Savate History

The Savate | What is Savate | Savate History | Savate and French Weaponry | Savate Knife Fencing | Martial Art Sport of France | Origins of Savate | The Street Shoes | Ranking and Rules | Defence in Savate | Savate Disciplines | The French Connection | Savate In Popular Culture | Thinking Man’s Kickboxing | Batons of Western Mediterranean | The Chair Combat

The precise origin of the art is unknown, and puzzled even its earliest practitioners. According to Michel Delahaye, in his book La Boxe Française (Ergo Press, April 1989), the French style of fighting with the hands and feet, known as Boxe Francaise (French Boxing), was codified by Charles Lecour (1808-94), the son of a French baker, in 1832.

Prior to that time, a method of fighting existed in old Paris where the combatants kicked one another with their everyday shoes on. The common name for a street shoe at that time was ‘savate’ (pronounced sa-vat), which simply meant ‘old shoe’. The name savate, therefore, became associated with this particular method of street-fighting.

Those early street brawls did not stop at kicking, eye gouging, wrestling and head butting are also said to have taken place. The first person to make an attempt to systematize savate was Michel Casseux (aka) Pisseux (1794-1869), who opened the first ‘official’ Salle (training establishment) in 1825. Unfortunately, savate was still recognized by many as a style of street-fighting, and therefore, initially only attracted those of dubious means and character.

At the same time, another foot-fighting system existed in and around the old southern dockyards of France and Europe, on board sailing ships. Some historians speculate that these European sailors from seafaring nations were influenced by contact with Asian martial arts during there occasional visits to Burma, Thailand, Japan & China. These, sailors and dock-workers, style of fighting was known as jeu marseillais (sport Marseille).

A comparison of the two kick-fighting methods shows that the kicks used in jeu marseillais were often aimed and delivered much higher than in savate, and the hands were commonly used for support and balance. This included placing the hand, or hands, on the floor, or grabbing hold of any convenient handrail or object, whilst lashing out with the feet. This would not be such a strange thing to do for two people who might be fighting on wet and slippery dock sides, or the swamped and rolling decks of sailing ships.

Other items merged from this mixer of activity were weapons. Weapons such as the La Baton, a seven foot staff rod approximately one inch diameter were commonly practice by Savate practitioners. It was particular famous among hillside and farming communities of France and Spain. There is no particularly evidence on where the La Baton came from but it has been suggested that this weapon came into existence by farmers and sheep herder’s tools such as walking staffs and garden tools. The more famous and popular weapon incorporated by Savate is the La Canne. A 1/2 inch diameter flexible stick approximately 36 inches in length.

Savate combines traditional fencing motions along with kicking techniques when wielding this dowel shape stick at the opponent. This weapon is fast and flexible making it a fierce companion. La Canne is a mimic relic of the fencing foil which has been famously used by French masters for centuries. The La Canne was frequently used in the late 1800’s as a walking stick and fashion statement by gentleman of the times.

The public may have seen men walking with a cane and properly dressed as an important figure of the public, but hoodlums and robbers saw them as victims. The defense techniques of La Canne & Savate proved worthy against criminals that had planned to take one’s valuables or life. As with many empty hand techniques that are founded, it provides a rich resource for self protection purposes.

Towards the end of the 1820’s, and perhaps in an attempt to change the general public’s perception of these fighting arts, the name chausson (a sailor’s deck shoe) began to be used.

A critical turning point for the French kicking styles was reached in 1830 (although some records suggest a later date), after Charles Lecour, a one time pupil of Michel Casseux, was said to have suffered defeat at the hands of an English bare-knuckle pugilist named Owen Swift. The traditional ‘good old English method of deciding a quarrel’ had always been to punch one another with bare knuckles, and the English despised the French method of using the feet for kicking, considering it to be unmanly, foreign and cowardly.

As French fighters had, until that time, really only used their hands for blocking, parrying and slapping, it became immediately obvious that they were at a distinct disadvantage when fighting at close range against skilled fist-fighters. Lecour recognized these limitations and undertook English boxing lessons from another English pugilist named Jack Adams. Across the Channel English boxing, or pugilism, had of course already been in existence for well over two centuries. After a period of two years, Lecour assimilated the French kicking methods and combined them with English boxing to create la boxe francaise.

Interesting to note is that as well as punching with their bare knuckles, early English fighters frequently threw their opponent with the trusted ‘cross-buttock’ throw. This method of downing one’s opponent, although entirely legal, was particularly punishing if an unscrupulous fighter then fell, with all his weight, onto the other’s stomach and ribs. Although considered to be a foul, this action could easily be passed off as ‘unintentional’. Some fighters were also quick to gouge an adversary’s eye, should the referee’s attention be diverted for a moment.

In the early days many pugilists preferred to wear their hair long, however, since 1795, when the referee adjudged it fair for Jackson to hold Mendoza by the hair with one hand whilst hitting him with the other, most pugilists adopted the habit of keeping their hair cropped short. There were rules, both written and unwritten, that were considered unmanly, and were therefore never breached, such as ‘kicking’, ‘hitting below the belt’, and, ‘hitting an opponent who was down’.

Welsh-born, John Graham Chambers (1843-83), founded the ‘Amateur Athletic Club’, in 1866, and drew up a new set of rules, known as the ‘Queensberry Rules’, which were first published in 1867.

At a time when old English boxing (pugilism) was going into decline, boxe francaise was becoming more and more established. Due to the efforts of one man in particular, Joseph Charlemont (1839 – 1914), the French kick-boxing art reached it’s pinnacle of recognition, respectability and social acceptance towards the end of the 1800’s, drawing interest from all members of French society, including the nobility.

By then, the French were claiming their system to be superior to, la boxe anglaise, and they made several attempts over the years to prove their case by organizing a number of contests. The English, on the other hand, viewed such contests as a bit of a novelty (like boxing versus wrestling bouts or karate vs. kung fu) and did not really give them any degree of credibility. Towards the end of the 19th century, the French arranged a contest to supposedly decide ‘once and for all’ which system was superior.

They chose their very top man, Charles Charlemont (1862 – 1942), son of Joseph Charlemont. His opponent was Jerry Driscoll, an ex-champion boxer in the English Navy. The fight took place on 28th October 1899 and became a shambles from the start. In round one Driscoll protested loudly that Charlemont had bit him. There was an immediate uproar and the match failed to restart for several minutes.

When it did, both fighters clinched several times and for some reason the match was interrupted again. The French referee, Monsieur Clercrampal, said that he didn’t want to go on! The fight eventually ended in round eight, with Driscoll clutching his groin. According to the well known English referee, Bernard John Angle of the National Sporting Club, in his book ‘My Sporting Memories’ London, 1925, “Driscoll did not know what he was taking on” when he agreed “to meet the Frenchman at his own game…” Angle also said that, “The contest ended in Jerry being counted out to a blow in the groin from the Frenchman’s knee.” He further alleged that “the timekeeper saved Charlemont several times.” After the fight Driscoll bore no grudges, considering the blow to have been “an accident.” the French, of course, claimed victory to their man by stoppage, following a round-kick (fouette median) to Driscoll’s stomach.

Although now claiming the superiority of their system, Charlemont later refused “utterly and categorically” the challenge laid down by the very much younger Al McCoy (1894 – 1966), the American middleweight champion, stating that he (Charlemont) was then a “teacher, not a fighter”. McCoy later became World middleweight Boxing Champion, on 6th April, 1914, and he held the World title until 14th November, 1917.

La boxe francaise later had the distinction of going on to be the demonstration sport in the 1924 Paris-based Olympic Games. Sadly, the first and second World Wars accounted for many of the top professors and practitioners. As a result, la boxe francaise verged on extinction for a number of years. Fortunately, the art has made a slow but steady recovery in recent years.

In addition to France, there are currently groups in various European countries, and around the world, who are attempting to promote this effective and fascinating fighting art. Nowadays the system is known as boxe francaise – savate or, more simply, as Savate.

Today’s “sport” Savate incorporates all of the innovations of the 20th century boxing ring, from Jack Dempsey to Muhammad Ali. Kicking techniques have been designed that are compatible with a boxer’s hand techniques.