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Savate: From the Back Alleys of France to the Martial Arts World

Savate master Salem Assli in Black Belt magazine. Most martial artists know that savate is the official fighting art of France, but beyond that, they would probably be hard-pressed to recite any details about the style. That’s unfortunate because it possesses a long and distinguished history that makes it a valuable addition to the world of martial arts. The following is an easy-to-digest list of facts and is designed to enlighten all martial artists about the history, rules and techniques of this dynamic form of fighting. If it inspires a few to sign up for lessons, so much the better.

A Brief History of Savate

  • The roots of savate are unclear, but some scholars believe they can be traced all the way back to the legendary Greek fighting art of pankration.
  • More recent records indicate that it sprouted from various street-fighting systems used in France during the late 17th century.
  • Boxe francaise, an alternative name for savate, was founded in 1838 by Charles Lecour.
  • Before that, two fighting arts were popular in France: la savate and le chausson. The former was a system of street fighting that used all parts of the body for striking, while the latter was regarded as a milder system and the ancestor of the sport of boxe francaise. Both taught self-defense techniques.
  • After losing a friendly sparring match with English boxer Owen Swift, Charles Lecour was inspired to combine le chausson with English boxing.
  • Charles Lecour’s loss led to tremendous technical changes in savate that spanned decades. It was finally codified as a ring sport in Joseph Charlemont’s L’Art de la Boxe Fra Francaise.
  • Although the teachings of Joseph Charlemont have remained definitive, they are still open to modification. All changes must be approved by the executive committee of the French and International Federation of Boxe Francaise Savate and Related Disciplines.

Savate as a Martial Art

  • Despite its grace and beauty, savate is an effective method of self-defense.
  • It has been described as fencing with the hands and feet.
  • Kicking, punching, grappling, wrestling and weapons training were once parts of savate. Today, the system includes only empty-hand techniques delivered while standing or jumping. The other skills are taught separately under different names.
  • The official moniker for modern practitioners of the art is savateur or tireur (French for “shooter”).
  • During training, savateurs wear shoes that are specially designed for kicking. In fact, shoes are regarded as the primary weapons of a fighter and can be deadly on the street. In France, it is said that practicing savate without shoes is like playing tennis without a racquet.
  • All savate strikes are the result of scientific study and more than a century and a half of ring experience.
  • In Western boxing, punches are thrown so quickly and from such short distances that beginners rarely have enough time to deflect the blows correctly. That often results in the game of parry, escape, counter and attack being reserved only for advanced students. In savate, even though the feet are fast and powerful, the distances are much greater. That enables the average practitioner to successfully employ offensive and defensive moves without fear of injury. The student can more easily develop self-control and confidence.

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  • The savateur strives to attack with combinations and frequently invents strategies that involve feints and real strikes. He is forced to anticipate and adapt to changes in distance and speed while demonstrating his awareness of timing and space — all while using the sophisticated footwork for which the art is renowned.

Savate Competition and Techniques

  • Savate competitions are held under two sets of rules: “assault” and “total combat.” In an assault match, participants may wear protective pads — headgear and shinguards, for example. Thus, the risk of injury is reduced. In a total-combat match, they enjoy a full-contact ring experience similar to what is found in Western boxing. Knockouts are often seen.
  • The fist savate techniques are similar to those of boxing. The main ones are the jab, cross, hook and uppercut. The foot techniques of savate fall into four categories: low shin, side, roundhouse and reverse. Variations include kicks executed with the lead leg and the rear leg, as well as spinning, jumping and cross-stepping methods. An experienced savateur can combine those four punches and four types of kicks to form thousands of combinations.
  • Kicks can target an opponent’s legs, body or head. One of the savateur’s favorite methods of attack is to deliver a low kick followed by a roundhouse to the body with the tip of the shoe. Kicking with the tip of the shoe can be devastating. Over the years, it has knocked down more than a few experienced kickboxers. An opponent’s back is a legal target for kicking.
  • Punching an opponent in the back is forbidden. That odd restriction stems from the olden days when savate did not have any rules. When Charles Lecour adopted the techniques of boxing, he also adopted the rules of the Marquis of Queensbury, which disallowed punches to the back. Because kicking was not covered by the Queensbury rules, the old ways of foot fighting remained in place.
  • Feints are a staple of savate. As such, kicks are seldom presented in a direct manner. Instead, they fly in from all angles and are almost never what they seem. An example is provided by the following combination: A savateur will often fake a fast low kick toward his opponent’s leg, but it will quickly morph into a roundhouse to the stomach. Or vice versa.


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  • Sweeps are another mainstay of savate. Practitioners consider them practically an art unto themselves.
  • To practice savate, you need a partner, a pair of shoes (wrestling footwear is acceptable), a pair of boxing gloves (preferably with extra padding on the palm and wrist) and a uniform that allows freedom of movement. In the early days of savate, the uniform consisted of a baggy shirt and flannel pants that fit tight at the ankles. During the art’s heyday, the uniforms were colorful, but with its decline after World War II, most practitioners wore austere black tights and a gray shirt.
  • After a conflict in the 1970s that pitted partisans of savate against adherents of boxe francaise, the savate uniform changed radically. The current version consists of a one-piece sleeveless uniform with a rank patch sewn onto the left side of the chest. Different savate schools select different color schemes and logos for their uniforms. When a new student joins a school, he is required to become affiliated with it and obtain a license. The license records his progress, validates his examinations and makes his rank official.

Savate’s Ranking System

  • Savate ranks are marked by the color of the practitioner’s gloves. The gloves must be worn during all tests and official competitions. The ranks are blue glove (technical rank, first degree), green glove (technical rank, second degree), red glove (technical rank, third degree), white glove (technical rank, fourth degree), yellow glove (technical rank, fifth degree), silver glove–first degree (technical rank, sixth degree), silver glove–second degree (technical rank, seventh degree) and silver glove–third degree (technical rank, eighth degree).
  • A student cannot compete until he has reached the red-glove level, and even then he must have authorization from his instructor. A yellow-glove student is supposed to know all the art’s strikes. That is deemed essential to being eligible to reach the upper ranks represented by the silver gloves.
  • Throughout Europe, savate is already viewed as an efficient fighting system, both in the ring and on the street.
  • In the future, that view is bound to spread to the rest of the world.

About the Author:
Salem Assli is a professor of boxe francaise-savate and a second-degree silver glove who serves as president of the California Association of Boxe Francaise-Savate.

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Posted in General Martial Arts History, Savate, Western Martial Arts History.

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  1. Women in the Martial Arts - Israel Foreign Affairs linked to this post on May 29, 2014

    [...] felt very privileged but nervous when Sensei told me there wouldbe about 700 students from various martial arts, I think the phrase “Being thrown in at the deep end&#8221. Is applicable [...]

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