Original draft published 1989
When we think of ring combat sports Boxing, Mauy Thai and Mix Martial Arts generally come to mind, however there is another ring art that has, for the past 170 years, had a major influence in Europe – this art is called sport savate.
An evolutionary product of Western thought the development of savate can be traced back to the second half of the 18 century. By the early 1800s la savate, as it came to be termed, was a simple street fighting art that utilized open hand strikes and low line boot kicking techniques as weapons of attack.
During the 1830s savate would under go changes that would come to have a major bearing on its primary skills sets and training outcomes. Influenced by the aristocrats thirst for anything new along with savate practitioners cross training in English boxing , Parisian wrestling and cane fighting these changes resulted in the arts emphasis shifting from one of street combat to a sport.
Closed fist punches from English pugilism replaced the traditional open hand strikes and mauling techniques while the street kicking came to include both the chest and head as targets. This new combat sport was renamed la Boxe Française or French boxing and together with the later introduction of Chausson (a southern French recreational method using sophisticated high kicks) was restructured making it socially acceptable for men, women, teenagers and children to practise.
Joseph Charlemont, a student of Louis Vigneron, codified the various methods of savate adding fencing principles and refining the kicking, boxing and wrestling skills. He wrote two manuals on French boxing his most celebrated work, L’ art de la Boxe Française et de la canne published in 1899, presents a complete and sophisticated sportive method which covered the four general ranges of weaponry, kicking , boxing and stand up grappling. Charlemont’s system forms the technical syllabus which modern sport savate is based on.
Today the sport component of savate is practised as an amateur French kick boxing method with the emphasis being placed on constant movement, clean kicking techniques and amateur boxing principles.
Over the years grappling has been removed and is no longer permitted in competition, though it is still taught today as part of savates self-defence curriculum.
The kicking skills of sport savate can be classified into three categories chasse – kicks delivered in a piston type manner, fouette – round kicks using a whipping action of the knee and balancer – kicks using a swinging motion of the leg.
The specialized foot wear worn by modern savateurs when they compete permits all sections of the boot to be used to as points of percussion. For instance the fouette, the most popular kick used in sport savate, uses the hard toe of the boot to literally “stab” into targets between and around a tight guard. The chasses use the heel of the boot to “crush” and “stomp” targets , balancers often “slap” with the sole of the shoe and the coup de pied bas utilizes the inside edge of the boot to “cut” into the shin bone.
Students of savate soon come to realize the sturdy wrestling, like boots, make a considerable difference in the delivery of kicking techniques when compared to the bare foot variety. Damage produced by the boot often shifts the emphasis from power to that of pin point accuracy which is central to sport savate. This accuracy is developed by using specialized glove target training drills which also facilitates an appreciation of distance and foot work.
In competition, kicks may be delivered to all sides of the legs and front and sides of the body and head. Sweeping and reaping the legs are also permitted. English boxing techniques include le directs – straights, le crochet – hooks & crosses, the upper cuts and swings.
Desplacement or foot work plays an important part in the delivery of kicking and boxing combinations. Decalage involves manoeuvring the body with either the lead or rear leg in an offensive manner to effectively achieve greater power when kicking or punching. Deplacement on the other hand involves angular footwork which carries the body along a path that will minimize the impact from your opponents attack.
The pace of savate competition is fast, constant and tactically challenging, sometimes referred to as “the thinking man’s kickboxing” its rhythm can best be described as a continuos connected sequence of movements based on timing, distance and opportunity.
Over the years the sport has attracted world class fighters within its ranks, Richard Sylla, Ernesto Hoost, Ivan Hippolyte, and Alain Zankifo are but a few European fighters to have gained world titles in both sport savate and international kickboxing.
There are three levels of competition, the first is “assuat”, which is based on the ability to deliver kicks and punches as light touches. While the emphasis in assuat is placed on correct technique and precision of hits a high degree of physical fitness along with speed, combinations and strategies is important. Bouts last four rounds and decisions are awarded by way of points only.
The next level is “combat” with hits delivered with full contact and decisions are awarded on points, TKO or KO.
Finally “pre-combat” is the last level of competition where competitors must wear head protectors and shin guards and the decisions are based on the combat level of competition .The advantage of the three levels of competition is that no savateur is permitted to compete in a level beyond his or her ability. This reduces the occurrence of major injuries in the ring.
Savate equipment consists of boxing gloves (gants) ranging between 8 and 12 ounces, depending on the weight divisions, wrestling type boots a mouth guard and groin protector. The uniform worn in competitions is a made of lycra which allows for full body movement without restriction.
Contests are held in a boxing ring or on mats with rounds between one- and – a- half or two minutes in duration, with a one minute rest period. Depending of the level and type of competition the number of rounds range from four to five.
Today the sport is governed world wide by the Paris based Federation Internationale de Savate (FIS) which monitors and supports affiliated member nations through out the world. There is a following in every country in Europe, with other affiliated federations in Australia, Japan, Africa, USA, Canada and South America.
A true western combat sport, savate has travelled a rational eclectic path for over 200 years. Its history has been linked with Street fighters, English pugilism, French wrestling, fencing, the aristocrats and military training.
Savate, like boxing and wrestling has much to offer today’s ring based fighters who take the time to learn its skills properly.
About the author – Craig Gemeiner is the current president of the Australian Savate Federation Inc the nation’s representative body to the Federation International De Savate. Gemeiner coaches the three disciplines that traditionally comprise savate these being savate self-defence, sport savate and savate weaponry. He has written and produced two highly successful instructional DVD’s covering the walking stick method of self defence – la canne Vigny and plans to release a sport savate DVD mid June 2005. For more information on savate go to www.savateaustralia.com. Special thanks to Blair Moore for his assistance with this article.