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Martial Sport of France

By Mark V. Wiley

Boxe Francaise savate, which roughly means "fencing with the feet and hands," is the national sport of both France and Spain. Developed in the 1800s on the sailing ships and back streets of France, boxe Francaise savate has become a highly effective means of self-defense and reality-based full-contact "kickboxing" sport. In fact, since some of its kicking methods are potentially lethal, they have been banned in modern-day competition.

Brief History

Originally looked down upon, and thought of as an art of hoodlums and common thieves, savate, "French foot fighting," was mixed with English boxing to become boxe Francaise savate, the chosen art of the gentlemen and scholars. Boxe Francaise savate became highly developed and wide spread until the start of the First World War. As a result of the large number of casualties inflicted by the war, many of the top savateurs were killed, and the art, too, almost met with extinction. Thanks to the effort and dedication of one of the remaining savateurs, Count Pierre Baruzy, who is credited with the rebirth of boxe Francaise savate, this art is once again blossoming in France and much of Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States. In fact, there are discussions on the table about boxe Francaise savate become an Olympic demonstration sport.

Savate in the United States

The first on-going instruction of boxe Francaise savate in the United States came through the efforts of a man named Daniel Duby. Duby's instruction sparked interest in the art, especially in southern California, and because of his work many people became aware of the French art in this country. Boxe Francaise savate has enjoyed greater exposure as a result of the teaching efforts of Jean-Noel Eynard, Salem Assli, Francis Echenard, Barry John, Steve Crane, Jerry Bedka, Mike Young, and Nicolas Saignac and the promotional efforts of Fred Degerberg, and Dan Inosanto. Boxe Francaise savate made its first large-scale U. S. appearance in October of 1988, with the First U. S. Savate Championships. The event, sponsored by the Degerberg Academy of Martial Arts and Fitness, was held at Chicago's Limelight club. There were well over 700 spectators in attendance at the ten full-contact events. Well-known guests in attendance included former boxing world champion, Tony Zale, taekwondo Olympic gold medalist, Arlene Limas, three-time French savate champion, Pascal Malis, and arnis grandmaster, Leo T. Gaje.

The Second U. S. Savate Championships, sponsored by the Southern California Savate Club, was held in March of 1989, at The Strand on Redondo Beach, California. This was another successful event, featuring ten full-contact bouts with well over 500 spectators. Well-known guests in attendance included former kickboxing champion, Blinky Rodriguez, pencak silat master, Paul DeThouars, ten-time European savate Champion, Richard Sylla, and Dan Inosanto.

Other demonstrations and championships were to follow, but none were really able to catch the eye of the mainstream American martial artist. And while the American BF Savate Federation is the governing body for the promotion of the art in the United States, there are a number of renegade schools and instructors in the country who are not members and who are promotinf the art in their own way. Until such a time as they all work together, however, this French martial sport will remain an "underground" art.

What a Difference it Makes

How does boxe Francaise savate differ from other martial arts? The answer: It's philosophy, uniform, ranking structure, kicking methods, and rules of competition. Boxe Francaise savate, not unlike other martial sports, is mainly concerned with sparring practice and training geared toward full-contact competition. In fact, after one has attained the level of silver glove (equivalent to a black belt), the savateur rarely does more in practice than spar. It is this training and hard-core mentality that makes boxe Francaise savate so devastating, in and out of the ring. The uniform of the savateur is simple. All practitioners wear a one-piece, multi-colored tunic, ten-ounce boxing gloves, and hard-tipped kicking shoes. The tunic is made of a Spand-X type of material which allows for the judges to see clean technique, as well as a clear view of the targets being struck. The shoes are similar to those worn by wrestlers, with an extra support around the ankle, a flat rubber sole, and a hard toe kicking surface.

Rank in boxe Francaise savate is achieved on two levels: technical and competitive. Distinction of rank is worn on the practitioner's tunic via a patch of a colored savate/boxing glove.

The structure of the technical rank progresses as follows: blue, green, red, white, yellow, silver (first through third degree). This is followed by the title "professeur" of savate. Rank is awarded on the basis of a savateur's technical ability to perform the individual techniques and combinations correctly, and not on one's fighting skill or competition abilities.

The structure of the competitive rank progresses as follows: bronze glove and silver glove (first through fifth degrees). Ranking at this level is awarded based on not only the technical skills of the practitioner but on his win-to-loss ratio in full-contact competition.

There are three types of teaching certificates which can be awarded. These are initiateur (apprentice), moniteur (instructor), and professeur (highest instructor). A gold glove is awarded only to those possessing exceptional skill and merit.

The kicking techniques of boxe Francaise savate are unique in structure when compared to the mainstream Asian martial arts. Many of the kicks are designed to be used both offensively and defensively, on either the low, middle, or high lines of attack. Moreover, all kicking methods can be employed as a means of displacing an opponent's balance, making him vulnerable for a follow-up strike of your own.

The Competition

Competition in boxe Francaise savate is categorized by weight class, age, and gender. Legal target areas for kicking techniques include the front and side of the head, body, and limbs, and may be directed to either the high, middle, or low lines of attack. Illegal target areas include the nape of the neck, the top and rear surfaces of the head, and the chest of females.

Legal targets for punches include the front and sides of the head and upper torso. For punching techniques, any strikes delivered lower than the pelvic region-or the chest of women-is strictly prohibited.

There is no limit to the use of kicking combinations used during a competitive bout. However, there are limits to the use of punching combinations. All punching techniques must be executed in combination with kicking techniques (e.g., punch-kick or kick-punch).

There are three competitive stages in boxe Francaise savate: assault, pre-contact and contact. Assault competition is a contest wherein physical contact is limited, much like point karate competition. The fight is judged by a competitor's delivery of techniques, precision of strikes, and their proper control. This level of competition keeps the risk of injury to a minimum, and aesthetic quality high. The so-called pre-contact competition level is a contest wherein contact to the body is allowed. However, the donning of protective equipment, such as headgear and shin guards, is mandatory. While competition at this level is exciting, injuries are kept 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 acceptable. 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.

There are many martial arts that teach self-defense. There are many that stress point-sparring competition or kickboxing. However, there are none as diverse as boxe Francaise savate, a French martial art and sport stressing practical self-defense and three competition levels. From the technical practices of those who do not wish to enter into competition, to the pin-point accuracy of swift kicking techniques, boxe Francaise savate stands complete as both a martial art and martial sport along side its Asian counterparts.

About the Author:

Mark Wiley is an accomplished martial artist and leading authority on a variety of Philippine and Chinese martial arts, French savate, tae kwon do and karate. He has served as Martial Arts Editor for Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co., Book Publishing Editor for Unique Publications, Editor of Martial Arts Legends magazine and Associate Editor for the Journal of Asian Martial Arts. He is author of eight books on martial arts and qi gong and over 100 articles published in a variety of martial arts magazines. He also serves as Associate Editor for

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Savate, Boxe Francaise savate, Count Pierre Baruzy, Daniel Duby, kick boxing,

Read more articles by Mark V. Wiley

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