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CQC Sambo: Why You Should “Fill Your Cup” With Wisdom From This Russian Close-Quarters-Combat System!

CQC Sambo

Black Belt Plus

“In order to taste my cup of water, you must first empty your cup. My friend, drop all your preconceived and fixed ideas and be neutral. Do you know why this cup is useful? Because it is empty.”

Bruce Lee crafted that quote as a guide for other martial artists who were seeking the truth about what works in a real fight. Throughout his life, he constantly searched for the most effective techniques, tactics and strategies known to man. As he succinctly put in it his book Tao of Jeet Kune Do, “Use only that which works and take it from anyplace you can find it.”

For Lee, the purpose of his research was twofold: to add to his  personal combat repertoire and to further his development of what would eventually emerge as jeet kune do. This take-it-from-anyplace approach set the martial arts world abuzz in the 1960s and ’70s — and again in the early ’90s when a man who had trained in an obscure art called Brazilian jiu-jitsu triumphed over all comers in a no-holds-barred contest: the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship. BJJ emerged from the shadows, and many of us assimilated its lessons into our personal self-defense systems.

Everything I’ve written so far is well-known in the martial arts community. What isn’t so well-known is that before BJJ’s debut in the octagon courtesy of Royce Gracie, Lee was already ahead of the learning curve with respect to grappling. During the 1960s, he delved into it with help from experts like Gene LeBell and Wally Jay. Witness the opening scene in Enter the Dragon, which features a Filipino dumog throw and a submission hold.

CQC Sambo

What even fewer know is that 50 years before that and halfway around the world in the Soviet Union, a similar search for combative truth took place, and it led to the creation of a martial art called sambo.

Anyone who’s familiar with sambo and jeet kune do will tell you that they share numerous similarities. However, according to Bruce Lee biographer Matthew Polly, there are no known examples of Lee having mentioned sambo. Interestingly, both the Russian art and Lee appeared on the cover of this magazine — sambo’s first was the February 1967 issue and Lee’s was the October 1967 issue — leaving us to postulate that Lee likely was aware of sambo. Moreover, with his scientific study of combat, he certainly would have been open to examining its effectiveness. To learn more about sambo’s effectiveness, Black Belt connected with one of Canada’s foremost practitioners of the art: Phillip Duncan Jr.

Duncan has a fourth-degree black belt — the art maxes out at six degrees — in close-quarters-combat sambo. He earned that rank under Greg Kalyna and was later certified by Michael Galperin, president of the U.S. Combat Sambo Association. In addition to his Russian martial arts background, Duncan teaches the Filipino arts. As such, he’s accumulated a plethora of fight experience.

The real-world testing to which Duncan has subjected CQC sambo transcends the dojo and the ring. For the past three decades, he’s worked as an undercover police officer in a “guns and gangs” unit in Toronto. While on the job, he’s put his skills to use countless times to disarm and subdue criminals, many of whom were bent on killing him. A former use-of-force instructor, Duncan went on to convey his findings to hundreds of patrol and undercover officers, as well as military personnel and bodyguards, in the hopes that they’ll enjoy the same self-defense advantages that CQC sambo has afforded him.


According to Duncan, sambo was born after the Soviet Union embarked on a search for combative enlightenment not unlike Lee’s. It commenced after World War I ended and proceeded as follows: Several Russian martial artists — one of whom was Vasili Oshchepkov, a second degree under Jigoro Kano — were given 10 years to scour Asia, Europe and the Middle East in search of martial arts. Afterward, they returned and analyzed the knowledge they’d accumulated. In 1927 a man named Viktor Spiridonov put pen to paper and published a manual designed for use by the military, police and KGB. In 1938 the new system was officially recognized as a sport, and the name was changed from free wrestling to sambo, an acronym derived from the phrase samooborona bez oruzhia, or “self-defense without weapons.”

CQC Sambo

Soviet research continued after World War II, when various techniques that were designed to combat the current crop of criminals were examined so that sambo could be updated. During the Cold War, this refinement went further when teams of researchers and experts got together to devise strategies and tactics to counter the techniques the Russians had borrowed from other arts. In other words, they set out not just to ensure that sambo practitioners would prevail in a fight but also to prevent their enemies from prevailing against them with the same moves.

The Soviet government then decided that sambo should be taught to the masses. To ensure the greatest possible participation by its citizens, they split the art into three well-known substyles: sport sambo, self-defense sambo and combat sambo. Sport sambo is like judo but with some differences that pertain to rules, protocols and uniforms. Self-defense sambo is entirely defensive, designed for use against armed and unarmed attacks effected by individuals. Combat sambo is designed to prepare people to be effective in any fighting situation, which is why it occasionally hosts competitions

that resemble mixed martial arts.

A fourth style also was developed, one that was top secret and had the potential to be even more deadly. Called CQC sambo, it was reserved for the Soviet Union’s commandos. Fast-forward to the MMA era: Former sambo champions like Oleg Taktarov, Andrei Arlovski and Fedor Emelianenko achieved notable success in mixed martial arts. More recently, sambo has given us the UFC’s Khabib Nurmagomedov and Ukrainian three-weight world-champion boxer Vasyl Lomachenko. As such, few can argue that sambo is not an effective fighting system.


Bruce Lee’s fight with Wong Jack Man has been immortalized in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Birth of the Dragon. For our purposes, the important aspect of this historical confrontation is that after the fight, Lee found himself exhausted. As a result, he vowed to make his skills more efficient. That’s why his writings began to reflect a new focus on efficiency, directness and simplicity in combat.

In Lee’s words: “When you fight, if it is a real fight, use every tool that you have. Use your whole body. Use your fists, your legs, your fingers, your head if you have to, and hit them in every vulnerable spot, the [groin], the eyes, etc., to win.”

CQC sambo stylists, like those who practice JKD, seek total control — or at least neutralization of their opponent in the most expedient manner. Duncan says his students aim to end confrontations in three to five seconds by focusing on techniques that have been proved effective in the real world.

To reach that goal, CQC sambo advocates the use of basic principles that are often found in reality-based self-defense systems. They include attacking vital targets if you believe your life is threatened, not telegraphing your intentions and avoiding fancy techniques that are more prone to failure. Exponents of the Russian system go one step further by adding some principles that are uniquely their own.

In CQC sambo, practitioners always assume that their adversary is stronger, faster and better trained. Second, they avoid using two arms to neutralize a weapon attack that’s effected with just one of the assailant’s hands because that would leave them unable to stop a counterstrike from the assailant’s empty hand. Third, they never strike twice in the same place.

The first of these principles — training to defeat a more highly skilled opponent — is perhaps most important. While it’s common for reality-based systems to have students train to overcome an average attacker, CQC sambo focuses on defeating fighters who are above average.

That’s because its founders knew that prison inmates, cartel members and terrorists actively train to counter standard defensive tactics. To illustrate, Duncan cites a staple of self-defense classes: disarming a gunman by immediately grabbing the barrel or slide of the firearm. His research has shown that the cutting action of a reciprocating handgun slide or the gases that escape from the gap between the cylinder and barrel of a revolver likely will be too painful for most people to endure — and criminals know this. 

Their knowledge of the technique’s weakness can lead to an epic fail of the disarm. CQC sambo teaches that a more effective response to a firearm threat entails using open-hand slaps, sometimes referred to as “ballistic striking.” The slaps are delivered to vulnerable parts of the adversary’s head (for example, the temple and jaw) and to the body. This tactic, probably borrowed from the Chinese martial arts studied by sambo’s creators, has the practitioner use his body’s inertia to deliver maximum percussive force, often with devastating effect. Ballistic striking offers additional benefits in a life-or-death encounter, Duncan says. First, the average street fighter is used to getting

punched and therefore can take a few shots and keep going. Using a ballistic strike to introduce a new pain stimulus into the altercation tends to disrupt the street fighter’s thinking process. Furthermore, this type of strike reduces the likelihood that bones in the hand of the defender will be compromised — which frequently happens when punches are thrown on the street. That ensures the CQC sambo stylist will be able to continue using his empty hands or his adversary’s weapon if he manages to take it away.


When Bruce Lee said, “My style — you could call it the art of fighting without fighting” in Enter the Dragon and subsequently outwitted his opponent, he provided insight into perhaps the highest level of combat proficiency: the ability to defeat an opponent’s mind. Duncan says this is accomplished in CQC sambo by reacting counterintuitively to an attack. To explain the concept, he focuses on how this might apply against a gun threat:

“If you can’t run away or disengage, [many] systems teach you to deflect, strike or grab the opponent’s delivery system — i.e., his arm. This action, however, shocks your opponent’s brain into doing something in reaction. He may quickly pull the weapon back if you grab it and then reset his brain to try a different attack.

CQC Sambo

“In CQC sambo, we let the opponent commit to his attack by not interfering with the delivery system. We move forward. When you move toward an opponent who wields a weapon, [his] brain shuts down for a microsecond. He cannot comprehend that, despite having a weapon or a perceived advantage, you are moving toward the danger. This causes a short-term brain lockup.

“We then ‘hide behind the wall’ — that is, move to the side of the opponent’s weapon-delivery system, keeping our body as close to the attacker’s body as possible. A hand is placed beside the weapon arm to prevent the firearm from drifting toward our new position. Then [there’s] a devastating strike delivered to a vulnerable area like the throat. One grabs the firearm only at the end of the disarm technique.”

By not blocking or moving away from danger, Duncan says, “You let the opponent think he is winning until he realizes that he has lost.”


Clearly, there’s a pattern among forward-thinking martial artists — Bruce Lee, the Gracies, the Soviets who developed sambo — to explore other arts, analyze their strengths and then incorporate their best moves, as well as defenses against those moves. Although not all of us have the resources to travel the world and compete at the highest levels in an effort to test our personal theories of combat, we can benefit from studying the work of those who already have done this.

We can delve into JKD, we can bolster our ground skills with BJJ and we can learn CQC sambo. For many, the latter will provide a piece of the combative puzzle that few other fighting systems offer, especially with respect to weapon defense. So consider emptying your cup and then filling at least part of it with CQC sambo. I’m confident you’ll find the experience as enlightening as I have.

Perry William Kelly has a sixth-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu and is an instructor in four other martial arts. He’s the former national coordinator for use of force for the Correctional Service of Canada. In 2017 he was a karate gold medalist at the World Police and Fire Games, and in 2018 he received the Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior Award. His website is

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