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Updated: Dec 29, 2022

Is this true and how do these two great arts compare in the arena of modern combat sports?

Back in 2013 a young and fresh-faced Khabib Nurmagomedov entered the stage before his fight with Thiago Tavares wearing a T-Shirt that said “If Sambo was easy, it would be called Jiu Jitsu.” Given the illustrious record of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the history of the UFC, and given that Khabib was fighting a BJJ black belt on Brazilian soil, this felt to many as a direct attack on the art that had proven it’s effectiveness against other arts, time and time again. Needless to say, Khabib went on to dismantle Tavares in a single round and went on to win the UFC Lightweight title and retired undefeated.

Khabib’s t-shirt enraged a lot of jiu jitsu fans, some of whom took it very personally and it has since opened up a big discussion in martial arts as to which art is the most effective. Culminating recently in two recent contests in combat sports; the first was a submission-only grappling match in OneFC between Jiu Jitsu phenom and recent ADCC Champion Kade Ruotolo and 4 time Sambo World Champion and Judo expert Uali Kurzhev. This was followed soon after with an MMA fight for the UFC Lightweight Title between the then champion and Jiu Jitsu specialist Charles Oliveria, and two time Combat Sambo World Champion, and Khabib teammate Islam Machachev.

At this point it is important to mention that Sport Sambo and Combat Sambo are significantly differing sports in terms of rules. The former being a grappling only art that is heavily based on a Judo rule set, but which does not allow chokes and strangles, and the latter being a mixture of grappling and striking (punches, kicks, elbows and knees) and in some competitions even groin strikes and head-butts are allowed!

So what transpired in these two competitions?

Unsurprisingly to many in the know, Kade Ruotolo controlled and dominated the Sport Sambo Champion and ultimately submitted Kurzhev in the OneFC submission grappling match. On the other hand, Charles Oliveira, who has the most submissions in UFC history and is equally effective with his striking was handedly controlled, knocked down and ultimately submitted by the Combat Sambo specialist. Which begs the question, which is the better art?

The short answer is that it depends in what arena and ruleset you want the question answered. In submission grappling, the pinnacle of which is the ADCC World

Championships that has a scoring system and format that allows all grappling arts to compete against each other, the title nearly always goes to Jiu Jitsu experts. Kade demonstrated the gap in the level of sophistication between elite level Jiu Jitsu practitioners and elite Samboists in this submission-only arena in this recent match up.

On the other hand, within the sport of MMA there has recently been a huge wave of Combat Sambo fighters who have terrorised the ranks with their impressive mixture of striking, clinching, wrestling, judo, ground fighting and submissions. These include Lightweight champs Khabib Nurmagomedov and his teammate Islam Machachev with more and more breaking into the rankings.

The reasons for this are quite simple, on one hand Jiu Jitsu practitioners have cross trained and evolved into uber-specialised submission grapplers, with less emphasis on take downs/top position than Samboists and more emphasis on a wide repertoire of submissions, some of which are illegal in Sport Sambo, so it is only natural for them to be victorious in a specific ruleset of submission-only at a high level, in general.

On the other hand, comparatively speaking, Combat Sambo fighters compete and do much of their training combining strikes with grappling with a major focus on take downs and top position; naturally this has lead to to them generally being much more comfortable in the MMA arena than nearly all high level Jiu Jitsu fighters. Combat Sambo athletes inherently know that top position is King on the ground and have years of experience seamlessly blending striking and grappling arts together in the crucible of competition, while Jiu Jitsu specialists have countless hours of integrating all grappling arts into the submission grappling format, often happily pulling guard and working off their backs. Of course, on any given day, an elite individual from one art could beat the other in the latter’s area of expertise, it is sporting competition after all, but it is in general terms that this discussion is taking place.

Having said all of the above, one thing is for sure, neither of these arts could seriously be described as “easy” and it is clear to me that Khabib’s original t-shirt was a humorous dig and a very clever bit of self promotion which also worked brilliantly to put Sambo on the UFC map.

Embrace the art that you most enjoy, but if you are serious about competing ensure that you focus your training on developing in the areas that are going to be tested, but remember that sound fundamentals will be a must to excel in any sport, so ensure you never neglect those!



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