Coach’s blog: Sambo rankings

My friend is a black belt in Sambo. The guy that owns that gym is a black belt in Sambo. The guy I met at the bar is a black belt in Sambo. During that seminar next week, my friend is getting his black belt in Sambo. To all of the above; b*llsh*t.

I’ve heard all of these statements and more in the past three months.

Here’s a tip to anyone interested in Sambo, it doesn’t have a belt ranking system. Too many people are walking around saying they are Sambo black belts; this can only mean one of four things:

  • A) they completely made it up
  • B) they have been lied to by their trainers
  • C) they’re crazy
  • D) all of the above

Some people may hold an in-house belt in Sambo which only counts at their own school. These “belts” are not recognized outside of their gym so in actuality it doesn’t mean a damn thing anywhere.

There are a few guys left from an old Sambo organization that did give out belts but that group closed shop years ago and unless you are one of the few remaining guys from that group, you are not a black belt in Sambo.

The ASA (American Sambo Association) is ran by Stephen Koepfer (@SamboSteve) who has been studying Sambo since 1999. Until recently he didn’t hold any kind of ranking in Sambo. In 2009, he was awarded the title/rank of Master of Sport of Russia by the FKE (All Russian Federation of Fighting).

Ranks in Sambo are a tricky business. Historically, the Soviet (now Russian) Master of Sport system was the only universally accepted ranking in Sambo. But the “rank” is tricky because most people in America view the world of martial arts from an Asian-centric view; i.e. color belts, etc. Sambo does not operate this way.

Koepfer who is known as “Sambo Steve” by most people had this to say about Sambo rankings:

“Bottom line is that there are no such ranks (black belt, for example) that are universally accepted in the Sambo world. Most people, including myself, look at Sambo ‘black belts’ as silly and in most cases harmful. It is an attempt to conflate two completely different and incongruent cultural systems. Like trying to give black belts in wrestling or boxing.

“In America, Sambo has long been used by charlatans as their stated system because for many years it was an unknown, uncheckable entity. Times are changing in that regard. People are more knowledgeable and credentials are more check-able. Yet, people are still out there trying to make a buck using Sambo’s name. There are a host of swindlers out there selling Sambo ‘ranks’ and ‘black belts’ to gullible or greedy American martial artists who want another piece of paper to hang on their wall. There are even foreign groups trying to cash in on us.

“Sambo is often presented as inferior to other systems and ranks are treated as an addendum to other more ‘approved’ martial art ranks. It is just incredible how many inquiries I get to the ASA regarding people wanting to buy a rank without putting in the serious mat time needed to get any kind of real expertise in Sambo.”

We all know that buying belts goes on everywhere. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has become notorious for it in the past decade. Before BJJ, Karate was the King of the McDojo mentality. And now many gym owners, in an effort to chase the almighty dollar, have started dragging Sambo into this ugly world of imposters and avarice.

Sambo is one of the most honest martial arts out there; in terms of technique and levels. This righteousness is being jeopardized now. Koepfer continued:

“Many Sambo clubs in America have created ‘in house’ color belt systems, granting ranks to their students within the context of their individual clubs. This is a more honest use of ranking in Sambo, but it is still problematic in several ways. Often times, it misleads the student regarding how Sambo really works. It perpetuates a system that will never be accepted by the community at large.

“Students are often shocked when they branch out from their own clubs to find out that their ‘rank’ is not ubiquitous; and may even be considered a joke by some. There are still others who abuse ‘in house’ ranking, simply to make a buck. The value of training and mat time is minimized in favor of a quick ride up the ‘ranks’ so instructors can make some cash. In the end, these in house systems also give credibility to the charlatans by making the notion of Sambo ‘ranks’ acceptable.”

With the prolific practice of belt buying, in house belt systems, and pretenders, the only way to truly know how good someone might be is to get them on the mat.

Koepfer is of the same mind, “So what do I think when I hear people say they have a black belt in Sambo? I chuckle to myself and think, ‘Let’s see how you are on the mat.’ ”

Koepfer offers some solid advice on training in Sambo. It’s a common sense approach too often passed over by people interested in the sport. “There are several ways to find a good Sambo instructor,” said Koepfer. “I would start by contacting respected groups like the ASA or FIAS. See who is in their database. Do your research, ask questions and don’t assume people are being truthful or that a’rank’ means anything. Be an educated consumer.”

I was at the 1999 AAU/USSA US Nationals & FIAS Pan-Am Championships that were held in Quantico, Va. There were a few guys there that you may have heard of: Dave Womack, Rick McCoy, Lloyd Irvin. Most of us went on to become brown or black belts in BJJ, fight in MMA and run our own gyms now.

I stayed away from teaching Sambo for years because it wasn’t marketed like BJJ and to make money you had to teach BJJ. But, Sambo was always my first love. Recently, however, all the fake black belts in Sambo have irritated me to a point of no return. It’s disrespectful to the sport that I’ve always been the most passionate about. And, it’s disrespectful to the Russian heritage of Sambo.

These days you can find me at seminars with guys like Carlos Cummings and Rick McCoy, getting back into the martial art that started it all for me. Sambo is a living, breathing thing, always evolving without the limiting rules that many other martial arts have. I encourage you to find a legitimate Sambo instructor and really advance your fight game to the next level. Do your research.