Savate: Kicking It French Style

If you believe the stereotype of the French as wine-sipping pacifists (or "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" to American uber-patriots), then you underestimate the martial sinew of the Gallic spirit. Not only did the French, led by the precocious Napoleon, whip the butt of most of Europe, but France's colonial adventures saw magnificent success by its Foreign Legion in subduing hapless peoples in North Africa and Indochina.

Also, while to some the term 'French martial art' might seem as incongruous as 'American Opera', France is actually the home of one of the most sophisticated and effective fighting arts. Savate (or Boxe-Francaise) is an ancient art that like most martial arts, has evolved into a modern fighting sport. For the MMA practitioner considering a striking art for his repertoire, Savate offers a credible alternative to Muay Thai, Karate and Kickboxing. In fact, it arguably surpasses these in terms of sophistication and effectiveness. Bruce Lee was a keen fan, and adopted Savate kicking techniques into Jeet Kune-Do.

Savate has an interesting history. It originated as a street-fighting style in early 19th Century France (known as Savate de Rue). Because the closed fist was then considered a lethal weapon in French law, street-fighting sailors learned to fight using their feet and open hands (the exploitation of legal loopholes is apparently as old as humanity). A Savate brawl therefore, probably looked like a spectacular combination of Taekwondo kicks and resounding bitch-slaps.

'Savate' incidentally means 'old boot', a reference to its early focus on effective kicking, presumably while wearing the most lethally-reinforced footwear one could find. Early Savate also included the obligatory street-fighting techniques: head-butts, eye-gouges, testicle-crushers and joint-dislocating grappling. With time however, Savate was formalised into a structured system that incorporated Western boxing and excluded grappling. Today's Savate exists in two main forms:

(1) Sports Savate (La Boxe Francaise Savate): This is practised as a sophisticated form of kickboxing characterised by a heavy emphasis on spectacular kicks to the head, body and legs, boxing punches and lateral evasive movement. The expert Savateur (or Savateuse) therefore exhibits excellent footwork, effective boxing skill, fluid hand-foot combinations, and versatile kicking ability off both the front and rear legs. Sports Savate prohibits grappling and the use of knees and elbows. This video is a good illustration of basic Savate combinations:

In competition, Sports Savate takes two forms: Full-contact kickboxing (with or without protective equipment), and a form of light-contact points fighting known as 'Assaut'. Here's what the full-contact form looks like in practice:

And here is what the 'Assaut' form of competition looks like. Heavy contact is penalized, and the focus is on scoring points:

And you thought French women were only good at looking good. C'est magnifique!

2) Self-Defence Savate (La Savate Defense): Like most martial arts, Savate teaches many standard self-defense techniques. These are rooted in its origins as a street-fighting art form. This includes the normal repertoire of knees, elbows, take-downs, submissions and weapons defence:

Finally, one additional interesting aspect of Savate is stick fighting (La canne or Le baton). This is part of the self-defense curriculum, but also includes a spectacular competition format. One peculiarity of Savate cane fighting is that points are only awarded if you strike your opponent while exhibiting perfect form. This means that competitors exhibit the same type of flawless technique we are only used to seeing in kata, forms or choreographed demos. The resulting spectacles, as the French would say, are simply Incroyable! Enjoy:

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