President and co-founder of the American Sambo Association, Stephen Koepfer first took up the martial art of Shotokan Karate in 1976 at age eight; however Stephen has achieved so much since initially participating in the fighting arts, having earned the prestigious Master of Sport of Russia in February 2009 and being invited to instruct at the FKE’s Academy and the Suvorov Military Academy in St. Petersburg.
This article was originally posted on October 14th, 2011 and has been archived
Sambo received a further worldwide boost through M-1 Global and the launching of M-1Challenge, which featured many Sambo practitioners showcasing their skills backed by their unwillingness to tap out. MMA fans then developed a desire to learn more about these hardened athletes and their fighting system.
Speaking of the Russian combat system’s origin, Koepfer told Fight Nerd “Sambo was sort of the brainchild of the new Soviet government and it was established early in the 20th Century, around 1918…” Sambo has been rapidly spreading across the globe in recent years thanks to the success of its internationally successful practitioners, such as Oleg Taktarov (former UFC Champion), Andrei Arlovski (former UFC Champion), Igor Yakimov (former World Judo Champion and World Sport Sambo Champion), as well as Fedor Emelianenko (Former Pride and WAMMA Heavyweight Champion, and four-time World Combat Sambo Champion), and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (Master of Sport in both Sambo and Judo).
Stephen ‘Sambo Steve’ Koepfer first took up Sambo training under Alexander Barakov in 1999 and has been one of the system’s greatest advocates in the United States since then. He graciously agreed to chat with Knucklepit about this amazing art that continues to grow across the globe.
Oleg Taktarov teaching at New York Combat Sambo
To be honest, it was my parents’ decision. My mother was a professor at Queens College and they had a Karate program there. At that time, kids of the faculty could take classes for free. I did Shotokan for about a year. But, more than give me any real skill, that year planted the seed for future training. It got me interested in martial arts.
You also have a background in TKD, San Shou, Kung Fu, and MMA. Are you able to incorporate elements of these styles into your Combat Sambo discipline?
I would not say I have a background in MMA per se. It would be more accurate to say that my diverse background has helped me be successful in MMA. But, yes, absolutely. The wonderful thing about Sambo as I learned it was how my coach, Alexander Barakov, encouraged incorporation of what I had already trained. Sambo is very much based on principles of movement and training. So, in the beginning I put all my prior experience on the back burner. Later, once I understood the fundamentals and principles of Sambo, I started bringing that prior stuff back into my game. In essence, more than a collection of techniques, Sambo really is a scientific system of how to engage another person in an altercation. Everything is looked at as a possibility, experimented with, and assessed for potential use. Some stuff is kept and some is discarded; and what is kept or discarded can vary from person to person.
US Team, 2010 British Open Sambo Championships, Stephen Koepfer, Doug Fournet, Vincent Beurrier, and Anthony Sansonetti.
This question reflects a common misunderstanding about Sambo. Think of Sambo as a general term. Within Sambo there are various uses, focuses, and potentials. But, in the end Combat Sambo is Sambo. They are not two different things. It can be somewhat confusing because the sport variations and non-sport variations have the same names. So, for example, when I say “Combat Sambo” do I mean the original military version of the art or the newer international sport version? Same with the term “Sambo”. Do I mean the international sport, or the system in general?
In my experience, training in Russia and other places outside of America, there is much less a need to create categories of Sambo. It is all just Sambo. The lines are not as clearly delineated as people here would like to think. Most sport Sambo guys also do Judo; many Combat Sambo guys do MMA and sport Sambo; many Sambists also do other forms of wrestling like Sumo, Georgian Wrestling, Mongolian Wrestling, Belt Wrestling, etc; most military Sambists also do sport competitions. So, in the end, it is just Sambo and we just train with a particular goal or rule set in mind. Think of Sambo as the home base, so to speak. That was how the system was founded, by systematically combining portions of other systems together in effective combinations. That improvisational and experimental foundation still exists in Sambo today. To me, this is Sambo’s greatest asset. To try and compartmentalize things goes against what the Sambo is about.
But, back to your original question: When I started training, my coach called it Combat Sambo. We spent about half our time with the Kurtka (gi) and half without. We trained sport applications and non-sport applications. There was no clear separation. It was all Sambo. It was all connected. I began training Sambo because I was looking for grappling. What I got was much more than that. What I got besides technique, was a real knowledge of how to train people.
What was it about Sambo that attracted you?
When I started training Sambo, it was not because I knew what Sambo was to any great extent, though I had some minor experience with Sambo before I met my coach. I had done some seminars with Oleg Taktarov and Gokor Chivichian. What really attracted me to Sambo was how Alex trained us. Something about it clicked with me. I felt comfortable learning that way.
Do you see Combat Sambo as being a complete self-defense system?
It can be. But, like any martial art, Sambo is what you make of it. What makes Sambo complete is not the collection of techniques it has, but the willingness to own up to that fact that it does not have everything; the willingness to look outside Sambo for the answer. Many martial art styles and teachers are not so open minded…even in this day and age. In the end, completeness comes down to the coach, not the style. How open minded is the coach? To really see how complete any gym is, check out how they feel about cross training. And, if they allow it, how do they arrange for it and process the information they get from it. Do they have a system for it, or is it haphazard? This is the real critical stuff.
Action from the 2010 ASA Freestyle Sambo Championships in Austin, Texas.
Well, history is much more complicated than that. There is so much propaganda and politics in the early Sambo history. It was not so neat and clean as many stories suggest. But, essentially yes, Sambo was a product of the new powers that be after the revolution. By 1938, the sport version was officially recognized in the Soviet Union.
Being a newer system rather than a more “traditional” fighting art, do you feel Combat Sambo is a more refined art that includes the cream of many traditional arts?
Sure, but Sambo is not immune to what made other arts go stagnant. The concept of aliveness is at the heart of Sambo. But, like all martial arts, Sambo can get stale and wither if it does not continue to live by its own founding principles. Many of us have seen indications of this, particularly in Russia when Sambo is now, seventy years later, standard and ubiquitous. Ironically, in many places where Sambo is the standard, there are indications that things are slowing down in terms of evolution of the style. There is more closed mindedness and pride, less challenge to evolve. And this is not necessarily intentional, but just due to lack of exposure or pressure to evolve.
In America for example, Sambo is the minority style. We Sambo guys have to compete and fight against every style under the sun in tournaments, on fight cards, etc. We have to evolve and modify to survive and stay viable. This is not to say that American Sambo is better than Russian. What it does say is that in America, Sambists are less comfortable and are forced to live by the founding principles of the style. In Russia that is not the case because Sambo is so common. But, the rise of MMA in Russia is changing this a bit. MMA has been very good for American and Russian Sambo in this regard.
US Team, 2008 World Sambo Championships, St. Petersberg, Russia, Vlad Koulikov, David Juliano, Mike Ruesch, Stephen Koepfer, Oleg Savitsky and Reilly Bodycomb.
One of the principles in Sambo as I learned it is the concept of fluid, improvisational, and uninterrupted movement. This all comes from the original military intention of ending a fight as quickly as possible. In a sport arena you have the luxury of time. That is not the case in non-sport situations. This sense of urgency has carried over into the sport versions of Sambo. The rules and strategies are designed to encourage flow and finishes.
This sense of comfort in transition is often lost by people in MMA for example; the flow from strike to throw, throw to position, and position to submission. At my club for example, we train that a throw is never complete until you have ground dominance. As much as we throwers like to talk about the ground being our best fist, most throws do not finish people. There is nothing worse than throwing someone and losing control of them right after. It is critical that people train transitional moments. I see this as one of the main things that MMA fighters can learn from Sambo. Many MMA clubs, for example, will have a Muay Thai class, wrestling class, and BJJ class. But oftentimes there is nobody with experience in those transitional moments. How do I go from Muay Thai to wrestling? This is slowly changing in clubs with experienced fighters, but Sambo has focused on this from day one.
Steve, I’d like to talk with you about the use of forearms in Combat Sambo, if we could.
Many karate and TKD practitioners use their forearms to block strikes whilst placing the fist of their opposite arm at waist level, whereas Sambists tend to employ a more aggressive counterstrike with their forearms and hold the fist of their non-striking arm in a boxer’s guard position near the chin.
In Sambo we don’t “block” strikes like traditional forearm blocks from Karate, etc. We will use our forearms more like a shield and guide incoming attacks away from us as part of our movement, usually hitting the guy in the process. We use forearms to make contact with our opponents. It is that initial contact that you need to track, target, and redirect an opponent’s moves. It is not a force against force thing. It all ties into movement and angles. I need to be moving with my opponent’s attack.
If I am static, it becomes a block. It is much more difficult to redirect and counter attack from a place of stillness. My coach says “movement is life, stillness is death” when it comes to fighting. Your evasion and counterstrike should be all part of the same movement.
We don’t keep our hands at our waist and we do employ strikes with forearms. Striking with forearms can make subsequent gripping for throws or takedowns easier. You also protect your fingers from being broken. Same with elbow and open hand strikes.
Do you find this a more affective and economical method of employing the forearms?
Do you do specific exercises for strengthening your forearms?
No. Training is enough.
Stephen Koepfer cornering Kaream Ellington on his way to a victory over UFC Champion Kinichi Yamamoto at the MFC: USA vs. Russia III, 2006.
It depends on the camp and fighter. But, generally speaking, forearm strikes I see in MMA are pretty rudimentary; from mount or against the cage, etc. I don’t see them used as much in terms of striking as part of entries for throws or takedowns. I personally think open hand and shoulder strikes are also overlooked.
Is g’n’p more likely to be used to finish a fight than submissions in Combat Sambo?
Not in the sport version of Combat Sambo. You are more likely to see subs. The G&P is used to set up the sub.
Could you give your thoughts on Systema, please, Steve?
Systema has some valuable movement philosophies that could help experienced martial artists and fighters. I have trained some myself and enjoyed it. But, generally speaking, Systema has drifted too far into the world of mythology and philosophy; away from practicality. What the great Systema teachers don’t tell you is that they did not become good fighters by just doing Systema. Do people really think that Russian Spetsnaz (another misunderstood term) became bad ass guys because of Systema?
When push comes to shove, I just don’t think the benefits outweigh the deficits with regard to Systema. In the end, I see Systema as a distant cousin to Combat Sambo; you know, that crazy cousin that the family just looks at and wonders what went wrong.
Do you incorporate weapon defense in your Combat Sambo classes?
Yes. We do have a class that covers that.
Victor Tatarkin, Stephen Koepfer, Fedor Emelianenko, Reilly Bodycomb and Tyga Maclin
I first met Fedor in 2006 at the “MFC: USA vs. Russia” card where my fighter, Kaream Ellington defeated Kinichi Yamamoto. Fedor was backstage. He was very friendly, no ego. His English was not great so, there was not much chatting going on. Over the years since then, I have met him on several occasions. He is a genuinely good guy. What you see on TV is exactly what you get. Most recently, he trained at my gym leading up to the Strikeforce Heavyweight Tournament bout against Silva. I felt honored he used my gym for his camp while in town. It was great to be a fly on the wall and watch him train. I learned quite a bit from that experience.
Were you surprised by his physical appearance?
Yeah, like everyone, I was a bit shocked that he was such a small heavyweight.
Alex Barakov with US team members at 2008 World Sambo Championships
I met Alex by chance. He was living in New York and teaching at a local club. I was looking to move on to a new gym and someone recommended I check out his class. I was not looking for Sambo specifically. But, I was hooked after one class. The rest is history. Alex literally changed my life. In 2003, he moved back home to Russia and I kept training the students here in New York. That small group grew into New York Combat Sambo. Alex and I still communicate and I still try to go train there with him when I can. Students of mine have also travelled to train with him. I have been to train in Russia with Alex (or Igor Kurinnoy) four out of the last five years.
Does FKE basically translate to All Russian Federation of Fighting?
Yes, it is an acronym.
I believe your becoming a candidate for Russia’s prestigious Master of Sport (in Combat Sambo) was a complete surprise to you. Could you tell readers about that experience, please?
Yes, it was a total surprise to me. I was in St. Petersburg for 2 weeks in 2009. Alex had asked me to teach a daily class at his club in addition to my own training. We were also hosting Dhani Jones at that time for his Travel Channel show. In any event, I noticed several people observing my classes; older senior guys. I was also brought around to meet several people. I assumed it was because I was a novelty – an American teaching Sambo in Russia. Near the end of my stay, there was a day where we primarily just sparred and I was asked to go against everyone, some who were already Master of Sport or Candidate for Master of Sport. I did very well. I also assisted in organizing the FKE tournament at Suvorov Military Academy.
Stephen Koepfer teaching Dhani Jones at the Suvorov Military Academy in 2009
On the last day of my stay, I discovered that the guys observing me were board members of the FKE; predominantly current or former military and police, as well as Sambists. They were assessing my teaching and fighting skill. They met with me and explained that I was being awarded my Master of Sport of Russia from the FKE not only because of my skill and ability to train champions, but also for all I had done for Sambo in the US. It was quite an honor.
You have the American Sambo Association Summit Training Camp taking place in Seattle over three days, from October 21–23. Who can attend this summit?
Anyone can attend the Summit. You don’t need to be a Sambist. If you are a grappler, judoka, wrestler, etc, you are welcome. Beginner or advanced, anyone is welcome. I love the Summit. It is my favorite ASA event each year. The coaches are great, the training is hard, and we always have an incredible time. We try to rotate cities each year to make the camp more available to people. This is our fifth year. So far we have done New York City, Lincoln City (Oregon), Austin, Bettendorf (Iowa), and Seattle (This year).
Stephen Koepfer teaching a leg lock seminar at Gracie South in Jackson, Mississippi. Note Rich Clementi cranking on Steve’s left leg.
Three days of hard, but fun training. You will cover throws, ground, and the transitions between the two. There will be four of America’s top Sambo coaches at your disposal; Aaron Fields, Gregg Humphreys, Doug Fournet, and myself. One of the highlights of this camp is that we all co-teach each session, so attendees will benefit from diverse perspectives on each technique taught. This is a must attend camp for anyone wanting to learn Sambo or just up their game in general.