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.

7 thoughts on “Coach’s blog: Sambo rankings”
  1. This is a tricky subject for sure. Since I am from the original group of Sambo practitioners from the mid 90’s that did issue rank as mentioned in the article, I have always had mixed feeling on the issue. Myself(Rick McCoy), Lloyd Irvin and Dan Severn being some of the higher profile guys from that group that are still in the game but in the mid 90’s there were a core group of guys and everyone that held a black belt were bad to the bone legit guys. There was no fluff and almost everyone was a hardcore sambo competitor.

    The biggest distinction was that they belted in American Sombo (yes spelled with an “o”) and combat Sombo. It was always known that in Russia and in sport sambo they did not have traditional belt rankings. I always tell people sport sambo is more akin to wrestling were the have no belts. I was awarded my black belt in american sombo in 98, so going on 14 years but in that time I have only awarded a handful of black belts in sambo. Being a life time martial artist and holding black belts in many styles including the coveted BJJ black belt, I have always put a high standard on any belt I award. I have used this system to rank the higher level guys that are under me that are higher level grapplers but focus more on MMA or no Gi type grappling.

    One of my well known students Amir Sadollah is a black belt in sambo under me and repped his sambo black belt on national T.V. on his way to winning the Ultimate Fighter season 7 with 4 out of 5 wins by submission. He was a white belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under me because he did not wear a gi. I gave him a black belt in sambo to represent his skill level in grappling that was not BJJ focused. I stand by the skill level of anyone I awarded a black belt in sombo to. In Ron’s state of Tennessee I have awarded 2 black belts, Johnathon Ivey and Danny Jones. I invite anyone to stop by and see either one of these gentleman if you have a question of skill level.

    On the other side of this issue, and the one that Ron seems to take issue with is the fact that after the original American Sombo group fell apart there was no legitimate group left awarding or keeping track of “Sambo belt ranks”. Through the years I have run across the same problems of the teakwondo type schools down the street claiming to have sambo black belts teaching. Unfortunately it became one of the easier arts to proclaim a false black belt in because of no governing body to speak of. I see this being the biggest issue. The only way to deal with this is by lineage, and only if you know who was in the original group, which at this point is a very small group.

    I have seen the same thing in almost every martial arts I have been involved with from BJJ which seem to have the best “belt police ” out there, to wrestling were everyone who participated in high school wrestling is a state champion. With Martial arts there is no doctrine of caveat emptor or buyer beware. It seems anyone can open a martial arts school no matter what qualifications they have and it is on the consumer to investigate or not, the legitimacy of the school and instructor. Not sure if there has ever been a successful case of fraud against a person for being unqualified to teach martial arts. It is an issue that at the moment will have to be dealt with inside the martial arts industry that no one wants to take on.

    Rick McCoy

  2. For the record folks, I have gotten some e-mails in protest from people after this blog post came out. Please read the article carefully. I stand by the quotes attributed to me from the interview. But, don’t attribute what or how the author wrote the rest of the blog story to me. I did not write the blog post. I don’t think people are either liars, lied to, or crazy if they are claiming sambo ranks. The problem of color belt style ranks in sambo is much deeper than that. And, contrary to the post, there was more than one group in the past (and today) offering such ranks.

    If you want to disagree with my quotes/comments, please do. I have no problem with that. But, if you have a problem with the abbrasive way the post was written, take it up with Ron Dayley.

    Bottom line is this, everyone that is offering sambo belts today says the following “yes, I agree, it is not the norm. But, I stand by mine. I am different.” Well, I ask you why are you persisting with something that you know is not the norm, and why are you protesting when someone points it out to you? Nobody questions what a BJJ or Judo BB means…because it is the norm and there is a standard. Everyone questions a sambo “black belt” because it is not the norm, it is rarely used, and there is no universal standard. So, don’t get pissed off when people point out to you that what you are doing is confusing and problematic for all of sambo. Sambo belts were a blip on the timeline of sambo history…a blip that ended a long time ago.

  3. Rick, I have some comments/questions…not intended to offend.

    The “o” spelling of sambo was not intended to distinguish the sport as much as it was about not offending people with the racial implications of the name here in the US. Sambo and Sombo are the same animal. Are you saying that a black belt in American Sombo is not a black belt in Sambo? Even FIAS spelled it with an “o” at one point.

    The sambo groups that looked at creating belt ranks (dating back to the 1980’s) knew they were going against the grain of the sport. Then as things fractured, several groups started offering them…some more stringently than others. By 1998 the fracturing was well under way. Th point is that now, years later, it is a serious problem as everyone and thier mother is offering belts when it never was the standard ans still is not the standard. When noobs see a great athlete like Sodallah use the term sambo black belt, they will assume it is the norm, when we call all agree (I think) it is not the norm and that standards and quality control of what it means to have a sambo black belt vary greatly…and is some cases don’t exist at all.

    Regarding the equation of skill to the BB, that is a big area of misunderstanding when I talk with folks about this. For example Amir Sodallah does not need a sombo black belt to identify him as skilled. The guy is clearly skilled and well coached, black belt or not. My point has always been that the belt is not needed for that. His skill stands on it’s own (I am a big fan BTW). For me, it is not about questioning one’s skill (though people often take it that way). It is about questioning the need to label one’s skill in that way. Whenever I question the concept of a sambo BB, people take it as a challenge of their skill, which it is not. I see why they would think that though.

    But, regarding your desire to award a BB to Sodallah in sombo, as opposed to BJJ, in order to recognize his skill confuses me. Particularly when you mention the issue of his lack of jacket (gi) experience. Sambo is intimitely related to use of the jacket. So, to say you chose to award him a sambo belt and not a BJJ belt because of a lack of jacket experience is odd to me. Sambo is much more than being a good no-gi grappler. Again, not trying to offend, just understand your perspective. Can you comment please?

    Also, I wanted to talk to you off line. If you could can you shoot me an e-mail at [email protected]


  4. I’m not crazy about the ASA logo on this article since it is my (Ron Dayley’s) feelings on this subject abbrasive or not. I tend to lean on the side of thinking that Rick has then any other but once again, that’s my feelings on the subject. I quoted Steve and left his quotes totally intacted because he is one of the most respected guys in Sambo in the US, he and I don’t see eye to eye but I do respect his stance on the subject and the bottom line is, abbrasive or not, these guys that have never trained in sambo who claim black belts are fakes, frauds and liers. I think we all argee on this no matter how it is written. This article was sparked by two gyms in my own town claiming Sambo black belts hell, one even claims a Muay Thai black belt. I don’t know about the rest of you, but in my book, these guys are liers because they know that they are not black belts in these styles.

  5. about the traditional ranking system, its my belief “correct me if i am wrong please ” that in order to advance it had to be done in competetion. do you think that is just a concept that americans are not used to? thats advancement isnt based on how long you have done but the skill in which you practice it. I’ve been studying under you for around 5 months now and had a question about the thought that having a black belt is the end all be all of the journey of being a martial artist. do you think that people accredit the belt to how prolific you are or is it just a way of measuring how far you’ve come since you’ve been practicing? thats what has been on my mind since reading the article

  6. One of my best friends is Igor Kurinnoy of Moscow, Russia. Igor is a 3x World Sambo Champion and a 5x Sambo World Cup Champion. Igor is not a Blackbelt in Sambo but he is a Merited Master of Sport in Sambo. Igor does have a Blackbelt in judo.
    In all of my trips to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (15-16 in all) I have never seen anyone with a Blackbelt in sambo. It’s not a question of skill it’s just that Blackbelts in Sambo simply do not exist in International Sambo. Anyone wearing a Blackbelt in a sambo competition internationally 1) Would not be allowed to compete because the belt must be red or blue. 2) Would get really strange looks.
    That being said if anybody decides to have a “in house ranking system” that’s their decision but don’t expect others to recognize it.

  7. I have to say i really enjoy russian sambo i have’nt done a match since the 1997 AAU Grand Nationals now am i national or world class level no way at all but i can say i’ve done it enough to say that i know how to do the sport but that’s just me being a combat athlete,the problem in my opinion people who say they have black belt in sambo know majority of americans in their circle have absolutely no clue what russian sambo is so it’s taken at face value and nobody’s gonna ask questions in that circle i do promote sambo as much as i can that i do the sport but that’s as far as it goes now for all the true sambo experts,keep the sport the true and honest the best way that you can,we live in a free enterprize society and we definately can’t control one’s perceptions and way of thinking,so for me i won’t get mad if a guy says he’s a black belt in sambo,i’ll just shake my head and say wow hmmmm has this person fought in the world championships and beaten russians?!!!

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