Injury shake up unearths political controversy at USA SAMBO Open

What was, on the surface, a high class grappling tournament in Rahway, New Jersey, yesterday, opened a political can of worms as a series of freak injuries at the USA SAMBO Open revealed unrest with national management.
The primary attraction of the USA SAMBO Open is the classical rules of the Russian martial art known colloquially as “sport SAMBO,” one of three recognized rules sets to bare the SAMBO name. Sport SAMBO is not dissimilar from Olympic rules Judo, with the most notable differences being the allowance of leg locks, the disallowance of chokes, generally more time spent on the ground, and increased difficulty in scoring a perfect throw that will end the match.

After the sport SAMBO festivities, which featured an international cast of athletes from nine countries and 40 competitors total in the adult division, the event was closed with five exhibition matches of Combat SAMBO. The Combat SAMBO rules have their roots in the Russian military and, though practiced in traditional SAMBO uniform, allows for a variety of strikes and is often described as “MMA with a jacket on.”

During the five exhibitions, there was string of freak injuries where four of the competitors were forced to seek medical attention, two with serious shoulder injuries. While any injury is unfortunate in athletic competition, the real drama surfaced afterward when it was revealed that the tournament had insufficient accident insurance to cover the unexpected injuries.

Matters only became worse when on-site attempts to treat the injuries revealed that there were no medical personnel hired to observe the event nor were even basic first aid materials, such as ice packs, available on site.

The AASF, the group sanctioning the SAMBO Open and the American branch of the international regulatory SAMBO body, FIAS, seemed to have had a collective organizational hiccup regarding tournament management. However, reaction to the injury issue from the SAMBO community revealed a farther reaching and possibly terminal illness in western SAMBO.

The tournament did boast key international talent, including world champions originally hailing from Russia, Georgia, and even Mongolia. As indicated by the palpable absence of spoken English it would seem like the only competitor not in attendance was you.

The 40 adult competitors, some of which swing athletes that can compete in both ‘cadet’ and ‘senior’ divisions at 17 years of age, made up a group that New York Combat SAMBO head coach Stephen Koepfer referred to as “demonstrably smaller” than last year’s competition.

AASF president David Rudman also recognized the smaller turn out, noting that the overall participation was about “50% less” than the year before.

Sport SAMBO is a highly active endeavor with rarely a pause.

“It’s the most tiring sport I’ve participated in, next to soccer,” said bronze medalist and multiple martial art veteran Reilly Bodycomb. “I wouldn’t say it’s harder than MMA. But in MMA you’re strategically encouraged to back off with your jab or take a breath when [you’re in a dominant position.] Here you can’t do that.”

Constant action would seem to make SAMBO the most palatable grappling competition to spectators, with the possible exception of NCAA wrestling, if it were better advertised. Even among the thriving grappling culture in New York and New Jersey, few American athletes were even aware that there was a grappling tournament with world champion level competitors going on in their back yard.

Rudman maintains that advertising the event outside of the insular SAMBO community, which in the US consists mostly of members of the Eastern European immigrant communities that are heavily concentrated in Brooklyn and Coney Island, costs money that his organization simply does not have. However, former AASF president and former FIAS vice-president Leonid Polykov feels that the decline of western SAMBO practitioners is a long time problem that has been maintained by AASF management decisions that keep the sport insular.

“The main problem is that these people don’t have the decency to deal with other clubs [outside of SAMBO],” said Polykov. “And when they do, no one follows up. Some people like to have special attention.”

Polykov explained that, while SAMBO is still a huge sport in the former Soviet Block countries that spawned the sport, the last real resurgence of native born American SAMBO practitioners was in the 80’s when the sport was still attached to the AAU and other wrestling organizations.

“When [the AAU] dropped SAMBO, it became the adopted child that nobody wanted,” Polykov explained the origins of AASF’s stand alone status. “It’s sad because [the AASF] was my baby.”

Polykov also attributes the lack of new organizational ties the AASF could have formed to managerial resistance to joining with a larger body in the US, saying simply that “Everybody likes to be king of a small kingdom.”

With all the organizational flaws in the SAMBO Open, the one undeniable positive is the sheer talent competing.

“Where else could my guys compete with world class [SAMBO competition,]” Koepfer said of the tournament, which New York Combat Sambo members Reilly Bodycomb and Ariel Elghanayan competed in. “It’s a mixed bag tournament. It’s good for my athletes, but it’s bad for the sport.”

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