TXMMA – Texas Mixed Martial Arts

Nina Cutro-Kelly: Judo Black Belt on the Path to Sambo Grappling Success

By Shama Ko, Contributing Writer


Three-time National Judo gold medalist and World Sambo Bronze medalist will represent the USA in the Sambo World Cup


AUSTIN, TX, November 28, 2012 – Nina Cutro-Kelly’s Martial Arts and Wrestling history and record speaks for itself. She is undoubtedly the real deal. Cutro-Kelly started training Judo in 1992 and has been studying with the 1992 Olympic Coach, Jim Hrbek of Universal Judo, in San Antonio since 1999. During high school and college, Cutro-Kelly also wrestled freestyle and folk style and then tried Sambo, (Sombo in English) on a whim in 2011. She says it was supposed to be a one-time experience, but after medaling in the World Championships, Cutro-Kelly decided to stay with Sambo and went to represent the USA in Sambo internationally.  

Cutro-Kelly has placed third in 2011 Sambo Worlds, second in the 2008 Judo World Cup and second in the 2012 Sambo Moscow Super World cup. Cutro-Kelly says she came very close to qualifying in 2012 Olympics, but was unable to qualify internationally due to tearing her ACL. Despite her injury, Cutro-Kelly went on to compete for a year with no ACL.  It was an injury that set her back quite a bit. Cutro-Kelly’s current goals are to finish rehabbing her knee which was operated on in June of 2012.  

In 2013, Cutro-Kelly intends to make the Judo World Team in a lighter weight class and do some damage there. Her goal is to win the Sambo World Championships.  Cutro-Kelly plans to compete several times in Europe for Judo, as well as in Kazakstan and Russia for Sambo.  When Cutro-Kelly isn’t training for competitions, she does seminars and helps coach her teammates at Universal Judo in San Antonio.  Cutro-Kelly’s most immediate goal is to win the 2013 World Cup in Kazakstan this January. Cutro-Kelly will be conducting a women’s only seminar on December 2nd at the Austin Center for Martial Arts to raise funds to help with expenses related to her representing the USA in the 2013 World Cup.

Cutro-Kelly gives us the rundown of how she got started, explains Sambo and provides advice to young female martial artists. Hear about what she has to say about former teammate Ronda Rousey signing with the UFC and thoughts on fighting MMA herself.


Interview – Nina Cutro-Kelly


How did you get started in both martial arts? What was it that got you hooked?

I was a hyperactive little kid.  My Dad got tired of being called to pick me up from sports I misbehaved at and so he put me in judo, since I wouldn’t get in trouble for knocking over the kids there.  I got hooked in 1999 when I changed to my current club and started working with an elite group of girls who all went on to be National Medalists.  I was only a green belt and very inexperienced and clumsy, but after a lot of hard work; I was able to qualify for the Junior World Team in 2002.  I think what hooked me on judo was that I had always been so clumsy off the mat and on the mat things seemed to make sense movement wise.  I don’t know how else to explain it, but the moves seemed logical.

What are the differences and similarities between Judo and Sambo? Has your background in Judo helped you in Sambo?

Sambo is pretty much a Russian crossbreed (designed for the Soviet army) of judo and wrestling, both sports which I had done before doing Sambo.  The sambo jacket is like judo, the rules are like judo and wrestling together, and the mat and shoes are like wrestling.  There is also the matter of the short shorts.  I hate those shorts.  My background in judo definitely helped me in Sambo.  In fact, the first time I did Sambo was the 2011 World Championships and I got a bronze medal.  It sounds ridiculous but Sambo is so close to judo and wrestling that most sambo players were judo players first. 

What would you say to encourage girls to try Sambo or Judo? What are the benefits?

 They are both great forms of self-defense and keeping/getting in shape.  You meet like-minded people and can work together towards common goals.  You also gain self-confidence.  And, it is fun to choke people and arm bar them. They respect you more after it.

In your career you’ve collected an impressive collection of medals. Which one means the most to you? Why?

I’d have to say I like my World Sambo bronze from 2011 and my 2008 Birmingham Judo World Cup Silver medal the most.  I have gotten Gold medals at other events, but those two days stick out the most in my head.  In Birmingham, I beat two girls I’d never beaten before to make it to the finals and in the 2011 World Sambo Championships, I was so terrified that I’d get killed by these huge Russian girls, that I fought well and was able to overcome my inexperience with a completely new set of rules.

As a professional competitor in Judo and Sambo, what advice do you have to women and young girls in martial arts to keep them motivated? What helps you get through the ups and downs of training?

I’d say this first:  NEVER miss practice.  My coach said this to me when I was a teenager and it stuck in my head.  Every minute you aren’t training, someone else is, and they will win.  Also, make a plan for each year and stick to your goals.  Try to integrate a new technique every couple of months, try it in practice for a month before you try it in competition.  Finally, try to train with people who are better than you, go to practice hoping someone beats you with something and trick you with something else.  Then, figure out what they did and how to do it to them or how to do something to get around it.  I have had ups and downs in training and what keeps me going is that I love to fight, I love the rush that it gives me, and I love making techniques I trained work in a live fight. 

Women like Ronda Rousey, the first female signed with the UFC, has led the way for women in MMA to a whole new level. Have you considered MMA? What are your thoughts on the sport and women being in the sport?

Ronda’s background in judo has made her the fighter she is today in MMA, there is no question about it.  And she is the real deal.  She got signed to the UFC because there are very few women’s MMA players with 20 years of mat experience under their belt. When this begins to happen, there will be more Ronda’s and the competitiveness of Women’s MMA will increase.  I have considered MMA but, with my lightest adult weight being around 170lbs, there isn’t currently a weight class for me.  Right now, the sport needs to grow and get more visible, and when this happens, I’m sure we will see more weight classes.  So, who knows, I might fight.  As of right now I think I could definitely be competitive skill wise in women’s MMA, even if I’m too big!


About the Author


Shama Ko has actively been a part of and contributed to the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community in Texas for close to a decade. She is a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu purple belt at Gracie Humaitá Austin, a champion competitor, a photographer/owner of Mean Streak Photography, a community/event organizer for Girls in Gis and Austin Women’s Open Mat, and most recently a contributing writer to TXMMA. Follow Shama’s endeavors online through any of the links above or through any of these sites: Twitter, FacebookThe Adventures of Shama KoShamaKo.com, and SKOphoto.com.