately by successfully carrying out a perfect throw, submitting their opponent or having an 8 point advantage over their opponent. 
  • If there’s no total victory, points are used to decide the winner.

Combat Sambo rules differ again from sports Sambo due to the addition of strikes and chokeholds. The general rules are:

  • Competitors can strike and use chokeholds in addition to joint locks, throws and hold downs
  • Matches are 5 minutes long
  • Competitors score 1 – 4 points for throws, strikes, hold downs and knock downs depending on the quality. 
  • A total victory can be had if a competitor carries out a perfect throw, knocks their opponent out, has an 8 or more point advantage over their competitor, or successfully submits them with a joint lock or chokehold. 
  • If no competitor scores a total victory points are used to decide the winner.

Belt system and progression

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Sambo both have belt ranking systems, with Sambo’s being recently introduced in 2020 by the FIAS.

BJJ

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the adult belt system includes eight belts, from white belt all the way up to red belt. The belts are:

  • White
  • Blue
  • Purple
  • Brown
  • Black
  • Red and black
  • Red and white
  • Red

Belts also have stripes or degrees that students can earn either through formal gradings or over time as instructors feel their students are ready.

To get your next belt, you may need to formally grade for it, or you may just need to keep progressing with your learning until your instructor thinks you’re ready. Schools and instructors can treat this differently.

Sambo

In 2018 the International Sambo Federation (FIAS) announced that it would introduce a color belt system for Sambo similar to other martial arts. In 2020 the belt system was approved. It’s a seven belt system which awards a new color for each year of Sambo study. 

The Sambo belt system includes the following ranks:

Year of studyName of stageRank
1st yearRookie / Level 1 student1st student
2nd yearLevel 2 student2nd student
3rd yearLevel 3 student3rd student
4th yearLevel 4 student4th student
5th yearLevel 5 student5th student
6th yearMaster candidate1st master
7th yearLevel 1 master2nd master

Sambo also has a competitive rating system. Athletes who excel in competition at the national and international stage can earn the title of ‘master of sport’ or ‘international master of sport’ from various organizations.

BJJ mastery vs Sambo mastery: What’s the difference?

Masters of jiu jitsu and sambo will have many similar skills in addition to many differences in knowledge, with the main difference being what skills are emphasised over others.

What does a master of BJJ know?

A BJJ black belt will have a deep knowledge of grappling on the ground including all submission types, guards, positions and escapes. Their proficiency in takedowns will vary depending on their desire to learn, with the main focus of BJJ remaining on ground grappling. 

Some BJJ black belts may have a strong knowledge of self-defence techniques, although most schools today focus on sports jiu jitsu rather than self-defence. The exception to this is Gracie Jiu Jitsu, which focuses more on self-defence. In general though, many of the techniques learned in BJJ can be useful for self-defence situations.

BJJ black belts are also generally able to teach others.

What does a master of Sambo know?

A master of sports sambo will have a deep knowledge of takedowns, throws and hold downs. Due to the sports sambo ruleset, they will also have a deep knowledge of arm and leg locks from many positions. 

They will not generally be as proficient in the aspects of sports Sambo which are forbidden in the ruleset like chokeholds.

A master of combat sambo will have the same knowledge as a sports sambo master, but will also have a deep knowledge of strikes and chokeholds. 

Like jiu jitsu experts, sambo experts will have many skills that will be useful for self-defence situations, even if they might not specifically learn techniques for self-defence.

The main differences between a BJJ and Sambo expert

As you can see above, the main differences between BJJ and Sambo experts generally boil down to:

  1. Training focus. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu experts will focus mostly on grappling from the ground, with some takedowns. Sambists will focus on grappling from both standing and on the ground, with combat sambists also focusing on striking.
  2. Submissions. BJJ experts will be proficient at most types of submissions except those forbidden in major rulesets such as neck cranks. Sports sambists will be proficient at arm and leg locks, but not chokeholds, whereas combat sambists will also learn chokeholds. 
  3. Striking. Combat sambist experts will be proficient in most strikes including punches, kicks, elbows and knees, whereas BJJ experts and sports sambists will generally not learn these.

Classes, gyms and schools

A typical BJJ class

A typical BJJ class consists of the following:

  • Warm ups (10 minutes). Warm ups at the start of a jiu jitsu class include jogging around the mats, calisthenics like push ups and burpees, partner drills like the fireman carry, and other movements like forward and backward rolls or hip escaping the length of the mats.
  • Drills (30 – 45 minutes). Most BJJ gyms will have the bulk of the class revolve around a technique or set of related techniques, for example the armbar from mount. You may learn the armbar from mount, common troubleshooting techniques, and some ways to finish the armbar depending on your partner’s response.
  • Sparring (15 – 30 minutes). Most jiu jitsu classes end with “rolling” or sparring rounds. Generally these are five minute rounds with a short break in between, and classes can include 3-5 or even more rounds each class.

How much does BJJ cost?

BJJ gyms generally offer the best value when you pay monthly for unlimited lessons. According to our research, unlimited BJJ classes cost approximately $175 per month in the USA, $160 per month in Australia and £100 in the UK. You can read more about the total costs of starting BJJ in our guide.

In addition to this, you’ll also need a mouthguard and a durable BJJ gi and/or no gi clothing including a jiu jitsu rashguard.

A typical Sambo class

The average Sambo class includes:

  • Stretching 
  • Learning a technique slowly from the teacher, who will explain the details and when the technique should be used.
  • Practicing grabs and throws (and strikes if learning combat sambo)
  • Sparring

How much does Sambo cost?

It’s difficult to find prices for Sambo, with some practitioners on platforms like Reddit stating Sambo classes are approximately $225 per month for unlimited classes in locations like New York.

In Russia, Sambo seems to be much cheaper, with a large percentage of combat sambo clubs in Moscow for example charging between 500 – 600 RUB or $6.70 – $8 USD per class. 

Like other martial arts, many Sambo clubs offer subscriptions. This school for example offers 12 lessons in a month for 5000 RUB or $67 USD, all the way up to 144 lessons in a 12 month period for 27,000 RUB or $361 USD.

Other schools may offer classes of various sizes, with smaller class sizes costing more. For example one combat sambo school we researched offered classes in a group of 10 – 12 people for 6400 RUB or $85.70 USD per month, or classes of 20 – 25 people for 3900 RUB or $52.20 per month.

Clothing and equipment

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Sambo have some similarities when it comes to clothing and equipment.

The gi jacket used in BJJ is similar to the kurtka jacket used in Sambo. The key difference being that the shoulders of the kurtka have extra fabric which is used by athletes to throw their opponents.

BJJ uniform and equipment

In BJJ, the uniform worn most of the time is the gi or kimono. This is a durable cotton jacket and pants with a cotton belt denoting rank. In no gi jiu jitsu a rashguard and board shorts are worn instead.

In addition, most practitioners will wear a mouthguard when sparring to protect their teeth.

Sambo uniform and equipment

In Sambo, a cotton kurtka and belt with polyester fight shorts is worn. Practitioners also wear shoes.

Combat Sambo practitioners also wear gloves, an open headguard, leg guards which cover the shin and shoe laces, a mouthguard and female practitioners also wear a breast protector.

There’s no definitive way to prove which martial art is more popular, but we can use data like Google Trends to give us an estimation. 

As you can see below, according to Google Trends data from the last five years, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (blue) has much more interest on Google compared to Sambo (red):

Google Trends data showing search interest for BJJ (blue) vs Sambo (red). Note: The large dip is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is arguably more popular globally, Sambo enjoys a high level of popularity in Russia and surrounding countries:

Google Trends data showing where BJJ (blue) is searched for more often versus Sambo (red).

It’s important to note that Sambo is also provisionally recognised by the International Olympic Committee and is actively seeking to become an olympic sport, whereas Brazilian Jiu Jitsu currently does not enjoy the same status.

BJJ does have the Sports Jiu Jitsu Federation (SJJIF) which wants to get Brazilian Jiu Jitsu into the Olympics, but at the time of writing no major progress has been made.

How easy is it to find BJJ and Sambo schools around the world?

This depends on where in the world you are, although BJJ is generally the most pervasive of the two martial arts. You’ll usually be able to find a school in many major cities around the world. 

Sambo schools are harder to find outside of Russia and former Soviet countries. See below for an example of Sambo schools and BJJ schools in New York City:

NYC BJJ gyms

NYC Sambo clubs

This is contrasted with Moscow, where there are plenty of Sambo schools (although also many BJJ gyms now too):

Moscow Sambo clubs


Moscow BJJ gyms

Cross training in Sambo and BJJ

Sambo and BJJ are complementary, so cross training is definitely possible and advantageous if you have access to both sambo and BJJ gyms.

Vlad Koulikov is a great example of cross training in both martial arts. He’s both a BJJ black belt and a Sambo master of sport and is an accomplished MMA fighter and competitive grappler.

Koulikov’s gym in New Jersey teaches sambo and jiu jitsu fusion. As he explains, each art has its own strengths and restrictions, so they can benefit a practitioner if learned together.

Cross training in Sambo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu would theoretically give a practitioner a strong foundation of takedowns and also guards and grappling from the back.

Which is better: BJJ or Sambo?

Neither BJJ or Sambo is objectively better than the other. Each martial art has strengths and weaknesses that make it more relevant to some people over others. Here are some ways to decide which may apply more to you.

  • Self-defence. Both BJJ and Sambo are useful for self-defence because they teach highly effective forms of grappling which can be used to takedown, restrain and incapacitate opponents. While some BJJ schools including Gracie Jiu Jitsu gyms, will even teach students specific self defence techniques, for the most part a more complete mixed martial art style like Combat Sambo will likely be more relevant for those wanting to learn self-defence as it includes striking, takedowns and submissions. 
  • Fitness. Again, both BJJ and Sambo are high intensity sports which likely burn many calories each session (it’s quite difficult to accurately measure the number of calories burned for BJJ and similar activities). The winner in this case will likely go to Sambo, as stand up grappling arts are arguably more demanding in terms of cardio fitness. Combat Sambo would likely burn even more calories, as it includes striking, making it as intense as regular MMA.
  • Competition. Sambo and BJJ have thriving competition scenes, with Sambo even potentially aiming to become an Olympic sport. But while Sambo has a thriving competition scene in Russia and former the Soviet republics, it’s not as common to find a sambo competition elsewhere around the world including Asia, USA, the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Canada and Australia. In contrast BJJ has a large number of competitions each year organised by the IBJJF and other organisations around the world in many countries.

Which is the most effective martial art?

There’s no clear cut answer to the topic of which martial art is better than another. BJJ includes a larger variety of submissions than sports sambo, but sports sambo has a bigger focus on takedowns. No gi BJJ on the other hand arguably is closer to “real world” grappling as practitioners don’t wear heavy cotton jackets. 

Combat Sambo is likely more effective than both BJJ and Sports Sambo because it includes strikes. 

The answer will depend on what you personally think is important in a martial art when it comes to self-defence, competition or other factors.

The video below shows a series of competition rounds between sambo and BJJ practitioners. As you would assume, the sambo practitioners get some great takedowns, while the BJJ practitioners are able to effectively utilise the guard and in some cases take their opponent’s backs.

BJJ vs Sambo: Pros and cons

The below are general pros and cons of each martial art, some of which may not apply to what you want to learn. 

BJJ

Pros 

  • Learn submissions across most of the body
  • Many techniques are useful for self-defence situations
  • Many gyms around the world in most large cities
  • Many annual competition opportunities in major cities
  • A great workout
  • No gi classes for those who don’t like grappling with a jacket

Cons

  • No striking
  • No specific self-defence curriculum, which might be important for some
  • Many gyms only have a small-to-moderate focus on takedowns


Sambo

Pros

  • Strong focus on takedowns
  • Striking (in combat sambo)
  • A great workout

Cons

  • Harder to find schools in many parts of the world
  • Only allows certain arm and leg submissions (although combat sambo allows more)
  • “No gi” sambo is not as widespread as no gi BJJ

BJJ vs Sambo: extra resources and communities

Below are some websites and YouTube channels to help you learn more about each martial art:

BJJ

Websites

YouTube channels

Social groups

Sambo

Websites

YouTube channels

Social groups

Conclusion

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Sambo are two diverse grappling arts, with many similarities and differences. Think about what you want from a martial art before selecting one, or if you’re fortunate enough to live near both BJJ and Sambo schools, why not try both?


Have you trained in Sambo and BJJ? Let us know what you think about both martial arts below.

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