From Athlete to Coach: 10 Years of International SAMBO Competition [Part 1]

From Athlete to Coach: 10 Years of International SAMBO Competition [Part 1]

In 2008 I found myself on a plane to Russia for the FIAS Sambo World Championships. It was mostly luck that got me on that plane. The team was formed by a now defunct American governing body that was scrambling to fill some empty slots on their roster. So the AASF (that aforementioned governing body) reached out to the Sambo coaches they knew and asked for athletes. My coach, Stephen Koepfer, was one of the guys in that rolodex and offered me that opportunity. Steve helped me train for this foreign rule set, get the needed visa, helped me raise money for the flight, and was one of the coaches that accompanied me and the team.

Sambo Introduction Video: 


For those of you not familiar, SAMBO is a combat sport and martial art developed in the former Soviet Union by the military. It has similarities to Judo, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu. There are two main versions of SAMBO competition. One version, called Combat SAMBO, has strikes including punches, kicks, knees, elbows, and head-butts, and the other (often referred to as Sport SAMBO) is a grappling only sport.

Traveling to Russia was an amazing and bizarre experience for a 24 year old kid from Texas. I made many friends on that team that I would later travel with again in the years to come. I got to meet Fedor Emelianenko, and witness his first and only loss in Combat Sambo ever! I also got to meet my coach's coach, Alexander Barakov, and spend some time training in his gym.

Within minutes of walking in to Alex’s school, he says “Let’s get a picture!" and puts AK-47s in our hands. Welcome to Russia.

The trip was marred with some bad spots as well: My teammate Vlad Koulikov losing after some extremely biased reffing in his combat Sambo match, and my other teammate David Juliano not being allowed to fight because his uniform wasn't “blue enough,” were eye-opening introductions to martial arts politics. I, however, was not the victim of bias... I was beaten the old fashioned way. I was outclassed, thrown, and pinned. It was rough.

The 2008 USA Sambo Team at the World Championships in Russia

After the Worlds I took a step back from Sport Sambo and got really into submission grappling. At the time, almost no one had any clue how to defend against leg locks in the American grappling scene so I was able to win a lot of matches. People started to show interest in learning how to do this, and I began teaching seminars. I recorded my first seminar in 2009 and it became my first DVD. I always knew I loved to teach more than I liked to compete, but I felt compelled to keep competing to make sure my knowledge was based in experience and not theory. In 2010 I was turning 26, recently married, and was finally going return to Sport Sambo after being crushed at the Worlds two years prior. I went to the US Sambo Open in Rahway, NJ.

Reilly Bodycomb getting his oil checked at the 2010 USA Sambo Championships.

In the semi-finals l lost an ankle lock race with a Russian who had won the tournament the previous two years, but I was happy with making it to the podium with a bronze medal. So happy in fact, I got са́мбо (that’s SAMBO in Cyrillic) tattooed on my leg.

Soon after that tournament, my wife and I moved to Dallas where I began teaching at Guy Mezger’s Combat Sports. It was a great experience being in a new place, with new students, but I was also away from my Coach and training partners for the first time. If I was going to practice Sambo with anyone, I would have to teach them ‘how to Sambo’ first. I taught grappling to an awesome group of people at that gym, and a few of them became really good training partners for me. When I decided to make my second attempt at international competition, I remember one of my students asking, “Who are you going to train with for this?”
and I said, “You guys!”

In 2011 I flew out to the Dutch Sambo Open along with a fantastic team of people who were integral parts of my martial arts history. Anthony Sansonetti was a coach and corner for my first MMA fight in 2007, Mike Ruesch was on the US team with me in 2008 in Russia, and Doug Fournet was on Team American Sambo with me at my first ever no-gi grappling tournament.

The USA Sambo team at the Dutch Open in 2011

Our team dominated the Dutch Open, and I earned my first gold medal in an international Sport Sambo event. It was absolutely my proudest moment in competition up till that point.


Team USA at the Dutch Sambo Open 2011

When I got back to the States, it was clear that the athletes I trained at Guy Mezger’s were developing into pretty good Sambo wrestlers in their own right. I couldn't have won that event without them as training partners. When the North American Freestyle Sambo Open was to be held in Austin the following year, it was time for them to give it a go. I was extremely proud of their performance, and once again I was reminded of how much I enjoyed coaching.


Guy Mezger’s Sambo Team at the 2012 NA Freestyle Sambo Open

After my wife received her Master’s degree, we moved to New Orleans where she became a school teacher. I had to start the process of teaching Sambo and training teammates over again. In 2012 I accompanied Doug Fournet to the British Sambo Open. It turned out I did not learn my lesson from a few years prior, and lost my 2nd match in another nasty ankle lock race with a Russian athlete. I was all bandaged up and had to roll my way through the airport with one of those loaner wheelchairs they give old people traveling between terminals. I proudly wore my bronze medal through customs.

Here is the pro tip for all you up-and-coming American Sambists: Don't get in ankle lock races with Russians.

Now back Stateside, I noticed the team I was training in NOLA was coming along well, but there was now a clear wall in the way of their development: There were just so few Sambo tournaments around for them compete in. This is when I decided I had to hold my own event. In 2013, athletes from New York, northern Louisiana, and Texas came down to compete together in the NOLA Sambo Invitational. We gave out custom rodeo style belt buckles to the winners! Getting Sambo truly off the ground in the USA has proven nearly impossible, but there are moments when you can get a group of people together and really celebrate this great sport. This little event was one of those moments.


The 2013 NOLA Sambo Invitational

My team in NOLA was getting really good, and they reached the level where we would all compete alongside each other at major US events. This lead to one of my competition low points actually becoming one of my coaching high points.

Two years in a row I was in the same division as a student of mine, Shane Schubbe, at the Arnold Sambo Classic in Ohio. In 2014, we had both won our preliminary matches, and he simply bowed out to me in the finals. In 2015, however, I got caught in a gnarly armbar by a wrestler that Shane had beaten the year before. On the sidelines, with my arm in a sling, I slumped down and watched my team go to work.


The NOLA Sambo team at the 2015 Arnold Classic

The team gave one of the best showings of skill I have seen from them in competition, and Shane beat the guy who beat me to take 1st in our division! One of the refs actually came up to congratulate me on how technically sound and talented the NOLA Sambo team was. That tournament was by far my proudest moment as a coach.

A few months after this tournament I moved to California to take over as the head coach of the Oakland branch of Bay Jiu-Jitsu. In the Bay Area, I would gain new students, new training partners, new friends, and find a renewed excitement for international competition.

In part 2: Moving to California, starting from scratch, and then wrestling in four different countries on three continents in one year.


Reilly will be teaching a 2 day training camp in New Orleans on December 8th. To learn more go to: https://www.rdojo.com/nola

Reilly Bodycomb

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