If you could go back in time, say a couple of hundred years or so, onto the streets of old Paris, France, you might very well find thugs and hoodlums settling their differences with a street-fighting style which they called ‘La Savate’ (pronounced sa-vat). This was simply a slang term, which meant ‘old shoe’ (or ‘old boot’). They used the expression because, when fighting, the main emphasis was to kick one another with their ordinary everyday shoes or boots on. In addition to kicking, they also slapped, wrestled and head-butted, and were also not averse to gouging and biting it seems. What they didn’t do, however, was to punch each other with the closed fist, in the manner of English Pugilists. In fact, the practise of fist-fighting was originally considered to be unusual by the French. For example: One bemused French traveller, who had previously visited England during the earliest part of George I.’s reign (1714 – 27), wrote in his memoirs:-
“Anything that looks like fighting is delicious to an Englishman. If two little boys quarrel in the street, the passengers [coach travellers] stop, make a ring round them in a moment, that they may come to fisticuffs.” He goes on to say “If a coachman has a dispute about his fare with a gentleman that has hired him, the coachman consents with all his heart; the gentleman pulls off his sword and lays it in some shop, with his cane, gloves and cravat, and boxes in the same manner as I have described above.”
Whilst Savate was originally regarded as a method of street-fighting, as time went on it gradually started to become systemized. The very first ‘official’ Savate training establishment ‘Salle’ was opened by Michel Casseux, aka Pisseux (b. 1794), in 1825. At the time, however, Savate still suffered from its past association with street thuggery, and the like, and initially tended only to attract those of ill-repute and the lower social classes. Never-the-less, things steadily improved, and the art began to attract a higher class of patronage. It is said that the author Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-95) – son of Alexandre Dumas père (who wrote ‘the Three Musketeers’) – and the French romantic Poet, Théophile Gautier (1811-72), also undertook lessons.
Around the time that Casseux opened his Salle for Savate training, another style of foot-fighting was also known, especially in and around the old southern dockyards of Marseilles. This method was initially called ‘Chausson’, the name of a sailor’s deck shoe, or slipper, although it was also known as jeu marseillais (sport Marseilles). Chausson differed somewhat from Savate in that most of the kicks were aimed much higher, and the hands were regularly placed on the ground when kicking – not unlike in Brazilian Capoeira. By contrast, Savate kicks were generally delivered low, as you might expect from a style which had originated in the street. One thing that was common, to both Savate and Chausson, however, was the wearing of shoes on the feet when practising, or fighting. Whilst we can be fairly sure that Savate originated in the backstreets of old Paris, the roots of Chausson are perhaps a little less clear. As France was (like Britain) an Empire-building and sea-going nation, with many interests beyond its own borders, French sailors would have been exposed to many different cultures and traditions in their travels. It is possible, therefore, that the art of Chausson either originated from, or was highly influenced by, African arts, which the French sailors had seen performed by slaves. Could it be that the same (or a similar) mother art that led to Capoeira in Brazil, also spawned Chausson in France?
As to the further development of Savate: The French claim that, in 1830, English lightweight bareknuckle pugilist, Owen ‘Little Wonder’ Swift (1814-79), defeated French Savateur Charles Lecour (1808-94) in a challenge match1. Following his defeat, Lecour is said to have undertaken Boxing lessons from another English pugilist, known as Jack Adams. Allegedly, just two years later, Lecour then combined English boxing (boxe Anglais), with what he felt was the best of French kicking, to create ‘La Boxe Francaise’ (French boxing).
When Lecour integrated English boxing, with French kicking, he also incorporated the English boxing rules of the time – as far as the use of the hands were concerned. Later, Englishman John G. Chambers (1843-83) published his own revised rules for English Boxing, in 1867 – known as the ‘Queensberry Rules’ after being sanctioned by Chambers’ friend John Sholto Douglas (1844-1900), 8th Marquess of Queensberry. These rules required boxers to wear gloves (also known as mufflers) in contests, and so French Savateurs simply followed suit. The adoption and incorporation of English boxing rules within La Boxe Francaise are the reason why, even nowadays, in sparring or in competition, Savate practitioners are allowed to kick their opponent in the back, but may not punch him (or her) there, and why the hands are no longer allowed to be deliberately placed on the floor.
Several contests have been arranged, over the years (always by the French!), to supposedly determine the superiority of La Boxe Francaise-Savate over English Boxing. One such contest took place on 28 October, 1899, when Charles Charlemont (son of Joseph) took on Jerry Driscoll, who was an ex-champion boxer of the English Navy, and member of the National Sporting Club (NSC). The fight started and ended in controversy, with the Frenchman eventually being awarded the ‘victory’ with a low round kick (fouetté) to the ‘abdominal area’. A doctor later assessed that Driscoll had been kicked below the belt, however!
It seems that having the name ‘Driscoll’ was a bit of a bad luck omen to English boxers, when matched against French fighters, however, as Jim (aka Jem) Driscoll (1881-1925) later found out. In 1919, he came out of retirement to fight ex-Savateur Charles Ledoux (b.1892) for the European Bantamweight ‘English’ boxing title. Despite being ill with TB, and 11 years older, ‘Peerless Jim’ outboxed Ledoux for the best part of 16 rounds before a solid punch to the stomach forced his seconds to throw in the towel, for only his second ever loss. On this occasion, however, the blow was clearly above the waist, and therefore quite legal.
Another Savate champion who also made it big in conventional boxing was Georges Carpentier (1894-1975). Having become Savate world champion in 1908, he knocked out Battling Levinsky in round 4, on October 12, 1920, to become the world light heavyweight boxing champion. Just eight months later he tried to go one better by taking on Jack Dempsey (1895-1983) for the heavyweight championships. This was actually the very first million dollar gate in the history of the prize ring. Despite some initial and notable successes, especially in round 2, by ‘Orchid Man’ Carpentier, the ‘Manassa Mauler’ was just too big, too strong and too good for him, and Carpentier ended up being knocked out himself, also in round 4.
As far as the rules are concerned, Savate practitioners may kick, with their shoes (chaussures), to the full length of an opponent’s body. In other words, the legs (inside and out), the body (complete torso), the sides of the head, and the front of the face. They may also punch, with gloves (gants) being worn, to the front and sides of the body, face, and sides of the head. The gloves are similar to English boxing gloves, except that the palms are slightly padded for the purpose of blocking and parrying kicks. Because of the efficiency and power of the shoe, most people train and spar using controlled contact, and do not deliberately kick to the knees – although no such rule exists to prevent you from doing so in actual competition.
There are no jackets worn in Savate, and no coloured belts. Coloured glove promotional tests (gradings) do, however, exist. These are as follows: Blue, Green, Red, White, Yellow and, for those with exceptional ability, the rank of Silver Glove. The colour of your gloves don’t actually change, of course, but you are entitled to wear a coloured glove patch on the front of your training tunic, or shirt to show your rank. At the time of writing, an Integrale (all-in-one tunic) is worn in all official competitions, although jogging bottoms and t-shirt tops are often worn in training. Once a student reaches Red Glove technical grade, he or she, may then undertake separate promotional testing to become an instructor. It is recognised that the best fighters and technicians don’t necessarily make the best instructors, and vice-versa.
It should always be remembered, however, that Savate originated from a street-fighting method and, as such, has still retained a street-fighting and self-defence aspect within the art. To differentiate between the ring sport and the street system they now use the terms ‘Boxe Savate’ and ‘Savate Defence’.
By the end of the 19th century, there were reckoned to be more than 100,000 practitioners of La Boxe Francaise (which most people outside of France and Belgium simply call ‘Savate’). In 1924, Savate was featured as the demonstration sport in the Paris-based Olympic Games. Sadly, and mainly as a result of the loss of many Professeurs and students alike, in two world wars, those numbers dropped dramatically. Today, things are again improving. There are now something like 30,000 practitioners in France alone, and at least another 10,000 in other parts of Europe. Savate is now represented and officially practised in at least 40 countries around the world, including here in Great Britain.