Savate is a French kickboxing style that first appeared in the nineteenth century. The discipline was originally known as savate or chausson, referring respecively to the old shoes worn by workers and the special shoes used by French fencers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Savate is renowned for its precision kicks to the body's vital points. Its punches are similar to those of Western boxing, and its kicks are designed to work efficiently with the hand techniques.
The term "Savate" is rarely used in France to refer to the sport. People mostly use the term Boxe Française, B.F or B.F.S. The term savate remains in use mostly outside France or when referring to this French martial art in a language other than French. Purists conside that Savate is the original martial art, while boxe française is the sport developed from the martial art, where the more dangerous techniques have been banned.
Savate is a French martial art in which both the hands and feet are used as weapons. It combines elements of western boxing with graceful kicking techniques. Unlike some Muay Thai (Thai boxing) and Chinese boxing, which allow the use of the knees or shins, in Savate only foot kicks are allowed.
Savate is perhaps the only style of kickboxing in which the fighters habitually wear shoes (savate being a French word for "old shoe"). A practitioner of savate is called a savateur or tireur (male) or savateuse (female).
Techniques and Rules
Only four kinds of kicks and four kind of punches are allowed in French boxing, with straight blows, hooks and uppercuts being the main techniques. Kicks are allowed, but shin and knee strikes not, except in the variant called Chaussfight where shins are permitted.
1. fouetté (roundhouse kick, literally "whip", making contact with the toe--hard rubber-toed shoes are worn in practice and bouts), high (figure), medium (median) or low (bas).
2. chassé frontal or lateral (side kick or front piston-action kick), high (figure), medium (median) or low (bas)
3. revers (frontal or lateral "reverse" or hooking kick making contact with the sole of the shoe), high (figure), medium (median), or low (bas)
4. coup de pied bas ("low kick", a front or sweep kick to the shin making contact with the inner edge of the shoe to throw the opponent off balance, performed with a characteristic backwards lean) low only.
1. direct bras avant (jab, lead hand)
2. direct bras arrière (cross, rear hand)
3. crochet (hook, bent arm with either hand)
4. uppercut (either hand)
The length of the match ranges from four rounds of 1 1/2 minute each, with a 1-minute break between each round, to five rounds of 2 minutes each, with a 1-minute break between each round.
Difference between Savate vs. Tae Kwon Do or Muay Thai
Savateurs fight in shoes (which used to be steel-tipped), delivering strikes with the point, flat or top of the shoe, depending on the kick. Shin strikes are not part of the art's arsenal, so the kicking distance is usually longer than for example in Muay Thai or Tae Kwon Do. Practically a Savate fouette applies the same amount of force as a Muay Thai or TKD round house but with more focus into a smaller area and as such each kick is more devastating.
The origins of Savate can be traced back to the end of the 18th century. Most probably descends from French streeet fighting styles characterized by open hand strikes and kicks. Most sources locate the geographical origins of Savate in the tough streets of Marseilles.
In the early 18th century there were mainly two French kicking styles: the Basque fighting technique and the Jeu Marseillais (Sport Marseille), a style of fghting common among sailors and dock-workers in and around the old sourthern dockyards of France, and on board sailing ships. The kicks used in jeu marseillais were often aimed and delivered much higher than in savate, and the hands were merely used for support and balance. One hand, or both hands, could be placedon the floor, or used for grabbing hold of any convenient hand rail or object, whilst lashing out with the feet. This is not such a surprising thing when one considers that two people might be fighting on wet and slippery dock sides, or the swamped and rolling decks of sailing ships. Gouging, wrestling and headbutting were not uncommon during these street brawls.
The first detailed study of these fighting styles from Marseilles was made by Michel Casseux, aka Pisseaux, around 1820. He noted that some of the kicks used were not simply the result of throwing a leg out, but followed a very definite and precise mechanism. Kicks were usually kept low below the waist, the guard was kept low and the fists never balled. The hands were rarely used to strike, but if they were they were held open to slap. Casseux dubbed the fighting styles 'Savate Marseilles' and introduced them as one style to Paris. He opened up the first 'official' Salle (training school) or practice gym in Courtille in 1825, which attracted some interest from the fashionable elements of society that existed at that time, for example, the Duke of Orleans is thought to have trained in the art.
A critical turning point for the French kicking styles was reached in 1830, when Charles Lecour, a pupil of Casseux, introduced the English style of closed fist punches, reportedly after having suffered defeat at the hands of an English bare knuckle pugilist. This turning point is considered the birth of 'La Boxe Française'. 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 went to England to undertake English boxing lessons from another English pugilist named Jack Adams. After a period of two years, came back to Paris. He had assimilated the French kicking methods and combined them with English boxing to create la boxe française. Sources differ as to whether it was Charles Lecour or his brother Hubert who wrote the book 'Savate: French Foot and Fist Fighting'.
Savate duels were made famous by French authors such as Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Alexandre Dumass (1802-1870) and Théophile Gautier (1811-1872).
Due to the efforts of one man in particular, Joseph Charlemont (1839 - 1914), the French kick-boxing art reached it's height of recognition, respectability and social acceptance towards the end of the 1800's, drawing interest from all members of French society, including the nobility. Charlemont synthesized Lecour's methods and moves, creating a style in accordance with to the health standards and scientific studies of the Belle Epoque.
By the end of the 19th Century it was estimated that there was more than 100,000 practitioners of La Boxe Française. La boxe francaise later had the distinction of going on to be the demonstration sport in the 1924 Paris-based Olympic Games. Sadly, after the first and second World Wars la boxe francaise was on the verge of extinction and it is thanks to one man, La Comte Pierre Baruzy, whose enthusiasm and commitment, that kept the sport going. Fortunately, the art has made a slow but steady recovery ever since. In addition to France, groups in the UK, and around the world, are attempting to promote this efficient and fascinating fighting art.
Today there are over 40,000 practitioners around the world and the sport is once again, gaining popularity, especially across Europe.
Savateurs wear a special one-piece stretch polyester intergrale garment that is extremely comfortable to train and fight in. Another typical piece of equipment used by the Savateur is the boot or Chaussure worn on the feet. Unlike English boxing boots, they have a thicker sole and edge to them. These boots serve a dual purpose. Firstly to protect the feet so kicks can be delivered with force without fear of injury and secondly, to provide a penetrating tip, slashing edge or stamping heel to focus the power and precision of the kick itself.
Other items of equipment are similar to those found in English boxing. Standard boxing gloves may be used (regulated by weight class in competitions) or a unique French Boxing glove may be used which have extra protection around the cuff to mitigate the effects of blocking kicks delivered with the French boxing boot. Shin pads, groin and bust guards and mouthguard are the same as used in other fighting sports.
Different stylistic approaches and Governing Bodies
There are mainly two schools in French boxing: the academic school and the combat-style school.
The academic camp is governed by the FFBFS&DA, the Fédération Française de Boxe Française, Savate et Disciplines Assimilées while the combat camp is governed by de Fédération Nationale de Savate Boxe Française.
The new trend however does not favor high-level full contact combat competition. This has led the French Fédération to launch a new form of combat called Chaussfight, with modified rules allowing shin strikes, which allows savate fighters to meet fighters from other full contact disciplines such as kickboxing and Thai boxing.
Internationally the principal governing body is Fédération Internationale de Savate (F.I.S). This international organisation was formally constituted on the 23rd March 1985.
Each country has its own Federation which is affiliated to the F.I.S.
In Great Britain Savate is managed under the careful guidance of the Great Britain Savate Federation (GBSF) which is a fully affiliated Federation to the F.I.S.
There are three competitive stages in boxe Francaise savate: assault (assaut), pre-contact and contact. Assaut or soft combat is gaining success. As the name indicates in soft combat physical contact is limited. There is no full contact, only touching, much like point karate competition. The fight is judged based on a competitor's efficiency, precision and technicality, and proper control of the strikes.
The so-called pre-contact competition level is a contest wherein contact to the body is allowed. However, the use of protective equipment, such as headgear and shin guards keeps injuries to a minimum.
Contact competition level is a full-contact contest wherein no protective gear is worn by the combatants, with the exception of a mouth piece and groin cup. In this type of match, all strikes to legal target areas, as well as knockouts, are allowed. A competitor may receive three standing eight-counts through the course of a bout. However, on the third standing eight-count, a competitor will be considered technically knocked out, and the match is concluded.
The Savate Legacy
A number of martial artists have incorporated the style's principles and techniques in their own art.
Much of the footwork and movement in Bartitsu, the hybrid fighting style developed by Sir Edward William Barton Wright in the 1800's, come from Savate.
Likewise, Jim Arvanitis incorporated many elements of Savate into Mu Tau, the modern version of Pankration.
The eclectic martial artist Bruce Lee also used some of the techniques from Savate in his own ever evolving style, Jeet Kune Do.
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Photos by Gregory Brophy (hand wraps), Gerville Hall (TaeKwonDo girl), Lucian (Karate fight).
Reproduction strictly prohibited.